Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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The Imitation of Christ

Philippians 2:5-11 and Matthew 27:33-54

 The Gospel of Matthew tells us the who, the what, the when, the where, and the how of the crucifixion.  It tells us the facts about what happened.  

 It happened at a place called Golgotha, which means in Hebrew, the Place of the Skull.  Some think this refers to a skull-shaped hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.  If you ever travel to Israel, you will probably be shown the Garden Tomb, one of two likely sites of Jesus’ burial.  Nearby is a hill that sort of looks like a skull.  The other possible meaning of the name is that it describes the purpose of the place; it was the place of execution.  

 Jesus was offered a drink of wine mixed with gall, which was a mild narcotic.  This drink was prepared by the women of Jerusalem as a last act of mercy for victims of crucifixion.  It would dull the pain, and in so doing it would also hasten death.  Victims of crucifixion sometimes took two or three days to die.  But gall would also dull the mind, so Jesus refused it.

 The soldiers gambled for his clothes.  Roman law rewarded executioners with the victim’s personal belongings.  But this also tells us something else about crucifixion:  Victims were crucified in the nude.  Not only was it designed to be excruciatingly painful and to take a long time to kill; it was also meant to be humiliating.  Victims were crucified along a well-traveled road, in the nude, and hung just above eye level.  This was meant as a warning to others to submit to Rome.

 Above his head was a sign, called a TITULUS, bearing the charge against him.  On the cross, he was mocked by others, especially by the religious leaders.  At the sixth hour, 12 noon by our reckoning, darkness covered the land, as if creation itself were mourning the death of its Creator.  

 He cried out, in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  It was the first line of Psalm 22, a Psalm about a righteous person who suffers but it is ultimately vindicated by God.  Jesus’ cry was mistaken as a call for the prophet Elijah.  Because Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven, some Jews believed he would return from time to time to rescue the righteous in distress.  The truth is that the real agony of the cross for Christ was not physical, but relational.  The Father and Son had existed in perfect relationship for all eternity, but on the cross, the Son took on the sin of the world, and so the Father turned his back on him.  The perfect relationship was broken, if only for a time.  

 Jesus was given a drink of “sour wine,” that is wine vinegar.  And then he gave up his spirit, his breath literally, and he died.  Jesus died at the 9th hour, 3 PM by our reckoning.  Coincidentally, this was the time of the evening sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple.  He had been crucified at 9 AM, the time of the morning sacrifice.   

There were signs accompanying his death.  One was that the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the sanctuary was torn in two, signifying the breaking down of the barrier between holy God and sinful humanity.  There was also an earthquake and the resurrection of many godly men and women, who were later seen in the city.  

 Of all people, it was a Roman centurion who said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”  It’s ironic that he of all people would say that.  Perhaps he didn’t mean it in quite the same way that we would, but certainly his testimony was true.

 So Matthew tells us the facts, the story, the who, what, when, where, and how of the crucifixion.  But in our other text this morning, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear more about the why, the significance of the crucifixion.  

 Verses 6 to 11 of Philippians 2 are thought to be an ancient Christian hymn.  The early Church put its theology into poetry or song to help people learn.  This passage is often used to talk about the nature of Christ and the Incarnation.  But we can’t separate the discussion of the nature of Christ from a discussion of what he does.  Jesus’ nature is revealed not only in theological formulas, but also in seeing what he did.  

 “He was God.”  That is a statement of his essence, his essential nature.  But Jesus did not cling to his rights.  He emptied himself.  He laid aside his divine power and knowledge.  This calls to mind the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, where he described one whose “life is poured out as an offering.”    

 Though he was essentially God, Jesus emptied himself and took on the “outward form” of a man.  In doing this, Jesus provides a counterpoint to Adam.  Adam was a human being, and his sin was that he grasped after equality with God. Christ was God, but he willingly laid aside his divine power and became a human being.  He took on the essence of a slave.  As a human being, he humbled himself and became obedient, even to a humiliating and painful death on the cross.  

Because of this, he is elevated to the highest place, and one day every knee will bow.  This recalls the prophet Isaiah, who in chapter 45, wrote, “Every knee will bend to

me, and every tongue will declare its allegiance.”  In the end, all creation will finally submit to the Creator. 

As I said, verses 6 to 11 of Philippians 2 have often been used as a theological treatise about the nature of Christ.  But that’s not how Paul was using them.  Paul used these words as a call to action.  These verses call us to imitate Christ.  “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus.”  We make Jesus Lord when we act like him, when we imitate him.  

It occurs to me how contrary to our natural inclinations these verses are.  We didn’t read verses 1 to 4, but look at the exhortations in them:  Live in unity.  We’re a whole lot better at living in division and discord.  Love one another.  We’re better at loving ourselves.  Work together.  “No, thanks.  I’ll do it my way.”  Don’t be selfish.  “But that’s the American dream!”  Be humble.  Think more of others than yourself and be concerned about the well-being of others.  “No way.  I’m looking out for myself.  They can take care of themselves!”  None of these things come easily or naturally to us because we are sinful beings.  Our tendency is to think of ourselves, to think we’re better than others.  But we make Jesus Lord when we do these things.

Jesus laid aside his divine rights.  We want to cling to our rights.  “It’s my right to do this!”  Christ calls us to think first of our responsibilities, not our rights.  We are to think first of what God wants us to do, our responsibility to God and to each other.  The whole Christian life is a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  

Christ emptied himself.  We want to fill ourselves:  With food, with money, with pleasures, and so on.  

Christ was humble.  We want to exalt ourselves over others.  

Christ was obedient.  We want to demand our own way in everything.  We want to do our will, not God’s will.  We want to live by our rules, not God’s rules.  We want to choose for ourselves what is right and wrong, not live in submission to God’s Law.  

But it is only by imitating Christ in his self-emptying, his humility, and his obedience that we can hope to share in his fate:  To be honored by God our Father.  

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