Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Example of Jesus’ Great Humility” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Palm Sunday: April 9, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today I am preaching on the example of Jesus’ great humility. In the passion reading we just heard we saw the extent of Jesus’ humility as the same incarnate Son of God who was born in a barn was crucified between two thieves, a humiliating death none of us will ever be able to comprehend.
Each year on Palm Sunday we pray a collect which emphasizes God’s call to us to emulate the great humility of Christ, a collect which begins, “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility” (The Book of Common Prayer 219).
In today’s passage from his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul emphasizes Jesus’ humility in his incarnation: “Let the same 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 slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7).
Jesus humbled himself at the incarnation, taking upon himself human flesh, so that the God who created time, matter and space, the God who transcends time, matter, and space, became a human being limited within that same time, matter and space. As such, Jesus, scripture tells us, experienced to the fullest what it means to be a human being—to be hungry, to be tired, to be joyful, to be tempted, to laugh, to weep, to feel angry, to feel abandoned—all of it.
Then Paul continues by further emphasizing the humility of Jesus in his death: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:7-8). Crucifixion was such a humiliating and dehumanizing way to die that Roman citizens, no matter how gruesome their crimes, were exempt from crucifixion. Jesus, although not guilty of a single crime—not one—was not a Roman citizen, and was therefore not exempt.
When it comes to the extreme suffering involved Jesus’ crucifixion, the gospel writers are quite understated. Not only did Jesus endure unimaginable physical pain on the cross, he endured unimaginable humiliation as well—as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge describes in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:
The mocking and jeering that accompanied crucifixion were not only allowed, they were part of the spectacle and were programmed into it. In a sense, crucifixion was a form of entertainment. Everyone understood that the specific role of the passersby was to exacerbate the dehumanization and degradation of the person who has been thus designated to be a spectacle—to be an almost theatrical enactment of the sadistic and inhumane impulses that lie within human beings.
She then concludes, “According to the Christian gospel, the Son of God voluntarily and purposefully absorbed all of that, drawing it into himself” (92-93).
Jesus indeed “voluntarily and purposefully absorbed all of that”—as Jesus himself told his disciples in response to their arguing among themselves as to which of them were the greatest, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus lived as a servant, and Jesus died as a servant
And throughout his earthly ministry Jesus taught about the importance of humility. On one occasion he scooped up a little child into his arms and proclaimed, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4) and on another occasion he warned the scribes and Pharisees, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
And then at the Last Supper Jesus taught about humble servanthood in an even more profound way as he performed the most menial task a servant would perform. As John wrote in his account of the gospel: “(Jesus) got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him” (John 13:4-5). Listen to what happened next:
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).
That is a tall order, isn’t it? And yet, being a servant is exactly what Jesus calls us to do—again, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
The problem is that being a servant cuts against the grain of our natural self-centeredness. We want life to be all about us—our wants, our desires, our needs, our convenience. We want what we think is due us—thanks, respect, credit, attention, more “likes” on Facebook. Along these lines, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, described her father this way: “My Father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.” But before we begin pointing a finger at TR, we might want to look at own hearts.
In the summer of 1989 I spent ten weeks in Brazil on a mission trip. As is always the case I am sure that I received much more than I gave on that trip—not only because I fell head over heels for a stunning blonde from North Carolina who was crazy enough to marry me a year later, but also in the overwhelming gracious hospitality I received from the host family in whose home I stayed.
This family humbly served me, every day. Every morning they fed me delicious fresh bread purchased from a street vendor, along with very hot, very high octane coffee that wired me for the day. Every evening when I arrived back to their home they served me a delicious, homemade dinner. Every night at bedtime I retired to a bed that they had perfectly made.
As if that were not enough, on top of that perfectly made bed was my laundry—shirts, pants, socks and yes, even my underwear—washed, pressed, and folded perfectly. The first time I saw that I teared up, and I remember thinking, “Who does that? Who irons and presses underwear? Who serves with that kind of humility?”
Followers of Jesus Christ serve with that kind of humility—following the example of Jesus’ great humility, a humility that led him all the way to the cross, where he metaphorically and perfectly washed, pressed, and folded the dirty laundry of this dirty world, including yours and mine—where, as scripture tells us, he turned our sins from being red as crimson to being white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).
And in response to the example of Jesus’ great humility, we are called to humble ourselves at the foot of the cross—and it is there we find the grace of God.
Scripture is crystal clear about the direct link between humility and grace. In his first letter Peter put it this way:
All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time (1 Peter 5:5).
And in his letter James similarly wrote, “(God) gives all the more grace; therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:6, 10).
Finally, going back to today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—that is exactly what happened to Jesus. In response to Jesus’ humility, God the Father exalted him this way:
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 (Philippians 2:9-11).
Perhaps today the Holy Spirit will move on your heart to respond to the example of Jesus’ great humility by humbling yourself anew before God, in your heart or at Holy Communion, or both. If you do, you will find that you will receive anew abundant grace from God, “whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 57).