preached by Peter Moore on 10-18-09
For the full text of Peter’s sermon simply

I’m sure you saw Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and you may recall the storm of controversy that it aroused. It angered some. It disgusted others. It offended still others. It caused some to weep and pray. And in a few cases, my nephew-in-law to take one, it was the means by which he committed his life to Christ. Why all the fuss? Why does the proclamation of the cross elicit such strong reactions among people – normal people like you and me? 

Come with me to St. Cuthbert’s-on-the-Hill, a typical Episcopal church somewhere in the U.S.A. It happens to be Good Friday, and the faithful have gathered in church for the annual re-telling of the seven last words of Jesus upon the cross. The rector, a follower of modern fashions in theology, approaches his subject with caution and care.  

He begins his first meditation with these words: “Dear ones, we cannot any longer hold to an old-fashioned view of sacrifice as we approach this most sacred of subjects, the cross of Christ. That belonged to the primitive phase of our religion, and has been superceeded over the ages by more sophisticated theological reflection. In fact, a sacrificial view of the cross is now almost universally decried as barbaric. The thought that God would send his Son to bleed and die for our sins can only be viewed by enlightened modern minds as a form of child abuse.  

“If we would gain a holistic understanding of the cross, we must instead look at the rich tapestry of biblical images given to us in the whole of Scripture, and not just in the writings of the ex-Pharisee Paul, We must think of the redemptive value of suffering, of the pain of alienation, of the heroic quality of self-giving, of the mysterious nature of evil, and of God’s confrontation of the powers of social disintegration — if we would get to the heart of the cross. The cross is a symbol with a rich and varied meaning that cannot be stated in simple propositional truths. It is up to us, this afternoon, to ponder the inner meaning of this most central of Christian metaphors.” 

I am not saying that these exact words would be used, but in many a pulpit in the United States some such re-interpretation of the Scriptural record will have taken place, and the unsuspecting will have been led to view the words we find in the Scriptures as relics of an antiquated age rather than living truth that addresses the heart and grips the mind. 

You are studying Philippians this fall, and Rob has asked me to preach to you on the Epistle that was read – that amazing passage from Philippians chapter 2 that ends with the words I have just quoted. What shall we make of them, and are they really as controversial as some would say? But before we get to the actual words of this text, let’s ponder how easy it has become for people to avoid dealing with the plain meaning of the cross of Christ.  

I recently read a devotional book on the cross. The cross turned out to be a metaphor for all the tragedy, all the traumas, all the tears that are part of our daily experience. In all this pain Christ is suffering all over again. We were to find him by accepting the woundedness of our torn and fragmented lives, and realizing that in all our hurts he is hurt, and in all our little deaths he has died. It was touching, and well-written. But it only masqueraded as faithfulness to the apostolic teaching on the cross. It simply lacked the authenticity of biblical teaching.  

Admittedly, the cross is a symbol. It’s the most potent symbol in the history of the earth. And let’s admit that Christ is found by many at the point of their own pain and brokenness. Indeed, that’s, probably, where he is found by all of us. furthermore the cross does touch on all of the good things that the preacher that Good Friday touched on. But what the cross touches and what the cross teaches aren’t the same. Only the true Apostolic Teaching of the Cross can capture our whole selves and make us women and men of the cross.  

This is why it’s sad when preachers avoid dealing with the cross, except in vague and unspecific ways. That’s why we need Philippians 2. Here we are invited to take a journey through the Incarnation to the cross. Get what Paul is saying here and you and I will find the power to transform our lives.  

  “And being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name which is above every name…” 

If we follow Paul’s logic, we need to go with him into the very pit of darkness and then we need to ascend with him to the very heights of glory. That’s why we must be very clear about the New Testament teaching on the cross. Until the dawn of the 20th. Century Western Christianity, Roman and Protestant, agreed with the plain teaching of St. Paul on the cross. The cross was God bearing our sin and that of the whole world. There Jesus was accursed for us. There he took the full brunt of the Father’s wrath, so that the judgment that sin required was turned from us and fell on his Son. In reality, it was God himself, in the person of his Son, taking the punishment of our sin, that we might go free. Whenever you read Paul you find this teaching: “He made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5)  

But by the early 20th. Century some theologians and preachers had become very uncomfortable with this. They began to say that the cross was primarily an example of suffering love. The cross was an example that should move us to repentance so that by following Christ we might live as he did. These theologians pointed to other New Testament writers such as St. Peter. In I Peter 2:21 he teaches that the cross is an example of faithful suffering that we should follow.  

Then in the later 20th. Century still another group of scholars, inspired by some Swedish theologians began to argue that the principal New Testament message of the atonement was the one the early Eastern fathers of the church taught: namely that on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil and brought victory over sin and death. Christ, on the cross, disarmed and triumphed over the devil. They pointed to verses in the writings of John. For example, I John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”  

This led to theological battles over the doctrine of the Atonement. But – face it —  all three views are there in Scripture. Why do we need to choose between them or play one off against the other? One respected theologian, called these three the “satisfactory”, “regenerative” and “triumphant” aspects of the work of Christ. (P.T. Forsythe) As Scriptural Christians we must embrace all three: the cross did pay for our sins. The cross does inspire us to sacrificial action for others. And the cross is where God conquered sin and evil.  

What we mustn’t do is to use the excuse of these old theological battles to shove the cross off to the sidelines, and relegate it to a secondary place. It must be absolutely central, as Paul teaches the Philippians right here in chapter two. For the cross is our way into understanding the mind of Christ.  

“Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, “ the Apostle writes. Why? Because only this way will you “have the same love” for one another that God has for you. The mind of Christ is the only way to maintain peace, love and unity in the church of God. It’s indispensable to how we are to treat one another. And what Paul wants us to get is that the mind of Christ is a mind that is focused on the cross. 

First, he takes his readers back to the very beginning of everything – before time itself was created. v.6: “Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Amazing statement. This takes us right back into the very holy of holies – the Trinity itself. Within the Godhead was Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From before time. What kind of relationship did they have with each other? Was there jockeying for position and jealousy over each other’s glory? Was there an equality that brooked no compromise, no submission, no humility? No, there was yieldedness: the Son to the Father. There was obedience, submission, and above all love. The Spirit binding the hearts of Father and Son, and the Son and Spirit willing to do the Father’s will. In other words, there was real community, real personhood within the Trinity.  

No wonder, then, that Scripture teaches that the cross was no afterthought. It was not Plan “B” – a strategy hastily thought up because humans sinned in the Fall. No, as Revelation 13:8 puts it, the “Lamb was slain before the creation of the world.” The cross was always there in the mind of God – from the very beginning. God knew that he would have to be the sacrificial lamb that would redeem human beings from the results of our own sin.  

My wife and I and our three children lived in Canada for a decade, and I learned to love her national hymn. The last verse was rarely sung. But it speaks of the kind of mind that is ours when we know Christ and love him: 

O Canada, our land, our pride, our love,

High be thine aim, all selfish aims above:

Thy maple leaves, blood-red, recall

Christ’s cross of splendid pain;

Thy golden sheaves, made bread for all,

His life, whose death was gain:

Thine be this mind! God’s prize to find,

Follow the Christ who calls thee, calls mankind. 

Did you get it: “Thine be this mind!” The mind of Christ, which is ours by faith and which comes to dwell within us by the Holy Spirit, is a mind that embraces the cross. The red leaf must fall into the dark soil. The golden sheave must drop its seed into the cold ground. The mind of Christ from all eternity puts your rescue and mine ahead of his own glory. 

But then, secondly, Paul tells the Philippians something astounding. This One who from all eternity shared equality with God, this one who was God by his very nature, laid aside his privilege, his rank, his glory and become one of us. The leaf fell into the dark soil. The seed dropped into the cold ground – at a point in time. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “For certainly no seed ever fell from so fair a tree into so dark and cold a soil as would furnish more than a faint analogy to this huge descent and re-ascension in which God dredged the salt and oozy bottom of creation.” (Miracles, p. 136) 

And this happened in history. A mere 20 centuries ago, on this planet, at a point on the globe, at a moment on the clock, it happened. God became a man. God was born in human flesh.  

Perhaps you know the Salvador Dali painting St. John of the Cross. Jesus hangs on the cross. Beautifully painted. But then you notice that the cross is hanging up there in space. It never touches the ground. Jesus looks down on the earth. But he doesn’t become a part of it. He is not earthed in history. The cross remains a symbol, a beautiful symbol, but a symbol. 

The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago commissioned two writers to answer the question: “Where does evolution leave God?” One writer was Richard Dawkins, the renowned atheist from Oxford. “[Evolution] leaves God with nothing to do” he said. There never was a God, and we had no need of him in the first place. Evolution just happened. OK, that’s what we’ve come to expect from the one who thinks that religion is not just wrong. It’s evil.  

It was the other article that interested me. It was by Karen Armstrong the much-published British religious commentator. She was the one the Journal asked to make a case for God. But the God she makes a case for turns out to be a mere symbol. Like Dali’s painting Armstrong’s God never touches the ground. “Theology is poetry,” she writes. There is no certainty, only the call to find an “interior haven of peace.” The great mistake of religious people, she says, is to turn myth into history.  

But can’t you see that is just what Paul does. It happened, he cries out. It happened that God took human form. God entered into our physical reality, and became a man… in fact, he became a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”   

Friends, this is such good news. If God had never made real contact with our lives He would be incapable of saving us. It would all just be a very nice story – powerless to impact your life and mine. I am thankful that God knows what I deal with daily. His Son knew my limitations. He knew the struggles I have (and you have) with the world, the flesh and the devil.  

The cross was God’s love touching you and me. As John Calvin wrote: “By the death of Christ…we are redeemed, reconciled to God, restored to righteousness, cleansed from our pollutions, life is procured for us, and the gate of life is opened.” (Commentary on Philippians, p.60)  

But there’s more. First, from eternity past the cross was there in the mind of God. Second, at a point in history that mind led the Son of God to Calvary. But, third, notice Paul goes on: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall 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.” (9-10) 

Paul is talking about the future now. He’s lifting our eyes to see far into eternity when you and I shall be gathered around the throne of God with all those who have loved his appearing.  

And, when we look up to that throne in heaven, what will we see? There’s no need for us to guess. One of the Apostles in fact did look up. In Revelation John writes: 

  “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Rev. 5:11, 12) 

What might you have expected John to see on the throne: The glorified Christ — regal, kingly, radiant, streams of glory going out in every direction? But John, there on the Island of Patmos, looks up and sees a throne with a Lamb on it – a Lamb who was slain. Throughout the Book of Revelation, we read about the Lamb. The Lamb’s light, the Lamb’s book, the Lamb’s apostles, the Lamb’s wife, the Lamb’s throne, the Lamb’s mountain (Zion), the Lamb’s followers, the Lamb’s wrath, and supremely the Lamb’s blood. (Rev. 21:23, 27, 14, 9; 22:3; 14:1, 4; 12:11; 7:14; 5:9, 12; 6:16) 

A Lamb is what John sees when he looks into the far off future. It’s as if John looking up into heaven itself sees the cross as the emblem of eternity.  

So, going back to the beginning, the cross existed for all time in the mind of Christ. Then look back in history, at a moment of time on our planet, the cross happened. Once for all he bore our sins in his own body on the tree. It was, as the Prayer Book puts it: “once offered, a full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” And then gaze into the distant future, and there on the throne is the crucified Lamb,  radiant and surrounded by myriads and thousands of people like you and me giving thanks for what he has done. 

Let’s take home a few simple lessons this morning. 

First, it’s true, our faith does have symbols. But those symbols are rooted in historical fact. Let’s not be fooled by those who would urge on us a form of mysticism that reduces doctrine to poetry and creeds to symbols.  

Second, let’s be incredibly grateful for what God has done for us. All other religions tell their followers to do more, pray harder, work longer, struggle, strive, strain. Ours says: I’ve done it all – for you. He is my Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.  

Third, let’s look at our brothers and sisters and see them as other people for whom Christ died. Let his mind be in us. If you told me to write a Shakespearean play I could not. But if the mind of Shakespeare could come and dwell in me, I could, and so could you. “We have the mind of Christ”, says Paul. So, by his indwelling Spirit, we can begin to love as he loves. 

And, fourth, let’s put our lives on the line for this Lamb who was slain. Let’s not hold back. He wants our hearts and lives as a thank offering. A few years ago I visited the home of a Nigerian bishop whom I know well. He lives in that buffer area between the Muslim north and the Christian south. It’s a dangerous area, and his life has many times been in danger. 

In his living room I noticed a Plexiglas’s box. In it was filled with some dirt, a few objects of no significance, and a crucifix. It was hanging on the wall of his living room. “What’s that?” I asked him. “Oh, that’s my coffin,” he said. “You see a couple of years ago the Muslims came and burned down our house. They thought I was inside. But the family and I escaped out the back door. I keep that box there to remind me that my life is expendable for Christ.”  

Millions of people, like him, are putting their lives on the line for the crucified one. Let’s remember that to bow the knee and confess Jesus Christ as Lord will cost us something. But, friends, it’s worth it, isn’t it? 
 

The Rev. Dr. Peter C. Moore,

Associate for Transformational Discipleship

St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, SC 

Comments
  1. dcmattozzi says:

    Thanks and God Bless

  2. You offerred an example of revisionistic preaching on the Cross. Hah! While travelling through Fredericksburg, VA, attended the downtown Episcopal Church, an historic house of worship.

    It was Ascension Sunday. The presiding clerk offerred a revisionist interpretation of the Ascension of Christ. He explicitly denied the historic view through the ages. He then went on to blather about the “ascension of hope in our hearts…yada, yada, yada.”

    As I exitted the service, I said to the Rector, “I came to worship as well as hear a sermon. As to the sermon, there was none.” I proceeded to exit outside and down the stairs. The poor clerk followed me and attempted to befriend me with unctuous gratituties. As a Marine, I was polite, but quickly got free of the apostate. 2 Jn 10 tersely summarizes the appropriate response, “If any comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him.” (The presupposition, of course, is Johannine theology.)

    The people of that Church failed in their duties…the clerk had no place being in a Church.

  3. […] Lifting High the Cross (Phil 2.1-11): Preached by Peter Moore on 10-18-09 […]

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