The Passion according to St Mark
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
A more-or-less casual reader of the bible might reasonably assume that the gospels were the first of the books of the New Testament to be written. That is the order the books of the New Testament are arranged in, and the events described in the gospels happened in the first decades of the first century, before the situations addressed by the letters of St Paul and others.
But actually, some of St Paul’s letters are almost certainly the oldest texts in the New Testament, preceding the gospels by some years, probably decades. And this makes quite good sense when you stop to think about it. The stories about Jesus, His teaching, His works, His life and death and Resurrection, these stories were no doubt shared amongst the people who had known Him in His earthly life, and there wouldn’t have been much reason to write them down until the gospel had spread so far that the eyewitnesses were spread too thinly to be frequently present, or until the first generation of those who remembered Jesus began to die off or in many cases be killed off. The scholarly consensus that the gospels were probably written between the seventies and the end of the first century fits that idea very well.
By contrast, if there were already established Christian communities in existence in the years immediately following Jesus’ earthly life, they may well have encountered problems of one sort or another that required letters of exhortation and encouragement and perhaps even rebuke. St Paul’s letter to the Philippians is generally considered to be from the sixties or perhaps even the fifties, and gives us an important glimpse of the beliefs of the early Christian church.
But the passage set for this morning is particularly significant, because it may actually be a quotation from a still earlier work. Unlike the rest of the letter, it is poetry, not prose, and the style differs from St Paul’s usual way of writing. This has led some scholars to suggest that it may be that St Paul is in fact quoting an early Christian hymn that would have been familiar to the church he was writing to. If this is so, then these verses give us a really precious glimpse into the beliefs of the early church.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though He was in the form of God,”
– and here we are reminded of the prologue of St John’s gospel, a much more theologically-developed presentation of the same essential idea: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”; we find a similar idea expressed in a different way by the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” –
“who, though He was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited”
– and here we may think back to the story of Adam and Eve, also created in the image of God, but who treat equality with God as something to be grasped, something to be exploited –
“who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”
Here we have the first level of Jesus’ humility, the first step of His descent, the one who although in the form of God consents to empty Himself and become human, and not as a priest or a king or a scholar but in the form of a slave, someone who would not be regarded on account of His human status.
“And being found in human form,
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.”
Here we have the second level of His humility, the second step of His descent; not only does He empty Himself and become human, not only does He take the form of a slave, but He also consents to undergo death. And this death is not any death; it is death on a cross, the death of slaves and rebels, a death of humiliation, of great pain, and of shame.
“Therefore God also highly exalted Him”
– here we begin the second half of the poem from St Paul’s letter, which is a kind of mirror image of the first half; the first half describes Jesus descent from equality with God to death on the cross, but the second half describes His vindication and exaltation –
“Therefore God also highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
But as important and as interesting as it may be to unpack some of the doctrinal aspects of this passage, St Paul puts it to a much more practical purpose. Because his quotation – assuming that it is in fact a quotation – is prefaced by the words: “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”. And suddenly what at first appears to be an elegant poetic retelling of Christian beliefs about Jesus becomes an urgent practical matter for us: that the humility that is revealed in Jesus is something that we are to share.
“Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”. On one level this can be understood as a simple exhortation to humility in the commonly-understood sense of the word. Not pushing oneself forward, not thinking too much of oneself, not revelling in such goods and status and reputation as one may happen to enjoy, a deference to the needs and opinions of others. That is certainly one important aspect of imitating Jesus.
But when we think about it, Jesus was not always humble in that conventional sense. He was quite capable of being rude and dismissive towards the religious leaders of His day, and at times He even seems a little harsh towards His followers, and especially to Simon Peter. The humility of Jesus, and the humility which we are particularly encouraged by St Paul to share, consists not only in the conventional sort of humility, but also in taking the place and taking the part of those at the bottom of the heap.
Now of course in one sense, in relation to God, all of us are at the bottom of the heap. We are not God, the gap between God and us is incomprehensible. But Jesus does not only take human form, He takes the form of a slave, He consents to taking the form of one who has no status in human terms. In His earthly life He associates with the lepers who are objects of fear and disgust; with the bitterly-hated tax collectors; with rough fisherman; and with women who in the ancient world counted for very little.
But not only this, He is willing to be humbled to the point of death, even death on the Cross. It is hard to think of anyone who could more fittingly be described as being at the bottom of the heap than someone conspired against and falsely accused and tortured and sentenced to suffer a cruel and humiliating death. Not content merely to become human, not content merely to become poor, not content merely to associate with outsiders, He becomes the ultimate outsider, and takes the place of the lowest sort of criminal.
Fortunate as we are to live where we do, we might not so often come across people who are at the bottom of the heap, and so it might not seem too obvious to us how we can seek to follow St Paul’s instruction that we should let the same mind be in us as is in Christ Jesus, and that we should take their place and their part. But of course there is much that we can do.
We can start by reflecting on the world around us, and being grateful for the blessings we enjoy.
We can reflect on the world around us and remember that not everyone does enjoy those blessings.
We can remember those at the bottom of the pile in our charitable giving and in our prayers, as I know many of you do.
And we can reflect on how we think and speak about those who are less fortunate than ourselves, on the ways in which we can sometimes look down on and even blame those who are not rich in this world’s goods.
And we can remember in humility and gratitude that the greatest riches that we enjoy are not those which we have earned through glittering careers or amazing talent or sheer hard work or anything else we can claim credit for, but rather the riches bestowed upon us as free gift by the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory now and for ever.