The Humility of the Cross
Palm / Passion Sunday
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Philippians 2: 1-11
Matthew 21: 1-11
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus’ disciples are feeling particularly proud of themselves, Jesus says to them, “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you.” (John 15:16)
And I believe this is true. We do not choose Jesus. Jesus chooses us. We do not choose the stories that measure our lives and that give depth and meaning to our lives; they choose us.
Had I been assigned the task of coming up with a story that would be a central revelation of the nature of God and of humanity and of the meaning of life, I doubt I would have come up with the story of a crucified messiah.
Yet this story has claimed us, generation after generation – we who read and reread this story, and who sing about this story in our hymns and anthems, and who make art and jewelry to illustrate this story. It has chosen us.
We have not chosen the cross; the cross has chosen us. I would not have written a story, had it been mine to write, which included a cross. It is a hard and even unpleasant part of the story. Jane and I attended for a time a church with a mission statement that said their faith was based on the birth, life, teachings, miracles and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I got curious after a while and asked why the list did not include the death or the crucifixion of Christ. Someone told me they had debated for almost a year whether they should include the death in the mission statement and decided it wasn’t necessary because Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected without having died. We thought it would be obvious, someone told me, that Jesus had died, but we didn’t want to have to talk about it. Well, that is the kind of story I would have written, too. I would like to go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, too. But that is not the story that has chosen us. The story that has chosen us has at the very heart of it a cross and a crucifixion.
So we try to unpack the cross, and understand it, and let it inform our lives.
One of the things the Apostle Paul says about the cross is that it is a symbol of humility – the humility of Christ, the humility of God, the humility to which the followers of Jesus are called.
In a passage from the second chapter of Philippians traditionally read in churches on Palm Sunday, the Apostle writes, probably quoting an early Christian hymn, these words:
Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
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 servant
Being born in human likeness
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
And became obedient to the point of death –
Even death on a cross.
This one who rode into Jerusalem today, Palm Sunday, greeted, cheered, welcomed and praised as the Messiah of God – the Divine-Human One, tradition says – humbled himself and became obedient to the conditions and circumstances of human existence to the point of death – even death on a cross.
The humility of Christ, the humility of God, the humility that the Apostle says we should share as followers of Christ – let this mind be in us when we are tempted to think that our status as Christians ought to be a privilege from which we ought to benefit. Christ himself did not claim messianic privilege but became a servant, humbled himself to the point of human death, even death as ignoble as death on a cross.
Fred Buechner says that we commonly misunderstand the meaning of the word “humility.” We suppose humility means self-depreciation – saying that we are not a very good bridge player when we know perfectly well we are is the example he uses. True humility, Buechner suggests, doesn’t mean thinking ill of ourselves but being able to look at ourselves the same way we would look at others.
redefines the meaning of the word “humility.” Riding into
But then he went from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. He went from the praises of Palm Sunday to the humiliation of the cross.
This is the cross-shaped understanding of humility – being willing to do what love for the other requires. The humility of Christ, the humility of God, the humility to which we are called, isn’t self depreciation or pretending to being less than we are. It is the willingness to do, no matter how humble or even humiliating, what love requires.
This is the story that has chosen us …. the story of a God-Human who leaves the realms of Palm Sunday glory to die a ignominious death on a cross because it is what love required.
I have been thinking lately about years ago when I was asked by the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church to be a leader of workshops for clergy on the theme of combating white racism.
idea of the workshops was that white clergy would meet to confront our own
participation in the racism of our society. We worked a lot on understanding
white privilege, which was a new concept at the time, and one that many
clergy found difficult to comprehend. If I was color-blind, wasn’t I free of
racism? No – white people in
There was a team of four leaders for each workshop. Two were white; two were people of color. The white leaders led the workshop. The idea was that white racism is a white people’s problem that we had to face and deal with. The job of the African-American leaders was to keep us, the white leaders, honest when we were tempted to avoid the pain of honesty and self-confrontation.
Sometimes the teams of leaders would change, but I worked for several years on these workshops with the same African-American pastor, a sharp, caring, wise clergywoman from this conference.
time, I learned how costly those workshops were for her, how hard it was for
her to prepare spiritually and emotionally for them, where she knew she would
have to sit and listen to the same objections and protestations and
obstructions and evasions she had heard time after time before. People would
debate about whether there was still racism in
would have to wrestle with the pain of her own family history; she would have
to manage her anger. The workshops were very costly for her. Humiliating
sometimes to have your humanity judged by people who were not very thoughtful
or knowledgeable about the history of race in
Yet she gave herself to help lead those workshops with great patience and grace because it was what she knew she had to do for the sake of love, and for the sake of the kind of community that she believes God is trying to create in our midst – the Realm of God.
This is the meaning of the humility of the cross – not that we depreciate ourselves but that we do what we need to do, no matter how defenseless and vulnerable we can feel, for the sake of the love of the other.
This is a humility some of us here at Foundry have been called to and will continue to be called to as we continue to try to help our denomination deal with its ignorance and prejudices. The kind of dialogue to which we are called requires a defenselessness and vulnerability that can not be understood except in the presence of the cross of Jesus Christ … this story which we have not chosen but which has chosen us … this story of a messiah who does not claim equality with God but takes the form of a servant and humbles himself to share in the pain of a world that is not his pain but he bears it for the sake of love.
This is why we keep trying to love and reach out to those who don’t love us, why we keep seeking not to judge those who judge us, why we keeping trying to turn the other cheek and to pray for those who persecute us. This is the difficult humility of the cross that we believe is what saves us from ourselves. It may not be the story we would have chosen, but it is the story that chooses us. As we prepare for Holy Week, we will listen to this story once again today.