The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/25/2000
Text: Philippians 2:5-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The most important statement the church ever makes. I will not make you wait or wonder any longer. The most important statement the church ever makes is "Jesus Christ is Lord."

What prompts me to say so today is the fact that you may have a sense of uncertainty about the future here at St. Paul during a time of transition in preparation for new leadership. Couple that with the fact that the 212th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) convened yesterday in Long Beach, California - 558 ministers and elders chosen by their presbyteries who will spend the next six days solving the problems of the church and the world. Lots of statements will be made, some even moderately important. But no statement that the Assembly makes, and no statement that this church will ever make, regardless of who might be the pastor, will ever be as important as "Jesus Christ is Lord."

A wide variety of topics will come up in Long Beach, but, as usual, the ones that will get the most attention in the papers around the country involve sex. For example, current church policy prohibits Presbyterian ministers from performing same-sex union ceremonies if they are determined to be the same as a marriage. Some folks agree with that, some disagree. They will fight about it.

Three years ago, a provision was added to our Book of Order that requires "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."(1) Despite the fact that the word "homosexual" is nowhere to be found in that sentence, it was passed as a way to insure that no practicing gays or lesbians could be ordained to church office. Each year since then the issue has been a battleground (as it is in all the other mainline denominations). Last year's Assembly called for a two-year hiatus on any calls for revision. HA! There are only TEN overtures this year that deal, either explicitly or implicitly, with the provision. Some want it deleted all together, some want exceptions, some want it to include all church employees, and one wants to say to any congregation that does not like it, "BYE...and don't let the door hit you on the way out." Will the question get a "final answer" in Long Beach? Of course not. In fact, the commissioners yesterday voted to defer consideration of all those overtures until next year, just as last year's Assembly had requested. But the battle is not over, it is only on hold.

Other long-standing social issues will be discussed. A team assigned to review implementation of the Presbyterian Church's abortion policy will offer its findings. The report says church entities have downplayed a 1992 policy that would be considered moderately pro-choice in favor of an unbridled pro-choice policy adopted in 1983. An overture from Santa Barbara Presbytery is calling for a new study that would approach abortion from a Biblical and theological perspective rather than focusing on public policy dimensions of the issue.

Recent incidents in New York City and Los Angeles involving allegations of police brutality or corruption make particularly timely a resolution coming to the Assembly from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. It focuses on "abuse and misuse of authority by law enforcement" and calls on the church to join efforts to establish "accountability in all law enforcement."

A proposed resolution on gambling urges Presbyterians to "refuse to participate in organized and institutionalized forms of gambling as a matter of faith" and would call us to work for the elimination of state-sponsored gambling, such as lotteries. Gun control - an overture this year calls for the denomination to push for congressional legislation setting a minimum age of 21 for owning a hand gun. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is already on record opposing capital punishment, so, this year, after revelations of the large number of innocent people who have been on death row, there is a call for "an immediate moratorium on all executions in all jurisdictions." An overture from the Presbytery of Detroit asks the Assembly to "send a resolution demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol buildings and grounds" of the statehouses in South Carolina and Georgia.

Those are a few of the topics about which statements will be made by your church this year. But remember, they pale by comparison to the most important statement the church ever makes: "Jesus Christ is Lord!"

Our lesson from Philippians presents the story of Jesus as a drama in three acts. It begins before recorded time and presents him with all the attributes and powers...the "form"...of the mighty God. We know little about that period except for sketchy references here and there in scripture which make plain that the Jesus we came to know on the hills of Galilee had long before been involved in the creation of those hills.

But the drama continues and in Act II, Christ gives up... "empties" himself...of many of the attributes of God, and assumes human form. How are we to understand that? How could Jesus empty himself of his divine powers and still be divine? Let me try an analogy. I think of how I have played baseball with my son through the years. When he was just a little tyke, the two of us could play catch in the yard. I would throw the ball underhanded, he would catch it...occasionally. He would whip it back to me (or at least in my general direction) and I would catch it or go after it. There is no way the two of us could have ever enjoyed playing catch together had I thrown the ball to him with all the power at my adult command. Now, the opposite is probably true - he is a strong young man, and could easily overpower me (except on the golf course - I've still got him there, tee hee!) But way back then, for the sake of my boy, I "emptied" myself of my full power. The power was still mine; I just would not use it.

"He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." This is the part of the story with which we are most familiar even though we know little about the details of Jesus' life. What Carlyle wrote was true of him: "Great men have short biographies." Jesus left no record. He kept no diary. He wrote no book. All that we know about him is crowded in a few pages at the opening of the New Testament. You can read it through in a few hours.

Such events as we have of his life are quickly told. The story opens with the birth of a baby in an out-of-the-way town called Bethlehem with his first cradle a manger for the feeding of livestock. He grew up in the unsanitary mountain village of Nazareth known only for the fact that nothing "good" had ever come from that town. It was a normal home; Jesus shared normal duties with his brothers and sisters. He knew how to fill lamps and to trim wicks. He knew what housecleaning involved. He knew how to build a fire and could prepare a fish fry. He learned the trade of a carpenter.

At about 30 years of age, Jesus laid aside the tools of his trade and began to teach and preach and heal. From the beginning people reacted to him. Little children came running at the music of his voice, the aged found comfort in his presence, the sick found healing by merely touching the hem of his garment. He had his hours of celebrity when the multitudes crowded about him. But there were also hours of adversity and abandonment. Hardly had he begun his work when he was arrested on suspicion of leading a popular revolt and was condemned.

Betrayed by those he trusted, deserted by those he loved, with a purple robe thrown contemptuously across his shoulders, a crown of thorns jammed down upon his brow, he carried his cross to an outlaw's execution. "...obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." The life which had begun in humble obscurity ended in public shame. He who, at birth, had been laid in a borrowed manger was now laid away in a borrowed tomb.

Who was this strange person? The Christian Church is built on the conviction that he was God. In the Presbyterian Church's Brief Statement of Faith, we make our affirmation: "We trust in Jesus Christ, God with us in human flesh...He healed the sick and ate with outcasts; He forgave sinners..." Oh, what a phrase THAT one is...forgave sinners. That one phrase, based firmly on the gospel record, is why we believe Jesus is God.

Think about it. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You step on my toe and I forgive you; you steal my money, I forgive you...perhaps (I am Presbyterian, after all). But what should we make of a man, himself un-robbed and un-stepped on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on MY toes, and stealing MY money? A candidate for a rubber room. Yet, this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other folks whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He behaved as if HE were the party chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken. From the mouth of any speaker who is not God, to say "Your sins are forgiven" would imply a silliness or conceit unrivaled in history.(2)

I am making so much of this here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Jesus: "I can accept him as a great moral teacher, but not as God." That is the one thing we must not say. Listen to C. S. Lewis:

A man who was merely a man, and said the sort of things Jesus said, would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with a man whose says he's a poached egg -- or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice...You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.(3)
Of course, we know that the story of Jesus did not end with his death and burial. The curtain on Act III of the divine drama began on Easter morning...resurrection. That Jesus did survive death seems to me convincingly proved. How else can we account for the fact that eleven men in hiding, terribly disappointed and disillusioned, frightened for their lives to the extent that they were afraid to meet without first locking doors, suddenly became fearless missionaries. The Apostle Peter shouted to a crowd of thousands in Jerusalem just six or seven weeks after the crucifixion, "God raised him from the dead...of that we are witnesses." Had this not been true, someone in the crowd would have yelled back, "Don't be silly. I can take you to his body right now."(4) Of course, no one did. Which is why we can affirm again and again, "God raised him from the dead, vindicating his life, breaking the power of sin and evil..."

But the resurrection was only the beginning of Act III in this divine drama. God raises Christ, not only from the dead, but once more to the heights and gives him a name above every name. God gives him the name LORD!

Jesus Christ is Lord! That is where the whole faith came together for those early Christians. They had their debates about other things, the way we do, the way our Assembly Commissioners do. But this was the one overwhelming fact of their lives, the transforming center of their total experience - that Jesus Christ is Lord. Let the churches debate how Jesus was both God and man at the same time, let them discuss the Trinity, let them fuss about the methods of baptism and serving the Lord's Supper, let them quarrel over which holy writings to call scripture, and how to set up their local administration. There was one undebatable proposition at the heart of everything they believed - that Jesus of Nazareth was somehow the Son of God and therefore the mighty Lord of their lives. It was the simplest creed imaginable - the creed before there were any other creeds.(5) Jesus Christ is Lord!

What does the name mean? To the ancients it meant master or owner and was always a title of consummate respect. In the modern world, to call Jesus "Lord" is to say he is the chief, the boss, the main man, the head honcho. The buck stops with him; his decisions are final.(6) Hear the "Declaration of Faith" written by the Southern Presbyterians a few years ago:

We declare that Jesus is Lord.
His resurrection is a decisive victory over the powers that deform and destroy human life.
His Lordship is hidden.
The world appears to be dominated by people and systems that do not acknowledge his rule.
But his Lordship is real.
It demands our loyalty and sets us free from the fear of all lesser lords who threaten us.
We maintain that ultimate sovereignty now belongs to Jesus Christ in every sphere of life.
Jesus is Lord!
He has been Lord from the beginning.
He will be Lord at the end.
Even now he is Lord.(7)
Jesus Christ is Lord! If you remember nothing else from our years together as pastor and people, remember those four words. They were the first creed that the Christian Church ever had and, as I said at the beginning of this, they comprise the most important statement the church can ever make. To be a Christian then and to be a Christian now is to make that affirmation. If someone can say, "For me, Jesus Christ is Lord," that person is a Christian. If he can say that "Jesus Christ is Lord," it means that, for him, Jesus Christ is uniquely in charge - he is prepared to obediently follow in whatever direction the Lord chooses to lead. If she can say, "Jesus Christ is Lord," it means she is prepared to give to Jesus a love and a loyalty that will be given to no other person in all the universe. It may be that you cannot put into words who and what you believe Jesus to be, but so long as there is in your heart this wondering love, and in your life this willingness to obey, you are a Christian.

One more thing to note: the world has not seen the last of Jesus. If we have not met him before, we will encounter him at the end of human history. The final words of our lesson make that plain. There will come a day when the aim of God, the dream of God, the purpose of God will be realized. There will come a day when EVERY knee should bend...and EVERY tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Yes, there will come a day when the wrong shall fail, the right prevail because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when crime will no longer pay because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when the principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness of this world will reluctantly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when sin will no longer have dominion over anyone and we will be able to shout Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream because Jesus Christ is Lord! There will come a day when all tears are wiped away and there will be no more sorrow or pain or crying or death because Jesus Christ is Lord. There will come a day when ALL God's children, red and yellow, black and white, will join in one mighty chorus and sing, Jesus Christ is Lord! Are you ready?

Can you hear it? Down through the corridors of time faintly echo the strains that have become so familiar but slowly become louder and louder and which one day will resound through the rafters of the universe. Can you hear it? Louder and louder it gets: "King of Kings and Lord of Lords and he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!" Jesus Christ is Lord! Now and always.


1. G-6.0106b

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 55

3. ibid., p. 56

4. Leslie Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1965), p.123

5. John Killinger, You Are What You Believe: The Apostles' Creed for Today, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), p. 44

6. Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 101

7. Quoted by Winn, p. 102

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