I wonder whether some of you have had a look at the picture on the front of the order of service. It shows some graffiti – about the name of Jesus. ‘No name is higher’ is the message. But you might notice that some wag has written another name higher up the wall; the name ‘Dave’. It made me giggle…
But as often happens with these things, the mischievous attempt to subvert the main message actually makes a rather profound theological point. Which would probably really annoy them!
The name ‘Dave’ is a kind of ordinary name; nothing, you might think like the name of the Saviour of the world, Jesus. Dave. David Cameron gets teased for wanting people to call him Dave, as though he’s really down with the common people. Dave is an ordinary kind of name.
I resonate deeply with ordinary names because my name is ordinary too; not my surname which is just kind of annoying, but my first name; Susan. The year I was born it was the most popular, or perhaps you might say the most common, name for girls. I was always one of many Susans in any class at school and we all had to compete to have any kind of individuality. I desperately wanted to be called something exotic and distinctive, something that would propel me to a distinguished career and an exciting life, to be a Celestine or an Ursula or even a Susanna, but I was destined to be a Susan. If I’d been born a boy I might have been a Dave.
I remember the shock when a few years ago I met someone who told me that her boyfriend’s name was Jesus. He was Spanish. I didn’t think anyone would have the name Jesus. But of course the name Jesus in some places is as common as Dave. And in the times when Jesus of Nazareth lived, Jesus (or Joshua in its Hebrew or Aramaic form) was as common a name as Dave. Jesus was really a Josh… like some in my grandson’s class at school today. It was not a title for the co-creator and Saviour of the world – it was a common name.
But today’s reading from the letter to the Philippians shows us how ‘the name of Jesus’ was so appropriate and so right, because Jesus of Nazareth was God become flesh as an ordinary human being – not as an Emperor like Julius Caesar, not as a King like Herod, not as a great war hero or a famous poet or artist, not as someone with a name that just oozes greatness like Augustus, but just as a human being like you or me. The miracle of the Incarnation really is that God, the creator of the world and the one whose love is poured out for us, became a human being like us, became an ordinary guy.
So you see how the writer of that graffiti is actually, even without knowing it, making a profound theological point. So often when we think about the name of Jesus we think of it in ways that push Jesus away from us and that emphasise his distance from us – but actually the name Jesus (it might have been Dave or Susan) really conveys his connection with us, conveys the wonder that God has come to be with us – us ordinary human beings.
This passage from Philippians is one of the most significant passages in the New Testament and it is also one of the very earliest. Paul’s letters are the earliest of parts of the New Testament, this is one of the earliest of those and we think that this passage is one that Paul may have got from somewhere else – and so it’s earlier than his own writing. So this could very well be the oldest part of the New Testament… And it tells us so much about our faith.
It tells us that right from the beginning Christians held together the strong faith that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘in the form of God’ and that he was fully a human being. And they thought of this in a particular way – that the one who was God emptied Godself to become close to us, even emptying so fully that he took the form of a slave, of the most vulnerable and most lowly kind of human being. God let go of all status, all pride, all hierarchy and became just like one of us who are Dave or Susan or Peter or Ruth or Eryl or Meg….
Jesus even died the death of a slave, death on a cross (crucifixion, as you will all know, was the death reserved for the lowest people in the Roman Empire). In Graeco-Roman culture, in the culture that would have been well known and experienced in Philippi, it was not necessarily an odd idea to say that a God would come in human form, but it would have been astonishing to say that someone ‘in the form of God’ would empty himself and take the form not of a human king or emperor or caesar, but of a slave. Jesus, in this passage, is both ‘in the form of God’ and in the ‘form of a slave’.
What was shocking about Jesus, and counter-cultural in a Graeco- Roman context, was that he was both in the form of God and in the form of a lowly human being, one who would have lived in a part of town covered by graffiti or among migrants or those on benefits or just the ordinariness of suburbia. The Christian story is a radical subversion of the Emperor cult, and indeed a subversion of all that we expect still to be true about human hierarchy.
But why is this so important? Well, I want to suggest that we have discovered something of the power of the Incarnation through our experience of this time of Covid-19. We have discovered I think how important it is that we are present to each other face to face, in flesh and bones and blood. We have learned that we have a deep need for the closest kind of connections – that messages from afar and even Zoom calls from those we love are not enough. We long to be close, to hold and touch and be with those with we love most. We cannot survive well without that sense of close connection with someone. And we find that we have a God who is so committed to connecting with us that this same God is ready to let go of divinity and become what we are. Our faith reveals to us that God does not only ‘Zoom’ to communicate with us, does not only write messages or send envoys. In Jesus Christ, we find that God come to us ‘face to face’, embodied, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. God comes to us, as close as anyone could be – to ordinary human beings like us. God is not Caesar. God is Dave and Steve, God is Mary and Susan, God is Jesus. God is with us.
And, then what is also striking and profoundly significant about this way of understanding God’s connection with us is that Paul turns it into something to encourage us about the ways we might lead our lives.
But Paul says, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. We too are urged to become and to live not as those above anyone else, and not to keep our distance from those who might need us, but to empty ourselves and to reach out to those in need of connection.
I’m so often struck by the way that some human beings seem to long to find themselves above other people, to put their own name above that of others. Often it’s people who are actually rather fragile underneath who want to insist on some title or dignity that makes them seem better than others. I imagine that none of us are completely immune from this. And perhaps some people have the opposite tendency, which comes from the same kind of fragility, to think always that other people are far above them and they are not up to much.
Jesus it seems, and Paul writes to remind us, did neither of these things. He did not ‘grasp at equality’ with God. He told people who called him the Messiah to keep quiet. And sometimes he stands up for himself against even a high priest and a Roman governor. The little hymn that we’ve read in Philippians tells us that his name is the name above every name, but the irony is that the name is simply Jesus – the equivalent of Dave. And the significant thing about Jesus is not that he wanted to go higher than anyone else, but that in him, God came lower than anyone ever thought God would come – right ‘down’ to our level, as low as a cradle, as low as a cross, as low as being laid in a tomb, as low as your lowest most downcast day – and all to take all of us with him to the place of life, the highest place of heaven, to the Kingdom of God.
So congratulations to the graffiti preachers; both the first one who said there is ‘no higher name’ and the second one who suggested a higher name might be ‘Dave’. At the name of Jesus – let every knee bow. As long as we recognise that we will find Jesus right there washing our feet, not grasping after equality with God, but getting down with the slaves and the servants, the poor and the troubled, the ordinary ones like you and me. Amen.