Fools for Christ
Elizabeth M. Deibert
O, how he loves you and me. O, how he loves you and me. He gave his life. What more could he give? O, how he loves you. O, how he loves me. O, how he loves you and me. Sometimes the heart of the message is better sung than spoken. Today’s scripture contains the oldest lyrics of the Christian faith, the earliest Christian hymn. Let us pray with Richard of Chittister of the 12th Century:
Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, forall the benefits which you have won for us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.
Christ embodied the love he proclaimed – all the way to the cross. He entered Jerusalem, knowing that it was dangerous for him. Entering Jerusalem was foolish by all practical standards. He should have been hiding, not allowing his followers to celebrate his entry with a parade of palms. Political leaders were nervous about anyone causing such unrest among the people. Religious leaders hated him because his criticized their hypocrisy and challenged them to live with justice and mercy. And they call him Messiah, King? He claimed to speak and to act with the authority of God? Foolish. The disciples began to see how foolish this was as the week progressed. Judas betrayed him to authorities. Peter denied even knowing him. The crowds who waved palm branches cheering the great healer and miracle worker on Sunday shouted crucify him on Friday.
In the presence of Jesus, who perfectly lived what we are called to be, humanity was threatened beyond endurance. Blinded by our own rebellion against our Creator, we killed the only One who lived the perfect life, God incarnate in Jesus Christ. (adapted from A Declaration of Faith)
Those who lived the first Holy Week were no doubt terribly confused about what was happening, because they had so misunderstood what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. They understood Messiah to be strong one, a leader who fights for the people, not one who goes willingly and quietly to his death.
The disciples look like fools all through the Gospels, as they never quite seem to get it, despite many hints from Jesus. So if on this Palm and Passion Sunday, you feel like you still don’t get it – all the ironies of loyalty and betrayal , of suffering and triumph, of death and new life -- please be reassured that you are in good company. None of Jesus’ followers have ever really mastered this foolishness. So if your faith makes you feel like a fool on this first of day April, then just settle in and accept it. It is part of the life of one who follows Jesus. As Tricia preached three weeks ago, the message of the cross appears as foolishness, but the Apostle Paul reminds us that, “God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The scripture we are reading today tries to make some sense of the foolishness of the cross. It is contains one of the first earliest pieces of Christian worship, a hymn about Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying and his death on a cross.
Hear now what the Spirit is saying to her church:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (NRSV)
Paul begins with a ridiculous set of four conditional clauses. If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there any consolation from love, if there’s any sharing in the Spirit, if there any compassion and sympathy…
Of course Paul knew that all of these do exist in abundance, so writing from prison, with his own life hanging in the balance, he is pushing his readers to fulfill that encouragement, that consolation, that sharing, and compassion and sympathy by being in full accord, by loving one another. Again, he speaks in four’s. Have the same mind, the same love, the same unity, the same purpose.
Then he goes on to explain what it means to love: not being motivated by selfish ambition but in humility, putting others ahead of yourself, looking to what matters to them before concerning yourself with what matters to you. I read a great quote which helps if you’re concerned that modeling your life after Christ like this will turn you into somebody’s doormat. “Paul is not asking to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.” So this is not an invitation to criticize yourself, to be self-deprecating. No, it is a call to take all positive or negative focus off yourself and think of others. It is not a call to uniformity of thinking but to the unity of love that transcends differences.
Paul is writing to a community, challenging them out of individualism, an enormous modern cultural problem which Paul could not begin to imagine. Think of the transformation of families, communities, and churches if each person is seeking to meet the needs of others. Churches: It is not what you get out of worship, but what you give to someone else in worship. It is not whether you feel welcome and comfortable during fellowship time but whether you make someone else feel cared for. It is not whether you come to lively learning because you enjoy it, but whether you are present to encourage others. It’s not about you. It is about people voluntarily putting others first. Now that’s a foolish idea.
Jesus modeled that foolishness. As Christ-God, he was fully equal to God and fully able to avoid all suffering, but he chose to take the form of a slave. He chose to limit himself, limit his own power, in his humanity, to be just like us. He could have rescued himself from the suffering and become the overpowering Messiah the disciples imagined him to be, but he humbled himself and became true to his identity and calling. That’s obedience – to be true to who you really are.
And who is Christ truly? He is love, a love that cannot let us go. God is love, and for God to demonstrate love means to suffer for and with us, to walk the lonesome journey with us, to feel our pain and loss, so that he can redeem us, save us, give us new life, having lived our life. Notice that every act of sacrifice is an active verb – emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbled himself, became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, the lowliest form of death.
He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. By being at once our priest and our sacrifice, Christ intercedes for us by offering himself, to make us one with God and God one with us. His life, death, and resurrection become the great “yes” that continues to be spoken despite how often we have said “no.” (adapted from The Study Catechism, questions 39-40) Notice that having actively given himself up, Christ is restored as he becomes the object of God’s uplifting actions. Therefore God highly exalted him, gave him the name above every name. As Servant, Christ acts humbly as our priest to redeem us from the sin of pride; as Lord, he exalts humanity by grace to royal partnership with God, liberating us from the sin of self-abasement. In Jesus Christ, God is humbled and humanity is exalted. In that leveling is our unity, our oneness in God’s love.
And the song ends with all of humanity getting on board with Christ’s love – every knee bending, every tongue confessing – Jesus Christ is Lord. In both his majesty and his lowliness, the greatness of Christ is made known. It looks like foolishness but it is true greatness. A Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi of the 13th Century speaks of the foolishness of Christ’s love in Philippians 2 in this way:
You did not defend Yourself against that Love
that made You come down from heaven to earth;
Love, in trodding this earth
You humbled and humiliated Yourself,
Demanding neither dwelling place nor possessions
Taking on such poverty so that we might be enriched!
In Your life and in Your death You revealed
The infinite love that burned in your heart.
You went about the world as if you were drunk,
Led by Love as if You were a slave...
Wisdom, I see, hid herself,
Only Love could be seen.
Nor did You make a show of Your power –
A great Love it was
that poured itself out,
Love and Love alone, in act and desire,
Binding itself to the cross
And embracing [humanity]
Thus, Jesus, if I am enamored
And drunk with sweetness,
If I lose my sense and mastery of self,
How can you reproach me?
I see that Love has so bound You
As to almost strip you of your greatness;
How, then, could I find the strength to resist,
To refuse to share in its madness?
For the same Love that makes me lose my senses
Seems to have stripped You of wisdom;
The love that makes me weak
Is the love that made You renounce all power.
I cannot delay, nor seek to –
Love's captive, I make no resistance...
And I end this sermon with the greatest line by missionary, Jim Eliot, who died at age 29 doing something foolish – trying to get the Christian message to isolated, indigenous tribes in Ecuador who were very mistrusting of outsiders in the 1950’s. He left behind a wife of three years and an only daughter, less than a year old when he and four other missionaries died. Jim Eliot writes,
"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose."
Give us the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, that, sharing in his humility, willing to give up what we cannot keep, we will be ready to gain what we cannot lose – life with you in the glory of your love.