The Great and the Whole   (Philippians 2: 8-11)

by | May 1, 2022 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

The truth is, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was no big deal. The Roman government perpetrated over ten thousand such executions during the long and bloody reign of their empire. If the Jerusalem Times had bothered to send a cub reporter to cover Jesus’ execution it would only be because he was put to death under a placard bearing the ironic title, “The King of the Jews,” even as the crowd mocked and scorned him, and he died seemingly bereft of supporters. The cub reporter might have noted that Jesus was crucified about noon on the day before Passover and died about three that afternoon. He might even have noted that the sky turned unusually black about the time the victim died. Those were the observable facts of the event. But they revealed nothing of the truth of the event, which could only be seen with eyes of faith.

The reporter might even have noted that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate. But it took the early church to look with eyes of faith and add, Yes, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate “for our salvation on behalf of all humanity.” Anyone living in Jerusalem on that fateful day could have beheld the observable facts, but it took Paul, looking through the prism of faith, to arrange those facts into a statement of cosmic truth: “Jesus was in the form of God, but he did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, yes, even death on a cross.” Suffusing the observable facts was the great cosmic truth of divine redemption that God was expressing through the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Of course, the resurrected Jesus was not as observable in the same way as was the crucified Jesus. You had to have experienced the reality of Easter to see the crucified Jesus as the resurrected Christ. There was no cub reporter from the Jerusalem Times to chronicle Jesus’ exit from the tomb. Only those with resurrection eyes could see through the prism of faith that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a constituent element of a divine drama in which God was expressing perfect divine humility, perfect divine obedience, effecting divine redemption, and ultimately resulting in perfect divine triumph. Again, only Paul could explain those events in terms of profound theological understanding: “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!” That’s the cosmic truth that suffuses the observable facts.

The odd thing about the Easter story is that even while God’s cosmic drama of redemption is unfolding, everyone is trying to reduce cosmic events of divine transformation to mere trivial moments. Everyone in the Easter story misunderstands everything. On the cross the Son cries out, “Eloi, Eloi,” summoning his Father. People think he is calling for Elijah. The resurrected Jesus appears to Mary outside the empty tomb on Easter morning, and she thinks he is the gardener. Two men take an afternoon walk to Emmaus with the resurrected Lord and treat him like an ignorant hick from out of town. The Spirit of Christ falls upon thousands at Pentecost, fueling believers with a centrifugal fire that fuels a spiritual movement. Onlookers think they are drunk. Everyone seemed supremely unaware that God was employing trivial events to manifest the redemptive will of the divine. Everyone sought to reduce the miraculous to the mundane, when they should have been doing precisely the opposite.

Sometimes, only our poets can sense what the rest of us cannot see. One of the great poets in the English language, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, could write to a friend, “Should children be permitted to read Romance and Relations of Giants and Magicians and Genies? I know all that has been said against it, but I have formed my faith in the affirmative. I know no other way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the Whole.” Those who didn’t read such works as a child, said Coleridge, “seem to me to want a sense which I possess – they contemplate nothing but parts and all parts are necessarily little – and the universe to them is but a mass of little things.”

Coleridge knew, the universe is not a mass of little things! The universe is an expression of the Great and the Whole! The universe offers us a divine drama authored by God, suffused by God’s divine Spirit, propelled by God’s divine energy, and ultimately directed to a divine purpose. At one level, you and I believe this. At another level, we really don’t. I think of a story a friend told me about his father, when his dad was a young man, about the year 1930. The young man was visiting a young lady of his fancy in the improbably-named country town of North, South Carolina. He was ushered into the capacious parlor of a genteel Southern home by a formidable, dignified African-American lady who obviously ran the household. The young couple was chatting amiably in the parlor when overhead they suddenly heard the loudest roar they had ever heard in their lives. Then they heard an anguished shriek. The dignified, refined black woman ran into the parlor screaming at the top of her lungs, “The Lord Jesus is coming, and I ain’t ready!” The young man and his girl ran out onto the front porch to behold a magnificent blimp, 800 feet long, twelve engines roaring, floating 300 feet above the earth at sixty miles an hour. It was the German Graff Zeppelin, making a tour from New York to Miami. But those were just the facts. The truth is, that black woman had grown up in the Christian church knowing that life is a divine drama that calls believers to help implement the Kingdom of God in history, a history whose ultimate end would eventuate in the Lord Jesus returning to claim the faithful. When she saw a craft unlike anything she had ever seen, she interpreted it as Jesus coming in his new ark to collect the righteous. And she did not feel that she was adequately prepared. “The Lord Jesus is coming, and I ain’t ready!” Can any of us honestly say that our testimony would be any different? We believe at one level that we are participants in a cosmic drama. But in day to day life, that thought rarely crosses our mind.

When Jesus enters a town, he challenges people to change. No one is allowed to remain static. Some become better, some become worse, but nobody is allowed to stay frozen. Some see him as a prophet of the Great and the Whole, and they join their lives to his. Others stand in opposition to his message. Some stand on the sidelines and wave him goodbye as he passes. Zacchaeus climbs up a tree to behold the Great and Whole, then scrambles down to join it. A woman with a checkered past drinks living water from the hand of the prophet of the Great and Whole. Simon the Zealot throws away his assassin’s knife to join the ministry of love that Jesus articulated. Four fishermen hear the summons to become fishers of people, and they discard their nets to become spokesmen for the Great and the Whole. Meanwhile, the prodigal son’s elder brother sits on the sidelines trying to keep score of his younger brother’s sins. But his father reminds him that life is always about somebody being lost and being found. Realize that your brother was dead and now he is alive! He was lost in the far country but now he has come to be claimed by the Great and the Whole!

The entire ministry of Jesus is meant to communicate one basic point about God: God in God’s nature is a Redeemer. The God of this universe is a redeeming God. And if we would honor and worship this God, then we must respond to the summons to become instruments of redemption ourselves. As we, by large and small acts of service, model our lives around the pattern established by the redeeming Christ, then we conform a little more completely to this Christ, and we appropriate a little more fully the destiny of who we are meant to be, agents of the Great and the Whole.

When we stop to ponder exactly what Jesus is saying, we realize that Jesus is asserting some very strange things. He says to us, having is not necessarily holding. Losing is not necessarily losing. Winning is not necessarily winning. The disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything for you! What do we have to show for it?” Jesus admits that though foxes have holes and birds have nests, the Son of Man doesn’t even own a pillow to lay his head. But appearances are deceiving, Jesus reminds his disciples. You have the Kingdom of God within you. You are rich in the Kingdom of God. Those who spend their lives accruing more and more, who waste their days building bigger barns so they can hoard their bigger harvests – they understand nothing! They will gain the world and lose their soul. They will never touch the dimension of the Great and the Whole! They think the universe is a mass of little things. But you who have left everything to serve God’s eternal Kingdom, you are rich! So it is, Zacchaeus climbs that tree, and Simon the Zealot surrenders his knife, and the fishermen discard their nets, because all of them realize that it is only in connection with the movement of the Great and the Whole that they join the side of the angels. In fact, they do more than that: they become angels themselves, messengers of God’s Good News.

The entire Easter story reminds us that losing is not always losing. Dying is not necessarily dying. When the soldiers pry Jesus’ lifeless body off the cross and hand it to his friends who place him in the tomb, the soldiers are sure that the grave marks the end of Jesus’ story. The perpetual protectors of the status quo, the representatives of the System, are sure that they have silenced this young rabbi who overturned tables in the Temple and overturned tables in their minds. This man who taught that blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are the poor in spirit – when his body was placed in the tomb and a stone was rolled across his future, none of what he said makes sense. But from the vantage point of the resurrection, all of it makes sense! The System of which Death stands as the final word, has been overturned. Jesus’ story confirms for us that the universe is not a mass of little things. The universe is a divine drama authored by Christ’s heavenly Father, a revelation of the Great and the Whole, because, asserts Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

One of the greatest works of literature in the English language is William Shakespeare’s King Lear. In that great drama, the Earl of Gloucester is blinded, his eyes gouged out by his enemies. He is betrayed by one son and estranged from the other. Yet he is attended to by a beggar. But, as in all true stories, appearances are deceiving. The beggar is really Gloucester’s estranged son. Handicapped and miserable, Gloucester bids the beggar to take him to the cliffs of Dover, from which he can leap to his death. The son instead takes him to a small knoll and bids him to jump. Blind and confused, the old man leaps to what he thinks will be his death, only to fall a few feet and land in an inglorious heap. The son then convinces the father that he fell a great distance and miraculously survived. Reconciliation between father and son is accomplished.

I sometimes think our approach to our faith is precisely the opposite of Gloucester’s experience. We think that being a Christian requires only a short leap, shallow of meaning, shallow of commitment and purpose. Actually, our faith requires a great leap into a grand and fathomless unknown. Many of us think of a faith as a short leap off the low dive, incurring minimum risk. But in reality, to take the leap of faith is to leap off the high dive and feel the air of uncertainty whooshing about our ears. But we trust that Christ is there at the bottom to catch us. The Universe is not a mass of little things. It is a divine drama of the Great and the Whole. And we who are children of the Spirit must accept the fact that we are a strange people. We hear a distant music no one else can hear. We feel connected to a secret energy that others cannot feel. We discern an established destiny that others cannot detect. And we help implement a strange Kingdom that no one else perceives — yet it is the only kingdom that endures. The old poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge perfectly describes those of us who know ourselves to be part of the Great and Whole:

“Weave a circle round them thrice.
And close your eyes with holy dread.
For they on honey dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

We indeed, in some small way, have drunk the milk of Paradise.