Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), Year A, September 28, 2014
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever noticed that the cross is everywhere these days? It gets slapped up on billboards arguing for one political position or another. People wear it all the time as jewelry—even people who never go to church or do anything religious will wear it. If you google “cross” online, you’ll see lots of beautiful shining pictures like this one. Light, beauty, respect, worship. Those are all things we tend to associate with the cross. And almost every Christian organization, building, group, book, or artwork is going to have a cross on it somewhere. Like a brand logo in advertising. This is who we are.
Which is why people today tend to be so surprised that during the first three centuries, Christians did not use the cross as an emblem. At all. If you go to the Middle East and go to the oldest Christian churches still standing, there are no crosses anywhere. If you go to the catacombs, the underground burial chambers where Christians buried their dead and worshiped in secret from their persecutors, there is a lot of art on the walls. You’ll see murals of worship, of Bible scenes, of saints and angels. But you will not see any crosses anywhere until the fourth or fifth century.
We tend to think of the cross as power and salvation, but we forget that the cross was a torture device.
A method of execution reserved for the worst of the worst. No Roman citizen could be crucified; that punishment was reserved for foreigners and slaves. And the kind of foreigners and slaves that the Romans most hated, to boot: the ones who were a danger to the existing social order. The ones who challenged the authorities. Revolutionaries, violent bandits, slaves who rebelled. The lowest of the low and the worst of the worst. That was the kind of people who were killed on crosses. It was a long death, slow and painful and public. In those first few centuries, when crucifixion was still a regular punishment meted out by the Empire, Christians didn’t need to paint it on walls. They’d all seen it done to people, every agonizing and horrifying moment of the hours (and sometimes days) it could take to die on a cross. It was not a symbol of glory and power and beauty. It was a sign of weakness and horror.
So when Paul says that Christ became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—that’s something. Being willing to die is one thing; it happens. Good people and bad people alike are willing to die for loved ones and for principles. Being willing to allow yourself to be tortured to death … that is another matter entirely. And that’s what Jesus did. Let’s be quite clear on that. Jesus was not just another human. He was human and God together. He was the Word who blew over the waters at creation, and the one who walked on the waters of the Sea of Galillee and calmed storms with a word. If he had not allowed himself to be handed over, tried in a kangaroo court, whipped, paraded naked through town, and nailed to a cross, it would not have happened. But Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And not just die, but die horribly, in a long, drawn-out, ugly death. He loved us that much, so much that he would let that happen to save us.
In our second reading, Paul asks us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, the same attitude, the same love. To turn away from selfish ambition and conceit, but act with humility and for the good of others.
Now, humility, that’s a loaded word. And it’s a word that can be used like a weapon. For a lot of people, humility is different for the powerful and the powerless. Powerful people give lip service to humility with false modesty while regarding themselves as better than others. Meanwhile, when people lower down on the totem pole dare to speak up for themselves, to protest when they are hurt and abused, they get told they should be more humble. Submit to authority, no matter what. Not because they need to be humble, but just to shut them up and keep them from bothering people. An abusive husband may talk about how women should be humble, but what he really means is that he wants his wife to just take anything he dishes out. Needless to say, that is not the kind of humility that Paul is talking about.
Paul describes Jesus as humble, but I don’t think the chief priests and the elders would have described Jesus as humble. They wanted him to submit to them. Instead, Jesus submitted to God, which meant standing up to them. In our Gospel lesson today, they came to him to challenge his authority. You see, they were the ones who were supposed to have all the authority in society, and particularly religious authority. They were the ones who set policy, the ones who decided religious doctrine, the ones people came to for advice and judgment. And here was this Jesus dude, this ignorant backwater hick from Nazareth, of all places, who not only had huge crowds come listen to him preach, who could not only do miracles like heal people and feed thousands, he came into the Temple in Jerusalem and upset the apple cart. Literally. Well, it wasn’t an applecart, it was the stalls of the moneychangers and merchants who set up to do business in the outer courts of the Temple and disrupted the worship of those who came to pray.
“Who do you think you are?” the chief priests asked him. “What gives you the right to come in here and criticize us and disrupt things?” They wanted Jesus to back down and apologize. They wanted Jesus to bow to their authority. They wanted Jesus to be humble—by which they meant subservient to them. And if he wouldn’t do what they wanted, well, there were ways to deal with troublemakers. Just after this conversation, they decided that he was too dangerous to live, and began trying to arrest him. If Jesus had backed off and apologized, he would probably not have been crucified. But this is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is humble, but Jesus’ humility is about submitting to God, not to humans. The way the chief priests run the Temple works—for them. They were very good at keeping things running smoothly and business going on as usual.
The problem was, that very business got in the way of people worshipping God. It drew people away from God, and so it had to go. So Jesus would not back down. Jesus would keep on saying what the people in power didn’t want to hear because they needed to hear it, even if that meant he was going to suffer. And he was going to allow himself to be crucified, to be handed over to death, because he loved all of creation, from the rocks to the stars to the animals to the people of every tribe and race and class and nation, so much that he was willing to die to fix what we screwed up. He was willing to suffer in agony if that was what it would take to open up and expose the sinful, broken nature of the world so that we could be healed.
Jesus’ humility led him to allow himself to suffer for the sake of others; it also led him to stand up and speak out and take action for the sake of others. It’s a humility based on love, on choosing to do the right thing even if it will cost you. That’s what the cross is. And that’s the kind of humility that Paul wants us to have. The same mind that was in Christ Jesus, God in human form, who poured out his life to save us. Paul wants us to have the humility to follow God, whether that means standing up to people or sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s not humility for the sake of humility, it’s about doing the right thing, even when that’s hard or painful. It’s about making love—love for God and love for all the world—be more important than our own ego. It’s about letting God work in us and through us even if it’s not convenient, even if it hurts. That’s what the cross means.
We put crosses on billboards and on jewelry, we get them tattooed on our bodies, we put them in our churches and on our walls at home. We share pictures of them on Facebook. But are we willing to walk in the way of the cross? Are we willing to take on pain for the sake of others, and are we willing to stand up and speak out for the sake of others? Are we willing to seriously let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Thanks be to God for his work in us, which helps us to walk with Jesus.