Lections for the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Let’s say you had a powerful friend, someone in high places. What would you expect of that person? I think it would be human nature to expect that in some way, this friend would make your life better. Perhaps an introduction to celebrities, or access to some prestigious place. Perhaps political or business opportunities, the chance to make money or connections. It must be human nature, because most of our political scandals revolve around someone in high office doing inappropriate favors for their friends and cronies. One of our discontents with power and politicians is what we call influence peddling, the belief that the system favors those who know friends on the inside, those with money and prestige.
Would it be any relief to the cynical to know that this is nothing new? Earlier in Mark’s gospel, when some of Jesus’ inner circle are beginning to figure out that he is someone special, the jockeying begins to get close to the guy with the influence. James and John ask Jesus, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ (Mk 10:37). One could read this quite piously and say that James and John wanted to piously bask in Jesus’ divine glory, but I don’t think anyone in Mark’s gospel, prior to his death, really understands what Jesus is all about. Jesus rather gently chastises them, warning them that they have no idea what they are asking, since they have no idea where he is going or what he must do.
Then Jesus says something that challenges the basic assumptions of James and John and pretty much of everyone else who has ever lived and who thinks they understand how the world works.
‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
This is the language, not of the conquering Son od David hoped for by his people, but of the suffering servant promised by Isaiah, It is the language, not of someone who’s going into town to confront the powers and overthrow Pilate, but of one who is going to spend his last night with his friends, washing their feet as if he was a slave. It is language spoken from a cross, and not from a throne.
The little emblem that you are given today captures the contrast between how the world works and how God works. As a palm leaf, it reminds us of the branches cut by the crowds and strewn before him as Jesus entered Jerusalem like a hero (Mk 118, Mt 21:8). In this context the palm stands for power and prestige, as a symbol of how the world works.
Folded into a cross, however, the palm dashes the expectations of triumph and power and points us to the cross, the place of painful shame and death. Ironically, it is the place where Jesus’ true identity is shown most clearly. In all of Mark’s gospel, as we have been tracking it thus far through the church year, it is often said that no one really gets who Jesus is. Only at the very end, at the foot of the cross, does one man, a Roman officer, figure it out. The centurion says “Truly this man was God’s Son!” It takes a Gentile, someone not one of God’s chosen people, someone who upholds the order of brutal power and authoritarian violence in the world of his day, to see who God is and how God operates.
In our second lesson from Phlippians, we heard the Apostle Paul trying to explain what happens at the cross:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
What Paul sensed when he wrote this was something of the mysterious and wonderful character of God. God the creator, whose might and wrathful justice was warned of by Jeremiah and the other prophets of Israel, now reveals more of himself in an act of self-empting love. God shows himself profoundly indifferent, even contemptuous, of the powers and heiracrchies of the world. In going to the cross, even though he knew its cost and feared it, as we see in Gethsemane, Jesus shows us a new road to follow and a new way of being. God does not about our connections, our influence, our ability to get things done behind the scenes. There is only one heirarchy in this new kingdom, and that is of God’s son, who “is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).
In taking this little cross home, you have a reminder that you have the best friend to have in high places. The cross is the ultimate symbol of influence, the reminder that we are both servants and adopted children of God and of his Son. No one else has that kind of influence.
Realizing this new order is the first step for followers of Jesus. All the other steps flow from this recognition, which Paul calls having the “mind” of Christ. The preacher Elizabeth Johnson puts this better than I can when she offers some thoughts on what having the mind of Christ means.
Does our life together reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”? Are we looking to the interests of others rather than our own interests? Are humility and servant hood evident among us?
Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant. Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”