The church calls us this day to set our minds on the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ, and I believe there is a practical point in doing so, a point that is summed up in the opening words of our passage from Philippians:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
I want you to hang on to this thought, throughout everything to come in what I have to say today about this brilliant, beautiful, and justly celebrated passage from Saint Paul’s letter.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. It turns out this is a difficult and confusing passage to translate, but it contains a good philosophical Greek word, so I can’t resist saying something about it. What we are translating here as “have this mind” is actually a sound choice, because the word Paul is using is a form of the word phronesis in Greek; and phronesis is indeed a kind of thinking or use of the mind, but it is a special use of the mind.
Phronesis is the kind of thinking that leads to moral action. It is not speculative theory, which is what the philosopher does, and it’s not the sort of thinking that a skilled craftsperson uses to make a work of art. Phronesis is the kind of thinking that a morally skillful person uses to know what the right thing to do in any given situation is, and it produces the doing of the right thing.
So essentially what Paul is saying here is that he wants his audience, the Philippian church, to have a certain kind of mind—that mind is none other than the mind of Jesus Christ, and the mind of Christ is not a pattern of thinking that simply sits and stews but a pattern of thinking that results in action, that issues in righteous deeds.
Hold that in your minds, because the next thing that Paul then goes on to say here is descriptive of what Christ’s mind is like. What was the mental attitude of Christ that issued in good works?
Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ was God, and though he was God he willingly set aside the privileges and power of divinity by emptying himself, or more literally pouring himself out, in the Incarnation. And in the Incarnation he took upon himself the life of a servant. Or just as accurate but perhaps even more forcefully, the life of a slave. And what is a slave according to the ancient world?
Most commonly in the ancient world a slave was someone who had suffered loss in battle. Your tribe attacks my tribe, but we defeat you, and therefore we get to own the surrendering enemies. Your tribe killed some of our men, but back home there are crops to be taken in, chores to be done, and now we are short-handed because of our casualties, so we take you captive because we beat you, and there’s work to be done, so now you are my slave. That’s the price you pay.
To be a slave then was almost always to be a captive, a humiliation that no one would choose willingly.
Except Jesus. Though he is God he chooses to be a slave. He chooses to serve all. It has been said that the Incarnation is a kind of humiliation, one that Jesus willingly accepts even up to death.
As the Biblical scholar Ernst Lohmeyer pointed out about this passage, only a God can choose to die out of obedience. Mortal men and women don’t choose to die. We just do. It is unavoidable. Because of sin it is part of our nature to die. It is not in the nature of God to die.
But in Jesus God dies anyway. Because this is what a slave has to do. A slave has to submit to the necessities of his master. And the world Jesus enters is under the mastery of evil. This world is tyrannized by sin, by the devil, and yes, by the power of death. So Jesus obeyed. He obeyed, even unto death, or rather no, even unto death on a cross.
And why must it be the cross? Because the cross is extremity of total humiliation. It is the worst way that cruel people could devise to dispatch a human life. It is the death of a criminal, an outcast, of someone unloved, undefended, abandoned, with no rights at all. Crucifixion is the death of someone who is being thrown away.
But that is what sinful fallen people wanted. Jesus came to serve all, and we wanted him to die this way. Jesus went to his death on the cross because he was bound and determined to serve us, and he submitted to the necessities of human life and death right until the end. We looked at the life he embodied perfectly, the life of humility and service to all, and we said: We don’t want it. We don’t want you, and we want you dead and gone. It’s unpleasant but important to remember that the answer to the question “Who nailed Christ to the cross?” is “I did.”
An ordinary slave is a slave because he has lost his battle; he is a captive to a master he can’t overpower. Jesus though has won, and he has turned the very emblem of shame and defeat into a victory banner.
How is that possible? The only way that God could want His Son to die the death he did was if it actually worked; the only way that the crucifixion of Christ makes any sense at all is if it really does save the world that he entered into in order to perfectly serve.
I said that the Incarnation was a humiliation. But it is also a mission: And Jesus’s mission is a slave rebellion. His mission is one of infiltration and overthrow. Jesus comes into a depraved and fallen world as a slave, obedient to the end, submissive to the wicked powers that be, because that’s the only way to overthrow those powers. He is leading a rebellion from within, from behind enemy lines, and the cross is his great triumph, a triumph that looks to all the sick and warped world like the worst possible defeat.
That is why the cross is the turning point.
The cross is the turning point of this passage from Paul, and it is quite literally the turning point of all human history.
It is because of his victory on the cross that God has “greatly exalted” Jesus and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name.
Now when Paul says God greatly exalted Jesus I kid you not he actually uses the word “hyper,” he literally says God “hyper-exalted” Jesus. This occurs nowhere else in the Bible, and what Paul is trying to stress here is that to the extent that Jesus went to the very bottom of human experience, to the extent that he accepted going as low as people can—to that same extent did God raise him up to the heights, to the greatest possible supremacy over all things.
God the Father does not do this to reward Jesus the Son—this is not a quid pro quo thing—but to vindicate him. For by elevating Christ to the heights God the Father is simply putting the divine seal of approval on what Jesus himself consistently taught throughout his ministry: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” “The last shall be first.” “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
All of it is true. Jesus said things like that all the time, and better yet he lived them.
And that is why he receives the name which is above every name. Remember that for the ancient world a name is not an accidental word unrelated to the person who bears it. A name is for the ancients meant to disclose the character of the person who is so named. Caesar Augustus gives himself the name “Augustus,” which means “Great,” because he thinks he really is great. It’s not just a title, it’s meant to be a revelation of who you are. So God gives Jesus the name above all names to make manifest who he is, and who is he, verse 11, he is the Lord.
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that he is in fact Lord. The name above all names is not just the name Jesus, Yeshua son of Mary of Nazareth, but Jesus the Lord, and you bow to your lord.
The one who obeyed to the end, to the bitterest end on the cross, the one who obeyed is now the one who must be obeyed. The slave is the master.
Because a slave rebellion throws out the master. That’s why in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Now shall the ruler of this world be cast out.” The ruler of this world is finished. On the cross. And when the ruler of this world is cast out, when the tyranny of evil and death is broken, what then? Then the way to God is open. That’s why Jesus says “when I am lifted up on the cross I will draw the whole world to myself.”
Do you feel that draw? Is it what drew you to church this morning? Did you bow your knee when you came into this church and filed into your pew? Do you confess that Jesus is Lord as the church has confessed from its first days? I do too. So there is one thing more we must do.
Have this mind among ourselves.
This passage from Paul is for us. I say this in part because this magnificent passage is one that Paul is almost certainly not composing entirely from scratch but that is based on a hymn that the early church sang in acknowledgement of their understanding of who Jesus was and is. Philippians 2 is a liturgical text, something that the church probably knew well and chanted as part of their routine worship, like we do with the Gloria in Excelsis or Agnus Dei.
Paul is adapting this material for his own purposes. And his purpose is practical. He is in effect saying to the Philippians, and saying to us, “You sing this in church? Then do it. Act on it.”
Paul is saying we know and celebrate in our liturgy the incredible majesty and world-shattering importance of Christ and his humility, obedience, and service to all.
But now we must imitate his example. He is the servant who became the master, and he is our master. The mind that was in Christ Jesus, the mind that knows and does the right thing, that is ready for humility, for service, for obedience, that must be our mind. To have the mind of Christ is to be ready to act like Christ.
We cannot look away from the shame and ignominy and horror of the cross, because the cross is to be our pattern and example. It is the victory banner we march behind.
If we claim today to honor the cross of Christ, then we must have the mind of the one who hung upon it. We must look upon his cross, and make it our own.