Humility is a tough lesson to learn. It is perhaps one of the toughest to learn in a culture that values domination and achievement.
Humility is the order of the day in all three of our readings today. In Proverbs: “A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.” In John, just as Jesus stands before the High Priest Caiaphas in his humble state, Peter denies Jesus three times. Philippians also dwells on the topic.
Philippians second chapter is one of ultimate humility. It is the famous Christ hymn, riddled with pre-Pauline thought, that is most likely borrowed by Paul for his later arguments about obedience into Christ Jesus. Material from the earliest Christian tradition, well before the gospels were written and even before Paul’s letters, often focus on Jesus’ obedience and character of humility, the same characteristics of slaves.
This follows right to the cross, where resurrection is thought of as an obedience to the Master’s will, rather than a destruction of evil forces. In this sense, it is God’s power that is important. “[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, 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.”
Paul goes on to talk about Christ being exalted, which is where the rubber hits the road – for Paul picks up on this ancient hymn with his own thoughts – that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Not only do we experience the benefits of Christ’s humility, nor do we simply ride the wave of it, but we are able to join in his self-emptying and his humility, becoming servants ourselves. This is a good thing to Paul! In it, the whole body is lifted up.
For Paul the world is turned upside down by Christ. To obey is a joy. To serve is not a burden, but the ultimate gift. And this is the irony of the Christian life. Ultimately love of neighbor doesn’t make sense to those who do not understand the cross. It is more understandable to stomp all over people to get ahead – but we Christians revel at being at the back of the line, emptying ourselves so that others may be glorified.