The Slave Who Would be King

Philippians 2:5-11

Several years ago, millions of people were wrapped up in the television series, Game of Thrones. The series is all about bending the knee. Who rules? Who is the ruled? The popularity of that show demonstrates how anxious people are about this. Who’s in charge, and why isn’t it me?

Jesus was executed as part of a first century “game of thrones.” Let’s think about why that happened and what it means for us. Let’s ask, “Why?”

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Why was Jesus killed? He was killed because the tyrants of this world don’t tolerate competition.

We need to remember that, in the ancient world, death by crucifixion was the worst that could happen to anyone. Crucifixion meant hitting rock bottom. You couldn’t get any lower or be more shamed. For Jesus, the death on the cross showed how low God will go to lift us up.

Jesus is the slave who now is king. And he is king because he willingly became that slave. He has not left the one form behind in order to assume the other. The cross is becomes his throne, God’s throne. For death, it’s game over. Death is the last tool of the tyrant, so the cross is the end of the game for the powers of this world.

In Jesus’ death and resurrection, he gives himself for us and to us. We experience that weekly when we come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. That’s why we can call Communion the “Feast of Victory”!

Why did Jesus die? He died so that death would be destroyed

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is God’s answer to that prayer. Jesus’ death shows us God’s heart. The God we worship serves. And the God we worship serves by dying. As we heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer say a few weeks ago, only a suffering God can help.

In ancient Greek, the words in Philippians two are a poem. The poem is three stanzas of three lines each…except. That balance is interrupted by those words, “even death on a cross.” These words throw the powers of sin, death and evil out of whack. These words de-stabilize a world bent on self-destruction. These words jar us out of sleepy surrender to sin. And these words show us most clearly who God is and how God works.

So, for example, when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we meet the slave who is king. He is king precisely as he gives himself for us and to us. The folks going to Detroit have been studying what it means for God to be in solidarity with us. The reading from Philippians 2 is the answer to that question. God’s solidarity is Jesus–given for you, to you, and through you.

Now we can move on to the more important question.

Why does Jesus live? So that all can live through him.

This is the “mind of Christ” that Paul urges on us. The only way to be the real church is to let ourselves be emptied for the sake of love. It is only that “loving vacuum” that allows us to be the church for the world. As Pastor Dennis Bratcher has said, we are called to live the “poured out” life.

Why does this matter? Because God calls us to die and live with Jesus now and forever. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians eight, verse nine, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

What does this mean in practical terms for the church?

It means first that mere survival is of no concern to us. We are resurrection people. We know how this all turns out. God has defeated death. So we can focus on life. Anxiety about our survival as a congregation or as a church is a failure of our resurrection nerve and an expression of bad faith. As he waited his execution in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way.

“The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, pages 203-4).

It means second that we seek the mind of Christ. Personal preference is a secondary matter. For example, when we think about worship schedules here at Emanuel, what matters is what is best for the mission of the congregation, not what is best for me. When we think about pastoral needs for the future, what matters is what the Holy Spirit wants, not what I want. When we think about the future direction of this congregation, we focus on the mission of the gospel and not on my comfort zone.

We live our lives now as servants of the real King of the cosmos. In Romans 14, verses seven and eight, for example, Paul applies this to how we live in Christian community. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,” he tells the quarrelsome Roman Christians. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That’s what it means when we remember that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.

Bowing and confessing means that our desires are subject to his commands. When we live that way, we allow the world to see what it means to live under the real Ruler of the Universe. And that is part of our calling as Jesus followers. We are called to live like Jesus is our one true king.

Why did this happen to Jesus? Jesus died to show us how to live—how to live a life of ultimate trust, a life that is wholly and completely given to God. This is the answer to our prayer for the Kingdom on earth as in heaven. And this is the best life of all! It is the real “game of thrones.” This week we remember where the Real Ruler of the Universe sits. And we pray that we will let him make his throne in our hearts.

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