The Holy Sacrifice of Christ - Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 by Rev. Ted A. Campbell
by Rev. Ted A. Campbell on Friday, July 7, 2023
The Holy Sacrifice of Christ
Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11
Perkins Chapel, SMU
Wednesday 28 March 2023
Ted A. Campbell
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
One of the problems Perkins students run up against is that clergy on boards of ordained ministry and pulpit committees and other church judicatory bodies will often ask our students a question that presupposes the theological education that they had thirty years ago or more.
One of their favorite questions is, “What will you preach about the atoning work of Jesus Christ?” Be careful with this one. They may expect one of only three answers, of which only two may be considered acceptable. Here are the three options they will likely expect:
- The penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement: The most important thing Jesus did, according to this theory, was to die: God requires death for our sins, and “Jesus paid the price” for our sins by his death. You can run into two problems with this one: a) liberal people will be general uncomfortable with any talk of death as God’s punishment for sin, and b) some more traditional people may wonder if Christ’s life and Christ’s resurrection do not also count for our salvation. Careful… Careful…
- The so-called Christus Victor (“Christ the Conqueror”) theory maintains that Christ’s defeat of the powers of evil by the resurrection was the most important thing Jesus did. This one has the advantage of being almost completely cheery: you don’t even have to mention sin in this one, just the devil or at maybe just the “evil powers” that mess up human thriving. Wary judicatory members may worry about the absence of sin, or perhaps will wonder why the Gospels waste so much time talking about other stuff besides the resurrection.
- A third popular theory in theological schools of a generation or two past was called the “Moral-exemplary theory” and maintains that the most important thing Jesus did was to say really, really wonderful things about how to live a well-adjusted life and help other people and be happy. And equally important were the wonderful things that Jesus did like healing the sick and preaching liberation to the captives. This theory is even cheerier than the Christus Victor theory and it doesn’t even require Jesus to be God, just a really really really really really really really really great guy who taught and did really really really really really really really really wonderful things. (This, by the way, is the one atonement theory that can seldom pass the boards, at least for Methodists in the Bible Belt. Too much Jesus stuff seems to be missing.)
But consider now the epistle lesson from Philippians. See if you can identify which of these three theories of atonement it supports:
Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
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,
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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
One of my theological teachers, the Archimandrite and later Metropolitan Kallistos, of blessed memory, used to say that the ancient Christian writers presupposed two things about our atonement in Christ: 1) that only God can forgive sins, and 2) that in order to forgive human sins, God had to become a full, complete human being like us: not just a birth, not just a life of action and teachings, not just a death, not even just a resurrection from the dead.
There is more than a hint in this passage from Philippians that none of the popular atonement theories comes close to the depth of what Christ accomplished:
- Christ’s eternal nature as God counts in the Philippians understanding of atonement: he was “he was in the form of God.”
- Christ’s humiliation including his conception and gestation in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, his birth from Mary, his whole life, his growth, his words, his deeds count in this understanding of atonement: he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
- Christ’s true human death counts in this understanding of atonement. Not the cheeriest message, but a true one: to be human is to die: And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
- And Christ’s resurrection and exaltation count in this rich understanding of atonement: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”
Why should we have to choose which aspects of our Savior’s life and death and resurrection count and, by implication, somehow don’t count towards our salvation? Is not the purpose of this passage in the letter to the Philippians to say that Christ’s divine nature and his whole human experience count for our salvation?
An African patriarch wrote, “Christ became human in order that humans might become divine.”
How would you convince your judicatory board about this? If they are expecting you to argue for one or the other of the formerly popular theories of atonement, and without sounding like you are holding their generation in judgment?
And would you be willing to tell them what is implied about Christ’s atoning work for us? That as God became a complete human being in our holy Savior, Christ’s atoning work calls us to nothing less than complete devotion—heart, soul, mind, and strength—to God; that what God wants from us is what a lover always wants from the beloved: the whole thing. 100%. Yes, I know what you might be thinking, and yes, sexuality too. The whole thing. God wants you: all of you. Nothing in the closet. No tricks. No deals. No compromises: the entire sanctification of the soul by God.
I bid you think on these things, sisters and brothers, as we approach the solemn remembrance of our Savior’s entry into Jerusalem, and his suffering, and his death, and what we will celebrate at the conclusion of Lent.
And not just how you will answer a judicatory: How will you answer God? How will you offer everything you are and everything you have back to God?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.