Memory Aid

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Palm Sunday
March 28, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary : Our favorite hymns not only speak our faith but are also memory aids. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul includes a Christ hymn to help them remember that God not only took human form but also adopted the outlook of a slave to descend into misery and then was elevated to the highest height.

Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113), a magistrate in ancient Rome, was a great writer of letters. In the year 79, he and his mother were living in the town of Misenum at the villa of his uncle, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), who oversaw the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples. On August 24 of that year, the two of them looked across the bay toward the strange umbrella-like cloud that had sprouted over one of the mountains in the distance. The elder Pliny decided it was his duty to investigate and prepared to set sail towards the disturbance. He asked the younger Pliny if he'd like to go along with him. Pliny the Younger, pleading the need to continue with his studies, refused.

Sometimes a split-second decision is the difference between life and death. Thanks to his decision to remain behind, Pliny the Younger's vivid account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii survived, providing scientists and historians with valuable data.

This same Pliny the Younger also provided Christian historians with valuable data, thanks to a letter written decades later in the year A.D. 112 when, while serving as governor of Bithynia-Pontus, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking advice about the interrogation of Christians. In his eyes, they practiced a strange faith that was both subversive and godless.

That's right. Followers of Jesus were considered atheists because they did not believe in the gods that others in the ancient world honored. Who then, did they believe in? According to Pliny, after torturing two female deacons who were also slaves, and interviewing former Christians who had renounced their faith under threat from the Roman authorities, Pliny concluded that Christians indeed belonged to a "depraved, excessive superstition." In their favor, he admitted that they bound themselves to an oath to not commit crimes. But they did not honor the gods of the empire.

Most interesting to us living centuries later, was his report to the emperor that these Christians met before dawn, not surprising since many of them were slaves and could not call working hours their own, and, "sang a hymn to Christ as to a god."

Many believe that this passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians constitutes one of those hymns that honor Christ as God. Ah, but what kind of a God were they worshiping, and why were these hymns such a threat to an empire?

Sing it!

There were varying levels of literacy in Paul's time. Scribes and copyists, for instance, had the ability to both read and write. The two skills did not necessarily go together, by the way.

That's why someone who was literate like Paul possibly had rudimentary writing skills, and had to rely on someone else to write his letters for him while he dictated the content. Occasionally he tells us that he has taken the pen himself to write clumsily, as in his letter to the Galatians: "See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!"1 This is not unlike the hunt and peck style of typing, where someone still unfamiliar with their computer keyboard has to stare at the letters before tentatively pressing a key.

Then there were those who could neither read nor write. However, these people were not necessarily illiterate. For most of Bible history, Bible reading was Bible listening. We know that in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, where there was more than one church during the era when our faith was illegal, there was a church official known as the Reader, whose job, obviously, was to read the scriptures out loud. People would listen and later remember favorite verses and passages.

One of the best ways to listen and remember is by singing. The combination of words and music seems to unlock memory storage in our brains. Just think, for a minute, of how many Bible verses we remember with confidence, versus the number of hymns!

Hymns express our beliefs. They describe how we understand God. And today's passage from Philippians is believed to be a hymn. It's not clear if Paul wrote it or Paul quoted it, but it doesn't matter. The fact that Paul included it in this letter to the Philippians meant he thought it important. It said precisely what he wanted to say about Jesus as the Christ!

Once more with feeling

This hymn is one of the most theologically rich passages in the New Testament. It is at the heart of our doctrine that Jesus Christ is eternally divine, the Logos or the Living Word as described in John's gospel. Paul included it to help teach the house churches of Philippi how they were to treat each other and live with each other. And by using this hymn, Paul was ensuring that everyone would remember this very important lesson.

This hymn tells us what God looks like. It connects the historical, living, breathing, Jesus of Nazareth with the pre-existent Christ. This same Jesus, brutalized, crucified and raised from the dead, is also the Anointed One (that's what Christ means), kingly, royal and divine! This is what God looks like.

And it is also shocking! God's extraordinary willingness to take on the form of a slave is like a slap across the face to those raised with Greek and Roman gods. Slavery was not some theoretical situation for them, any more than it ought to be for our nation, considering our the sin of slavery in our own national past. In the status-conscious Roman Empire, people zealously clung to whatever privilege and power they were born to or attained. To say that in Jesus the divine took on the form of a slave and was obedient even to an excruciating and humiliating death reserved for slaves and the scum of society had to alarm the Philippians.

First there is this sharp descent from the divine heights of the Creator to a death meant to eradicate not only body but identity. The crucified were cast into pits to be eaten by animals, leaving no grave, no marker and no memory. But in a reversal as equally sharp as the deep drop from heaven to misery, the tables are turned, and Jesus is elevated so that his name is above all other names.

All other names: senators, generals, kings. emperors, divine powers, infernal powers. All of them, on the earth, below the earth and above the earth will bow at the name of Jesus.

Lift every voice and sing

It is known from the names of Christians found in the catacombs that a great many of them were slaves. They, who were the least, were invited to see themselves in the story of Jesus. This Jesus was not a warrior of legend or a military hero. This Jesus turned the other cheek, became a living sacrifice and was elevated beyond our comprehension. What slave would not take heart in this message?

There was no way Paul could avoid the fact of slavery in his letters, but there was nothing legally he could do about it. We see, for instance, how he can only suggest to the slave owner Philemon that he consider treating his fellow believer and escaped slave Onesimus, like a human being.2

Our nation's long history of not only the sin of slavery and its continuing consequences, but also our denial of it having been the primary cause of our Civil War and of our society's continual complicity is one more slap in the face to Jesus, who took on the form of a slave and endured such torment from his captors prior to his crucifixion.

In both this letter and in the Acts of the Apostles we see that the church of Philippi includes a wealthy woman like Lydia, who had a royal monopoly in purple dye, the jailer who had first treated Paul and Silas harshly like dangerous criminals and perhaps even the slave girl whose prophesying demon Paul cast out. It also included two women, Euodia and Syntyche, whose feud threatened to involve the whole church.3

That's why Paul directed the attention of the Philippians - rich, poor, slave, free, female, male - to this hymn, that they might adopt the attitude of Jesus in being obedient in service and sacrifice. It's not about winning an argument. It's about sharing the status of Jesus, now and eternally. In order to remember, just sing this song.

Paul directed this hymn not only to the Philippians but also to us. This is how we are to act toward each other. Not to stand on our dignity, but to serve as a slave. Remember, this is an ugly and highly charged word, not to be used lightly or thrown around as if you were referring to a rough couple of hours under a summer's sun while you worked in your garden, iced tea at your elbow.

No, the high and the low points in the hymn, which might be compared to the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, the undeserved death reserved for slaves and the glorious resurrection, represent what we might expect as well. In emptying ourselves like a drink offering over an altar, we become like Jesus.

And as Jesus will be honored, so God in heaven will honor us as well.

Simply put, the best way to honor God is to serve humanity in a selfless and sacrificial manner. Get on board.

And if you have trouble remembering, sing!