A sermon preached by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG on the Feast of the Holy Cross, at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, San Francisco
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 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.+
Not too long ago, I heard a voice speaking through a window in time. It wasn’t a supernatural experience like that of St John the Divine. It was on National Public Radio. It was part of a broadcast of historic recordings — not recordings of famous people, but of ordinary folks like you and me. The recording was made over sixty years ago, and the man who made it was 102 years old at the time he recorded it — so his voice spoke through a window into the middle of the century before last — the time of the Civil War.
Joseph Johnson, the man who recorded his memories, was an African-American man, and he had been a slave, already in his early teens when slavery ended. He, and his family before him for three generations, had been slaves — his grandfather, he said with a mixture of pride and resentment, had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
What most struck me about this recording wasn’t the reminiscing of this elderly former slave, but the attitude of the man who interviewed him: his grandson. In spite of his family connection, in spite of the number of times he must have heard these stories at his grandpa’s knee — in spite of all this, you could tell that while he was hearing the words, he wasn’t listening to the meaning behind them.
His old grandfather kept trying to give him the low-down on what it meant to be a slave, but the young man just couldn’t get it. When the old man said, “We all belonged to Mr. Smith,” the young man asked, “What kind of work did you do for him?” With some irritation, the old man replied, “We didn’t work for him — he owned us! Like he owned his horse or his mule.” The young man couldn’t grasp what it meant to be a slave. He heard the words, but their weight escaped him. He couldn’t feel the soreness of bent and aching backs, weary, bone-tired arms, the crack of the whip, the cutting curses and insults, and the deep, deep pain of shame and humiliation summed up in the single word: slave.
He asked further, “Once you were free, did you ever want to go back to being a slave?” With astonishment audible in every syllable, the old man replied, “Well, some folks might to have wanted to, but not me; to be a slave is to be a dog. You can’t be a man when you’re a slave.” And maybe that young man finally understood what his grandfather was trying to tell him.
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Most of us are like that young man. Even if our grandparents or more remote ancestors were slaves at some point in the far off or maybe not-too-distant past, we don’t quite get the full implication — the ultimate low-down — of what it means to be a slave. And so, when we hear the Scriptures today, especially Paul’s words to the Philippians, the word slave tends to slide over our ears instead of sinking in, like butter on cold toast. Paul said that Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the form of a slave — but we don’t grasp the full significance of these words any better than the people who couldn’t grasp what Jesus meant when he said the Son of Man would be lifted up from the earth.
So let’s refresh our memories, based on Mr. Johnson’s testimony. To be a slave means to have no control over your own life: to be owned by someone else — not just to have to work hard, not just to have to follow orders — lot’s of people have to do that — but to have your very being rest in someone else’s hands, to have no power of self-determination.
To be a slave is to be the lowest of the low — to be at the very bottom of human society. It is to be even beneath human society: to be one step over the edge at which human likeness disappears even in one’s own eyes: as Mr. Johnson said, “when you’re a slave, you are a dog.”
To apply these expressions to Jesus Christ sounds scandalous. And it is. This is the scandal and the mystery of the Incarnation — that the Son of God took that step down to the very bottom. It is not simply that the word was made flesh, that God became a human being, but that the Son of God became— among humans — not the highest, not a king or an emperor, but the lowest and the humblest, one not even considered human by many: a slave, treated as you or I might treat one of our appliances, something bought and paid for, and valued while serviceable but dumped out on the sidewalk for collection by Sanitation once it has served its purpose. A slave is one with no control over his or her own life, one who placed himself at our mercy — placed himself into the hands of fallen humanity — our hands. And we would work our will upon him, doing him to death.
This is a great mystery: that the one before whom every knee must bow should become a human being, who would kneel to wash the feet of fishermen and tax collectors — and of the one he knew would betray him.
Yet all the while Jesus knew what this humble act would cost. He knew perfectly well what he was doing, and who he was doing it for. Jesus’ simple act of foot-washing is set side-by-side with his knowledge of who his betrayer was, and what he was about to do. Jesus knew that his hour had come, that he was about to be betrayed into human hands by human hands, the very hands that would dip in the bowl with his. Believe me, one thing you don’t want to do is fall into human hands. And yet he stripped himself of his robe, and knelt to wash his disciples’ feet — all of them.
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This was the last straw for Judas — Judas who expected the Messiah to reveal himself as King of Israel at last, and lead a rebellion against Rome. And Judas wasn’t the only one of the disciples who expected thrones instead thorns, crowns instead of crosses. But Judas was the one who would do — and do quickly — “what had to be done,” and Jesus knew it. Judas was a man of action, of the worldly mind; Judas the man of control and operations, Judas the money-manager — so Jesus’ act of humility, washing his disciples’ feet to show that his kingship was not a kingship of this earth, this simple act was the final gesture of humble generosity flung in the face of one who couldn’t bear to see anything given away, Judas the Thief.
Jesus, knowing even this, washed the feet that would soon be running over paving stones on the dark streets of Jerusalem, running to betray him for a handful of silver coins — coins stamped with the image and likeness of an earthly king.
It is in his act of humility, washing the disciples’ feet, that Jesus irrevocably sets the course that will take him down the last step in his descent — that one more step down the ladder of being that Paul describes in Philippians. The ladder of humility led from God’s majesty, to humanity (just below the angels), to slavery — that so distorts human beings that they are no longer seen as human, even by themselves — and then to that one last step, that final step of death, where being altogether ceases. Jesus voluntarily takes these steps, even the final step into the abyss of non-being, the step into death, even death on the cross — for us.
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And this is the glory of the holy cross we celebrate today: that the cross which marks the lowest point to which the Son would descend — should be the very means by which the Son would be lifted up, and draw the whole world to himself. This is the glory of the cross: that the abyss of death into which he was willing to descend should be forever patched and sealed by two beams of wood laid crosswise.
This is a day of paradox: that He who Is should cease to be; that the death of one should bring life to all; that the slavery of one should bring freedom to all; that the highest should become the lowest. Only from that lowest point could Christ in rising again bring all of humanity back up with him from the grave. Only by getting completely under the burden of fallen human nature could Christ lift and carry it. Only by descending to the grave, the place of non-being, only from that lowest point, could he place the lever of the cross against the fulcrum of his death, and raise up a fallen world. Only from the grave could Jesus raise us from death, the death that comes to all of us.
Jesus did not, after all, put an end to death. People went right on dying after Jesus died — and after he rose again, and people are dying still. I will die some day, and so will you. Jesus did not put an end to death — but he saw to it that death is not the end. He emptied himself, descended into the pit of death, but left his cross like a ladder lowered down, to be a way of salvation for all of the fallen who would climb from the grave and even at its edge sing out their Alleluia.
And all the while the means of Christ’s great miracle, the means of our salvation, the cross, stands before us, there above the altar, delineated by thin lines of gold against the dark wood. This is the ladder on which the Son of God climbed down from heaven so he could be lifted up on earth, and bring the whole world to himself. This is the instrument by which the slave was revealed as the king in disguise, the one deemed no longer human, revealed to be humanity in perfection. This is the tool by which Christ, who took a slave’s form in order to bring freedom, died so that we might live again after our own deaths.
We are called to lift high that cross, our standard and our rallying point, the sign of victory in the midst of seeming defeat, the crossbeams that seal the portals of death, the lever the lifts a fallen world, the ladder of salvation. As we go forth from this place, to a world enslaved by riches that cannot make one free; to a world that cheapens human nature through sexism and racism and homophobia, that enslaves the children of God and binds them in chains of hate and abuse; to a world that refuses to recognize and honor love unless it fits its narrow understanding; to a world that is hungry for the good news of Christ but doesn’t know bread from heaven when it sees it; to a world that is dying of thirst while fountains of grace pour from the wounded side of the Lord of glory — as we go forth in the power of the Spirit let us lift high the holy cross upon which he was lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself. +