“He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” Philippians 3:21
Several years ago, one of the bishops of the Episcopal Church was on an airplane preparing to fly home after a conference. It had been a productive event; he was growing to be more and more well-respected by his colleagues and he was solidifying his reputation as one of the church’s visionary leaders. As he reflected on the immense privilege of serving God in the Church, the person sitting next to him tapped him on the shoulder. The bishop’s seat mate had noticed his episcopal ring, a large ring worn by a bishop that usually features the seal of his diocese. The episcopal ring is a symbol of the bishop’s office and is meant to remind her constantly of the people she is called to serve. The bishop turned to address his seat mate, who pointed to the ring and asked excitedly, “Is that a World Series ring?! Were you a professional baseball player?!” Chuckling, the bishop shook his head and said, “No, as a matter of fact, I’m a bishop in the Episcopal Church.” Looking far less excited, the bishop’s seat mate turned away, sighed, and said dejectedly, “Oh. I thought you were someone important.”
In today’s epistle reading, we heard Paul warn the Philippians about those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Paul may very well be referring to those people who have rejected the gospel in favor of an easier life. One of the challenges faced by the Philippians was the constant threat of persecution by the Roman authorities. Paul himself had been imprisoned because of his proclamation of the gospel, and part of the reason that he writes to the Philippians is to reassure the congregation that his work had not been in vain. Earlier in the letter, he reminds the congregation that Christ himself experienced the depths of humiliation and persecution, but was exalted by God through the resurrection. Paul insists that we are called to be imitators of this pattern set by Jesus Christ. For Christians, humiliation is a temporary setback, a stop along the way that Jesus himself has already walked before us. Paul laments that members of Christian community had fallen away from the Church because they were afraid of persecution and humiliation.
While our culture often affirms the value of humility, we very rarely hear people celebrate those who have been humiliated. Humility is a noble virtue over which we have control, while humiliation is something brought on by those more powerful than we are. Whether in our jobs, or our schools, or among our friends, many of us constantly strive to avoid humiliation by making ourselves emotionally unavailable or pretending we don’t care. Yet, Paul suggests that the Christian life is about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and embracing humiliation. We are not called to puff ourselves up with self-importance; we are called to be susceptible to humiliation by allowing others to have power over us. Just like the bishop on the airplane, we are called to allow others to humble us, especially in those moments when we feel particularly important. When we do this, we follow the trail that has been blazed by Jesus Christ, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Jesus Christ’s humiliation led to his exaltation and became a means of grace for us. During the season of Lent, I invite you to examine those places where you refuse to be vulnerable, and consider how you might be transformed by the God who allowed himself to be humiliated.