Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
What could that phrase possibly mean? How is it at all possible for us to feel and think and know and act in the same way as the Jesus whose humiliation and death and triumph we remember throughout this holy week? Perhaps the hardest part of wrapping our still wounded minds around Paul’s Epistle and Matthew’s Passion are the mighty paradoxes which smack us in the face at every turn. Mysteries like: God becomes Man; the Earth’s true King dies the gruesome death of a traitor; the traitor rises from the grave to sit on an eternal throne. All of these seemingly impossible contradictions will inevitably frustrate a people conditioned to love comfort and ease as goods in and of themselves. Evil is much less complicated, much more comfortable. Its only demand is ‘first love thyself.’ We see this poison drip out of every action taken by the fallen men who stain today’s Gospel; men whose actions were justified in the name of love. Judas loved Himself more than Jesus, and so he betrayed his master; Peter loved himself more than Jesus, and so he denied the One who gave him life; Pontius Pilate loved himself more than truth, and so he let an innocent man be executed; the angry, rebellious mob loved themselves and their families and their leaders and their religion more than anything else, and so they murdered God on a Friday afternoon. Each of these human beings was betrayed not by accidentally giving in to their dark side; no, they all willingly took their place in evil’s black parade by positively denying the living, breathing Truth who came to save the world. Rather than look to Him, they looked inside, and at their dying neighbors, only to scream together ‘death to innocence, death to God.’
And so, St. Paul, and today’s entire service, drags us kicking and screaming through this truth. It must drag us through the beautiful and tragic reality of our Creator’s mission to save us from ourselves because we will not face the reality of what it means to be a fallen human unless we are forced; we will not face the reality of who we truly are except by the miracle which occurs in Christ’s church every Sunday before Easter. We can only be convinced by Evil’s command to ‘first love thyself’ if we don’t truly know ourselves, but when we do understand who we truly are through the mirror created by humanity’s rejection and execution of God then that mirror becomes a looking glass through which we can begin to see the massive tidal wave of true love and grace flowing from the Cross to the world.
But even more, this God who would voluntarily suffer the humiliation and grief and pain of fallen human existence, culminating in the public death of a traitor, all because He loves us traitors, reveals to our fallen world and our fallen hearts the infinite potential greatness of our humanity reunited with God. What would our world look like if we embraced this path? St. Paul tells us just a few verses earlier, that for starters, we would ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [our]selves’ (Philippians 2:3). Are we ready to live lives in which humility always trumps ambition or lives in which we put other members of the church always above ourselves? No, perhaps not, but why? Well, we have not yet fully embraced the trust and self-knowledge of God the Son. Jesus perfectly knows who He is because He knows His Father; Jesus can reveal the true love of God, even as we kill Him, because there is nothing this evil world can throw at Him which would unseat His relation to the Father—the only thing which actually matters, the only thing of eternal significance. Torture and death are nothing when compared to the true, divine love which defines the relationship of God the Son and God the Father; pain and separation, poverty and humiliation, are made righteousness and glory in the eternal history of which God is the perfect author. And miraculously, through the death of Christ, made our death in faith and the waters of baptism, we share this unbreakable, everlasting connection to the Father. The more willing we adopted sons and daughters of God are to daily put to death our own needs in order to give of ourselves to God and our spouses and children and neighbors and enemies, the closer we are to a love and satisfaction no ambition or possession or conquest could ever possibly provide. What temporary achievement born of ambition could be greater than even a moment of divine love flowing through us in service to another immortal human being? Christian, what is the greater achievement, becoming a senator or living a life of sacrificial love? What is the greater achievement, becoming president of the United States, or being faithful to one’s wife? What is the greater achievement, becoming the chairman of Goldman-Sachs or lovingly sacrificing one’s ambition for God and the immortal spouse and children He has temporarily given you?
For too long, American Christians have been sold the untruth that they can follow Christ without walking with Him to Golgotha, as if the way of the cross were merely an optional extra to the Christian life. This lie is more dangerous to you and I than terrorism or nuclear bombs or cancer or COVID or anything else that goes bump in the night. But of course, I will not deny that turning to a life of righteousness will most definitely hurt us in this fleeting life: we will feel the weight of the cross every time we join with the Holy Spirit to resist temptation or fight against evil or sacrifice our precious time and treasure for God and our fellow man—it will hurt because it is supposed to hurt. We are fighting a corrupt, evil world; this is war; this is the war the young King of this world broke Himself to win. That Jesus, the Head of our Church, the Head of our very Body has shown us the way. He has shown us that the path of eternal glory leads through the valley of the shadow of death, but we need fear no evil, nor need we fear the loss of all the false loves which beckon us from the darkness. I talked earlier of ‘achievement,’ but please don’t mistake my words, the good you and I will do in this life is a miracle and a gift which only comes through uniting our work and love to the God who took humanity and made it great again as He marched to His death and glory. As we prepare to eat and drink Christ’s passion today, I pray you know and feel that sacrifice, know and feel the everlasting connection to the Name that is above every name and be forever strengthened in that knowledge. We are who we are because He is who He is; we need nothing else. We are washed in His blood; we are marked by His Sprit; we are ready for His death, and if we are truly ready for His death, we are ready for His life.