Passion/Palm Sunday – 2021b
Old Testament – Isaiah 50:4-9a
New Testament – Philippians 2:5-11
There’s a Cross for Everyone
INTRODUCTION: As legend has it, over three hundred years ago now, a minister named Thomas Shepherd was putting the finishing touches on a sermon he had written about Simon Peter.
Wanting to find a hymn to accompany his sermon, Shepherd soon realized there weren’t any hymns about Simon Peter, or if there were, he sure didn’t know any of them. And so he sat down and wrote his own hymn to go with his sermon.
Knowing there was an old church tradition which claimed Simon Peter had specifically requested to be crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, Shepherd’s song focused on cross bearing. Or as his original opening line of his hymn went, “Must Simon bear the cross alone, and other saints be free?”
Later, the opening line was changed and Shepherd’s hymn now begins with these words: “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”
With its focus on cross bearing and the call to discipleship, those from revivalist traditions probably know the song well. Or as yet another line from the hymn goes: “The consecrated cross I’ll bear. Till death shall set me free, and then go home my crown to wear. For there’s a crown for me.”
And so it went. While writing a sermon on Simon Peter, Thomas Shepherd, unable to find a hymn to accompany his words, sat down and wrote his own. And knowing how Peter was reported to have died, Shepherd couldn’t help but focus on that symbol which stands at the center of our faith:
“No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”
ONE: Of course, Thomas Shepherd was hardly the first person to write a hymn about cross bearing.
Nope. Turns out from the very beginning of the faith, followers of Jesus were known to huddle in homes and in back-alley businesses to not only pray, hear sermons, and receive the sacraments, but to sing songs about Jesus Christ and his death on that cross.
And one such ancient hymn that a lot of scholars think was probably sung by some of our earliest ancestors is quoted by Paul in our reading for today from Philippians.
With the prefatory remarks of “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul then moves to recite what is now commonly referred to as the Christ-hymn:
“…though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] 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.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.”
And while we have no idea what the ancient song may have actually sounded like, the words even now still have a hymn-like quality to them because of their rhythmic and repetitive nature, don’t they?
TWO: Well, on this Sunday before Easter, on this Sunday when we annually remember and reflect upon Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, no wonder that ancient hymn from Philippians is one of our prescribed texts for the day.
After all, as most of you probably recall, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem perched atop that young donkey sort of ends up becoming a living parable of that famous Christ-hymn quoted by Paul, doesn’t it?
We hear the lyrics of that hymn talk about Jesus emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbling himself, and suddenly his entrance into Jerusalem on a beast of burden makes perfect sense.
You see, what you have to remember is that Jerusalem over the years had become quite familiar with grand and impressive processionals traipsing through her gates.
Except more often than not, the processionals that typically came into Jerusalem usually involved a mighty and victorious imperial ruler of some kind perched on a majestic war horse, while also being followed closely by a long line of soldiers lugging spears, swords, and shields.
Well, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem all those years ago was anything but that, right? Instead he came into Jerusalem resting humbling on top of a young donkey while being trailed by a rag-tag group of poor and tired peasants from the surrounding countryside of the Galilee.
And while such an entrance into Jerusalem was not the typical or familiar way of doing it, those lyrics from that Christ-hymn from Philippians puts it all in context for us, doesn’t it? We hear about Jesus as God incarnate becoming humble and emptying himself, and it becomes hard for us to imagine him entering Jerusalem in any other way than sitting on a donkey.
THREE: Of course, let us not forget the reason Paul gets to even quoting that Christ-hymn in the first place.
He starts talking about the need for us to have the same mind that was in Jesus Christ and then as a way to show us what such a mind might look like he recites those lyrics from that early song. Apparently, then, to have the same mind of Christ means to strive in our own ways to live giving and humble lives as well.
So Paul’s talk about Jesus emptying himself and becoming humble is more than just theological banter about who he was and what he did for us. No, for Paul such talk is also intended to provide us all with a framework for shaping and molding our own lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
There is a story about the renowned black educator Booker T. Washington. As legend has it, shortly after taking over as President of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington was stopped in town one day by a wealthy woman. Totally unaware of who he was, she asked Washington if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping some wood for her.
Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to follow her home so he could chop wood. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A servant girl in the house, however, recognized Washington and later revealed his identity to the woman who had solicited his services.
The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. "It's perfectly all right, Madam," he replied. "Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it's always a delight to do something for a friend."
Well, we hear such a story and it’s easy to understand why the great theologian Saint Augustine considered humility to be at the heart of the Christian faith as well as the source of all other virtues that should be important to us. Or as Thomas Moore liked to put it, “Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
For from humility naturally flows the ability to engage in all those other behaviors that are consistent with the people we are called to be - people who are generous, kind, gracious, forbearing, loving, magnanimous, and yes, even unassuming when comparing our lives to others.
FOUR: Of course, as we all know, living humbly like Christ is no easy venture.
Some behaviors, after all, just can’t be learned overnight or quickly, can they? Nope. Some forms and ways of being in the world take a lifetime to learn and hone. While that Jedi Master Yoda is famous for saying, “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” a long line of research would disagree with the little green fellow.
Yep. It turns out, as numerous studies have shown, people actually tend to slowly act their way into new patterns of living rather than simply thinking themselves into them. Known as “foot in the door theory,” the idea is that taking small incremental steps toward a given goal makes working our way up to larger and larger commitments easier and easier.
Put another way...we just don’t get up and decide one day that we’re going to be humble, loving people. Humility, like all virtues, has to be practiced, at first, in small doses. And then, as we get better at doing it in small doses, we can take on even bigger and bigger expressions of humility.
So Yoda, if the research is true, is wrong. It is never as simple as either “Do. Or do not.” For learning how to be humble, apparently, takes a whole lot of trying, and then trying again, and then trying again, and then, yes, trying again, until we then, finally, become masters at it.
The Christian musician Zach Williams has this great song called “Less Like Me.” After lamenting how, like all of us, he often doesn’t walk the way he talks when it comes to his faith, he asks for help getting his deeds to match up with his words.
Or as he sings: “Oh Lord help me be: A little more like mercy, a little more like grace. A little more like kindness, goodness, love, and faith. A little more like patience, a little more like peace. A little more like Jesus, a little less like me.”
CONCLUSION: And so that’s about it, isn’t it?
While we can spend a lot of time talking about what Christians need to believe and traipse off down confusing and complicated theological rabbit holes, the faith, in the end, really just comes down to a simple principle.
Followers of Jesus are supposed to be, well, like Jesus. Or as Paul likes to put it, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
And so help us Lord. Help us all be: “A little more like mercy, a little more like grace. A little more like kindness, goodness, love, and faith. A little more like patience, a little more like peace.” And most of all, “A little more like Jesus, a little less like [ourselves].”
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways! For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.