Sunday of Passion
“Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence. By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.”
Around 170 A.D. the pagan Greek philosopher Celsus wrote these words about Christians. Christianity was almost one hundred and fifty years old, and while it was still small in number, Christians were beginning to attract some attention. Celsus wrote about the Christian faith in learned and disparaging terms. Christians took his attacks seriously. Almost eighty years later the Christian theologian Origen wrote a response entitled “Against Celsus” in which he sought to refute Celsus’ accusations.
In Celsus’ statement, we can hear a garbled version of the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he wrote: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
In the epistle lesson for the Sunday of the Passion, the apostle Paul says of Jesus, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We heard a sanitized version of that death on the cross in the Gospel reading this morning. I say “sanitized” because it doesn’t include any of the brutal and gory details. Matthew simply tells us, “And when they had crucified him” – we hear nothing about the brutality of driving nails through flesh and bone because his readers knew all too well what it involved.
A crucified Lord and God – this was a message that would persuade only, as Celsus called them elsewhere, “foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children.” Separated from the crucifixion by two thousand years, we have trouble understanding why Pauls adds in our text, “even death on a cross.” What does bother us and the world is the reason Paul writes the words in our text.
The apostle has just said, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In humility count others more significant than yourselves…. Look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others…. Put other people and their needs ahead of yourself.
If you want to want to see how foreign this is to the world, you don’t have to look very far this weekend. The NCAA tournament is moving towards the Final Four today as regional finals are played. I guarantee you that no one on those courts today is counting those on the other team as more significant than himself or looking out for the interest of the other team. Each team wants to blow the other out. They want to humiliate the other team as they bask in the glory and adulation of success. Nothing will make them and their fans feel better because that’s the way the world works.
And for that matter, Paul’s words could hardly be farther from the reality of the way we want to do things. Consider others more significant than myself? Look out for the interests of others? That doesn’t describe how you live with your family and co-workers. So, you don’t empty the kitchen garbage can when you know it’s full. You ignore it so that it will be someone else’s problem and they will have to do the work.
Yet is it because you are this way; it is because the world is this way, that Son of God did what Paul describes in our text. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The Son is God – God of God, Light of Light, Very of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. And yet he did not regard this equality with God to be something to be grasped. Instead, he emptied himself – he made himself nothing as he took on the form of servant and was born in the likeness of men. In the incarnation he entered our world and experienced the hardships, pains and sufferings of human life.
More than that, he entered this world in order to be the Servant Isaiah had described. He came to bear your sins and receive God’s judgment against them. He came to humble himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross – even the foolishness of the cross. That’s what we hear in our Gospel lesson today. That’s what we will be remembering this week – Holy Week.
This week will end with Jesus dead body buried in a tomb. He will look like a helpless failure. But looks are deceiving when you are dealing with God – the God who works in opposites; in surprising and unexpected ways. And so next Sunday – and then forty days after that – we will learn that Paul’s words are true: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.” For Jesus humility, suffering and death led to resurrection, ascension and exaltation. Now he gives you faith and forgiveness through his Holy Spirit.
Paul’s words in our text are some of the most profound you will find in Scripture about the incarnation. It is easy to focus on them for their own sake. But that’s not what Paul does. He has shared them because he wants the Philippians to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” This means doing nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility counting others more significant than ourselves. It means looking out only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.
The apostle then drives home the point as we draws a conclusion from what he says in this text. He writes, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Living as Christians – living the faith – takes effort. It takes persistence. You will need to try. You will need to make decisions that put the needs of others before yourself. You will need to choose to live with humility and love and service.
But this is not something you do on your own. Instead it is God who is at work in you to do this. It is the Spirit of Christ who gave you life in baptism – the washing of regeneration and renewal. The Spirit poured out by the risen Lord – the Spirit who raised the Lord Jesus – is at work in you both to will and to do.
So this week we follow Jesus to the cross and the tomb.
Though he was in the form of God he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. In order to serve and save you he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.