As we approach Palm/Passion Sunday, I want to offer some reflections on Philippians 2 from my forthcoming article on this text, which is called “The Apologetic and Missional Impulse of Phil 2:6-11 in the Context of the Letter.” Philippians 2:5(6)-11 is the epistle reading in the lectionary for this Sunday. Non-lectionary-based churches should feel free to use it, too!
I would like to reflect directly, theologically and missionally, on our own context for reading Phil 2:6-11. I have suggested that it is the church’s master story that it recites in some form, as creed or poem or hymn, when it gathers for worship. The story’s immediate context suggests that the story it tells is inextricably connected both to its larger life together as koin?nia in the Spirit (2:1-4) and to its mission in the world (2:12-16).
Thus to recite the story liturgically is to remember the narrative shape of the One who, by the power of the Spirit, lives among us (and within whom we live) to form and re-form us into his image such that our individual and corporate narratives more faithfully resemble his. Worship of this God as Father, Son, and Spirit is therefore an exercise in spiritual formation for faithful living—for ethics and mission, if you will.
Part of that worship—its high point if we follow the trajectory of the story—is confessing “Jesus is Lord.” To confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit is relatively easy to do in the safety of a community of the like-minded. But as a group of Christians makes this confession week in and week out, or (better) day in and day out, and as it keeps that confession connected to the larger story, it becomes empowered to live and proclaim that story faithfully outside of its own walls.
Here the insights of Aristotle and Thomas on virtue are worth considering. We become what we practice. Our liturgical habits make it possible, or not, to live and tell the story faithfully, even naturally, over time. Churches that dispense with the telling of the story, perhaps in the interest of sensitivity to “seekers,” will eventually have nothing identifiably Christian to say, either to themselves or to those seekers. But since everyone, and every community, needs a master story, a new one will fill the void, and the new master story will carry with it a new, and most likely alien, ethic and mission. The final consequence of this creedal amnesia will be that the church has nothing left to live for or, if necessary, to die for, that faithfully embodies the story of Jesus. (Parenthetically, this same consequence is likely for those with sacramental amnesia, though we learn that from the Corinthians [1 Cor 11:17-34] rather than the Philippians.) The church will, instead, call on its children to live and die (and even kill) for some allegedly noble cause, almost certainly one that is ethnic or nationalistic in nature. It will have come, thereby, full circle, reaping the whirlwind of its fear of confession. By neglecting the story and confession of Jesus as universal Lord, the Lord who rules as Suffering Servant, the church will substitute the universal Lord for a tribal deity and the Suffering Servant for a conquering king. Sadly, this has too often been the pattern of the church throughout its history, especially in its mission.
I would submit that the intrusion of an alien master story, and the ongoing re-conversion of the church to that pseudo-gospel, is the greatest and most persistent sin of the church, at least in the United States, today. From presidential claims, both Democrat and Republican, that the United States is the light of the world and the hope for human freedom, to the language of “mission” that permeates military discourse, to talk of “redemptive violence,” to the incorporation of nationalistic holidays and devotion into the liturgical life of the church, the church is constantly bombarded with temptations to honor an alien Lord with an alien mission in the world.
By telling and re-telling the church’s true master story, however, the church is empowered to cast off this alien master story and is prepared to live the story missionally and faithfully.
Wouldn’t Palm/Passion Sunday take on new meaning if we really understood, preached, and lived Philippians 2 as our master story and—most importantly—allowed it to challenge those alien master stories that seek to replace it?