Not one iota

Philippians 2:5-11

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

A man moved to Texas and bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100.00. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day.  The next day the farmer drove up and said, “Sorry, but I got some bad news. The donkey died.”

“Well then, just give me my money back.”

“Can’t do that. I went and spent it already.”

“OK then, just unload the donkey.”

“What ya gonna do with em.”

“I’m gonna raffle him off.”

“Ya can’t raffle off a dead donkey!”

“Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anyone he’s dead.”

A month later the farmer met up with the man and asked, “What happened with the dead donkey?”

“I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at $2.00 apiece and made a profit of $898.00.”

“Didn’t no one complain?”

“Just the guy who won. So I gave him his $2.00 back.”

 I think we make a mistake each year.  Not just us here at Staunton Mennonite, but most churches make this mistake.  What am I talking about?  Well each year we come to church on a Sunday morning that we commonly refer to as Palm Sunday and we talk about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where Jesus is ushered into the city as the next king.  That isn’t a mistake.  The problem is that we go from one Sunday to the next without taking the time to focus on the events that take place between this Sunday and the next, which is Easter Sunday.

            That is why I am excited that this year we will be having a Love Feast on Maundy Thursday to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  For those of you that are used to our Wednesday evening Community Fellowship Meals, please know that the Thursday meal will not simply be the Wednesday meal pushed back to one day later.  Where we have large meals with dessert choices that will overflow your plate on a Wednesday evening, this Thursday’s meal will be very simple.  We will have beef, bread, a broth soup, and then we will have communion together.  The Love Feast tradition that we are following comes to us from the Church of the Brethren.  The Church of the Brethren began in Germany and on Thursday we will have a simple meal that is consistent with what the poverty-stricken people of Germany would have eaten as a reminder that we are all poor without Christ.  We will hear scripture read about the Last Supper.  There will be an opportunity for footwashing.  We will do this all in remembrance of our Lord.

            The scripture that I am drawing from this morning isn’t the story of Palm Sunday, but it gives us insight to the nature of Jesus.  I believe that to fully understand the significance of Palm Sunday, we need to better understand who Jesus was, is, and will always be.

            Verses 5-6 from our scripture tells us this, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”  This is foundational for my understanding of Christianity.  The Christian Bible tells us that Jesus wasn’t just a wise man.  He wasn’t a guru, he wasn’t a wise old sage.  The Bible tells us that Jesus was in the form of God, or as the NIV says, he was the very nature of God.

            And it isn’t just our scripture for this morning that tells us that Jesus is God in human form.  Jesus himself said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”  So as some have said, either Jesus was God or he was crazy.  Normal people don’t go around claiming to be one with God.

            So out of today’s scripture we find the basis for one of the most confusing teachings in the church: the doctrine of The Trinity.  The doctrine of the Trinity says that God exists in three different manifestations: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or alternate names such as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.)  Anybody that tries to tell you that they fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity is sorely mistaken because it is complicated.  Some of the greatest minds of all time have tried to understand this concept and they have often failed.  Just an example: If Jesus is God, then who is Jesus praying to when he prays?  Jesus promises that he will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples after his resurrection he also tells them that he and the Holy Spirit cannot be in the same place at the same time.  Yet when Jesus was baptized and led out into the desert, doesn’t scripture tell us that he was filled with the Holy Spirit?  Yeah, I told you it was confusing, and I hate to disappoint you, but we aren’t going to figure it all out today.

            But did you know that one of our Easter traditions is said to have begun with an explanation of the Trinity?  I doubt the historical accuracy of this story, but I think it is kind of neat anyway.  A theologian was said to be trying to explain the Trinity to a king and to do so he used an egg.  He explained to the king that, like the egg, God was made up of three parts.  As the egg is made up of the shell, the yolk, and the white, God is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  No part alone is the egg, but together they make up the egg.  And tradition says that when the theologian explained this to the king, the egg turned red.  And that is why we color eggs for Easter.

            The Trinity is a lot more difficult to grasp than an egg.  And there have been many discussions and arguments concerning the Trinity.  I would say that it is probably impossible to try to explain the Trinity without falling into one of the ancient heresies like Modalism, Tri-Theism, or Arianism.  But we keep trying to better understand this aspect of God.

            In the 4th century Christianity was becoming very popular (for better or worse) in the Roman Empire.  The Emperor Constantine had signed the Edict of Milan permitting Christianity to be practiced by all.  And as more and more people became Christians and more and more people were coming from other religions and bringing along some of their previous theology, many people began questioning things like Jesus’ being and essence.  With more people joining the faith every day, it seemed necessary to do a better job of defining the characteristics of God. 

A well respected and articulate man named Arius believed that Jesus was not God, but he was a lot like God.  Another well respected and articulate man, Athanasius, opposed Arius, saying that Jesus was God incarnate (in flesh).  So Emperor Constantine called together a group of the leading scholars in the church to the city of Nicea to discuss whether Jesus was like God or if he was God in human flesh.  The question at hand was “Is Jesus homoiousious or homoousious of God?”  And we may look at these two words and think that there is not much of a difference between them.  In fact, the only difference between the two words is the Greek letter iota. 

The Greek letter iota is the smallest letter of the alphabet, consisting of just a little line on a piece of paper.  Because of the smallness of this letter, people would compare something to the iota to show the smallness of it.  In Matthew 5:18 Jesus says that not one iota will pass away from the law before all is accomplished.  The NIV says “not the smallest letter will pass away” and the KJV, “not one jot or tittle will pass from the law.”  The iota is a small letter that is used to symbolize insignificance.  And we still use it like this today.  You might hear someone say, “It doesn’t matter to me one iota what we have for lunch.”  It is small, it is insignificant.  The iota really doesn’t matter. 

But it did matter to the Nicene Council; it matters a lot in this case.  Homoiousious means “of similar substance.”  Homoousious means “of same substance”.  So to say that Jesus was of similar substance to God meant that he was not God; just a whole lot like God.  But to say that Jesus was of the same substance meant that Jesus is God, broken off from God.

I have a 10-week-old son who is traveling this week with his mother.  I took them to Ohio on Thursday and they were going to fly out from there to Nebraska to see Sonya’s sister and some extended family.  As we sat at a rest stop in West Virginia, a complete stranger said to me as I was holding Paxton, “He looks just like you.”

When we first saw Sonya’s mother, she told me the same thing.  She said that he is looking more and more like his father every time she sees him.  I feel bad for the little guyJ.  He has my nose, my eyes, my dimples.  But Paxton and I are not the same.  He is of similar substance to me, but we are not of the same substance.  He is 50% Kevin, 50% Sonya, and 100% Paxton.  Paxton is homoiousious his father.

Sure, Sonya and I will have a great amount of influence on Paxton, both genetically and developmentally, especially over the next 18 years or so.  But he is entirely his own person.  He will make his own decisions independently of Sonya and me.  He will choose what he wants to be when he grows up, he will choose where he wants to live and whom and if he will marry.  He might look a lot like me, but he is not me.  He is homoiousious to me.

Now compare my offspring with that of a plant.  This past week I was working with one of our rhododendron plants and I snapped off one of the branches.  So what I did was I took that branch, scored part of the base of it, and put it in a pot with some potting soil.  In horticulture they call that “making a cutting”.  If that cutting lives and grows into a mature rhododendron, it should have every aspect and characteristic that the parent plant that it broke off has.  They should have the same colored flower.  They should grow to the same size.  They should have the same cold tolerance, water and nutrient requirements, and even the exact same DNA.  The cutting from the rhododendron is homoousios the parent plant.  It is exactly the same and has all of the same characteristics.

So based on the teachings that we generally hear in the church, do you believe that the Council of Nicea sided with Arius or Athanasius?  Did they say that Jesus was of similar substance to God like Paxton is of similar substance to me, or of the same substance as God like the cutting from the rhododendron is of the same substance as the parent plant?  They said that Jesus was the same substance as God.  That is where the Nicene Creed comes from, which is number 722 in the Mennonite Hymnal:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

You can hear them wrestling with the question of who Jesus is and Trinitarian theology in the Nicene Creed.  They are very careful to say that Jesus is the son of God, but that he is in every way God.  Not another god, not some lesser god, but God in human flesh.

So why does any of this matter?  We pick back up in our scripture verses 7-8 as it says about Jesus who was and is God, that he didn’t exploit the fact that he was God “but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

This is what sets Christianity apart from so many other religions.  Other religions talk about incarnation.  Other religions have gods that take on human form and walk around among the people.  But our God took on human form, humbled himself, and was killed by those whom he came into this world to love and save.

For a god to be killed by mere mortals is silly to some religions, but it is essential to Christianity.  For a god to subject himself to the things that Jesus subjected himself to would silly to some religions, but that is what our God did.  And I think that Jesus’ life story is even more powerful when we consider that the person doing these things is not just some man, but the creator of heaven and earth.  These things happened to God.

The Bible tells us that our God came to this world, not born into a rich and prominent family, but born to an unmarried carpenter and his betrothed, teenage girlfriend.  And God wasn’t born at the hospital where midwives and doctors provided the best healthcare possible for him around the clock.  God was born in a manger in a stable where he was tended to by the animals and visited by the shepherds.  Sometime between his 12th birthday and his 30th birthday, God lost his earthly father, so he would have been raised by a single and likely unemployed mother.  The creator of heaven and earth was monetarily poor.

When he was 30 years old God went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.  Yet God did not sin.  Throughout his ministry, God lost some friends and was betrayed by others.  God gained popularity and many people wanted to name him as the next king of Israel.  They went out and they ushered him into Jerusalem by laying down their cloaks and palm branches.  This was his big day, his coronation!  But how did this would-be king enter the city?  Did he ride a great white steed?  No, God rode a lowly colt of a donkey.  God saw the very people that wanted to have him as their king turn on him and shout, “Crucify him!”  And they did just that.  They crucified God.  He was beaten, broken, stripped naked, and God was hung on a cross between two thieves.  It puts a little different feeling to it when you consider that all of this was done not just to another person, but to God.

This is significant.  As Hebrews 4 tells us, we don’t simply worship a distant deity, we worship and serve a God that came to this earth and experienced life.  Jesus felt real emotions, he cried real tears, his heart was broke, he rejoiced, he was tempted.  We serve a God that knows what we are going through. 

Today is the last Sunday of the period that we know as Lent.  Lent is intended to make us reflect on all that we have had to suffer through.  Lent reminds us of our trials and temptations.  And Lent reminds us that we can rest assured that though we do not know why God allows certain things to happen, we know that God himself is experiencing the pain right beside us.  God is not exempt of pain and suffering.  God has been there, God is there, God is here!

Today we celebrate as Jesus enters into the city of Jerusalem on a young donkey.  Today we celebrate that God came into this world, gave up the comfort of heaven, and experienced the pain that we experience.  Today we celebrate the coming of a king and his kingdom.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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