Kneeling in Protest and in Praise

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd,                                                                 Oct. 1, 2017

Philippians 2:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

When I was recovering from my car accident in 2006, the doctor asked what I did for a living. When he found out that I was a minister, he was concerned that my broken legs would affect my work. “How so?” I asked, a bit puzzled. “You won’t be able to kneel again,” he replied. I laughed and said that that wasn’t a big deal in the United Church.

Our lectionary reading from Philippians says that, at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Apparently my kneeling days aren’t over. But this passage makes most of us in the United Church a bit uncomfortable because of our commitment to honour other religions as equally valid pathways to God. How can we uphold this while hearing from our scripture that all of humanity—indeed all of creation—must kneel before Jesus and confess him as Lord?

There are two keys to understanding this passage. The first is the Trinity, which acknowledges the divinity of Christ. This key is crucial to the context of this scripture passage. Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians when he was imprisoned and awaiting execution. Some commentators believe that he intentionally used the word “Lord” for Jesus to subvert the lordship of the Roman Emperor, whom all Roman subjects were required to worship as God. To say that only the name of Jesus deserved the title Lord was a risky, politically subversive statement. Paul was saying that Jesus, not the Roman Emperor, was God. To kneel before Jesus and confess him as Lord was to kneel before God and confess God as the only one deserving of our absolute allegiance and devotion.

This reminds me of the famous theologian Karl Barth, who was resolute in his opposition to the rising fascism of Germany. He was greatly concerned when the Nazi regime tried to take control of the church, and force it to adopt Nazi doctrine and submit to the authority of the Third Reich. Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which emphasized the sovereignty of God. Only God is deserving of absolute allegiance; all human authority and governance must submit to the ultimate authority of God through the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The church can submit to no other. Barth was fired from his teaching position in Germany for this statement, and forced to move back to his home country of Switzerland. Others who signed the document, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were killed or sent to concentration camps. For these Christian leaders, to kneel before Jesus and confess him as Lord was both an act of submission and an act of radical protest.

This helps me understand what happened this past week when the NFL, and later other sports teams, have knelt during the American national anthem. If this was a sign of protest, I kept wondering why they chose to kneel. Why not turn their backs, put on their helmets, raise clenched fists in a defiant symbol of protest? Why kneel in submission? Colin Kaepernick, who began the protest of taking a knee, explained, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” But Kaepernick’s taking a knee was not just a respectful sign of mourning. It was a protest against police violence targeting African Americans. To take a knee was to demonstrate that they knelt to a higher power of justice and truth. They knelt both in submission and in protest.

Kahil Gibran wrote, “Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth, follow only beauty, and obey only love.” As Christians, we are called to kneel and give ultimate authority only to a God of gracious love through the self-giving humility of Christ.

This leads us to the second key that helps us understanding this passage. That key is the cross. Even though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not grasp for divine authority and power. Rather the opposite! He emptied himself of all power and privilege, accepting castigation and false accusations, knowing that they would lead to a cruel death reserved for the lowest of society’s scum. We, as Christians, are called to kneel before the One who took on the persona of the robber, the murderer, the prostitute. As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ and empty ourselves of all that gives us privilege. This is what it means to kneel before Jesus and call him Lord of all. We don’t do very well at this ultimate form of humility. I certainly don’t.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even though he was not a Christian, I think that Gandhi would have had less trouble than us kneeling before the Christ who emptied himself of everything of importance to this world.

I have had trouble kneeling long before my car accident. I did not attend my graduation for my PhD in large part because I would have had to kneel before the Roman Catholic Archbishop Ambrozic and kiss his ring. (Although I studied at the University of Toronto and the Toronto School of Theology, my degree was granted through a Roman Catholic university). Ambrozic was known to be an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and of various women’s roles in the church. My area of study was feminist theology and systematic theology. I could not reconcile kneeling before one who was opposed to what I had written in my thesis. It was a great dilemma for me and I know that I wrestled with ego and principle and ethics in this decision. I certainly did not empty myself.

But there was another time, about 10 years later, when I did kneel before the Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church. Some of you have heard this story before. I was part of the World Council of Churches Worship Planning Committee and we were invited to work together at an Armenian Orthodox Seminary. When Sunday came, the Patriarch, who is the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope, welcomed us to their church service. We were all stunned when he invited us to meet with him, prior to the service, and told us that if we were willing to kneel before him in prayer, we would be allowed to receive the Holy Sacrament. We all knew that he was inviting us to kneel in subservience not to him, but to Christ Jesus. If we acknowledged Jesus as Lord, we would be considered eligible to partake in their divine liturgy. This was a rare, amazing gift of ecumenical unity. You can be sure that all of us, representing many denominations from around the world, were more than willing to suffer the creaks and cracks of old, stiff or broken bones on the hard stone floor to receive such a generous offer of grace. In that moment, we knew that to kneel before Christ was to set aside all that set us apart. Our denominational differences, our distinct beliefs and political views that we all held so dear, slipped away in that moment as superfluous. What united us was Christ’s humility that emptied us of all of the world’s distinctions.

This morning, on World Communion Sunday, when we receive the body and blood of Christ, may we experience, even in a brief, fleeting moment, the gift of grace that melts away all of our distinctions and unites us in the humility of Christ.