The Humility of God (Good Friday)
Note: Tonight's Good Friday service was a collaborative effort between St. Matthew's Episcopal Church and Church of the Epiphany. We want to offer special thanks for the Rev. Kelly Steele, Pastor, and Mr. Kyle Carswell, Pastoral Intern, for serving with us in this liturgy.
"The Humility of God"
By Kyle Carswell, Pastoral Intern, Church of the Epiphany, Savannah
When I was in college, I had the privilege to go on a summer study trip to Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Greece, and Italy to learn about the Bible and church history. On one of our days in Istanbul, our college had arranged for our group to have a private audience with Patriarch Bartholomew, who is the Patriarch of Constantinople and head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And yes, his title is still Patriarch of Constantinople even though the city is named Istanbul. The old ways die hard in the church.
Now, when you meet someone in a position like the Patriarch’s, there are certain protocols that you’re expected to observe. One of the priests at the patriarchate went over the rules with us as he led us into the room where we were to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew. He pointed out the chair at the front, which was the Patriarch’s throne. There were other chairs around the sides of the room where we could sit while we waited for him. When he entered the room, we were all supposed to stand. What happened after that depended on the Patriarch. If he decided to sit in his throne, we could all sit down after him. Sometimes, however, he preferred to remain standing for these meetings, and in that case, we were all to remain standing as well.
When the Patriarch entered the room, we all stood as we had been directed. Everything would have gone smoothly, except that my professor had brought his family on the trip, including his youngest son, who was eight years old at the time. Patriarch Bartholomew remained standing as he began to speak, but my professor’s son sat back down. I don’t know if he forgot the instructions or just misunderstood, but my professor quickly tapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to stand back up. The Patriarch just chuckled, though, and motioned him forward, saying, “Young man, come here,” and he invited him to have a seat on the Patriarch’s throne for the duration of the meeting.
A couple of years later I actually read a story about something very similar that had happened at the Vatican. A little boy had wandered up onto the Pope’s platform. Some of the assistants at the event tried to coax the boy back to his seat, but when the little boy didn’t leave the platform, Pope Francis invited him to sit in his own chair. That story was widely shared on social media at the time, and people praised the Pope for how warmly he engaged with the boy. A lot of people commented that they were surprised by the Pope’s behavior. We don’t expect people with a great deal of prestige and power, like Pope Francis or Patriarch Bartholomew, to display that kind of humility.
But that’s because people forget that the kind of power we see in Jesus looks very different from the world’s conception of power. We’re far more used to people acting like the chief priests, who are so concerned with maintaining their ritual purity that they refuse to enter a Gentile’s home, but have no qualms about handing an innocent man over to be killed. Or like Pilate, moving back and forth and back and forth between Jesus inside and the chief priests outside, trying to figure out which option, executing Jesus or releasing him, is less likely to lose him his job.
We still see that kind of attitude every day. Those who hold power in our society, whether they be politicians or business executives, often value their reputation above all else. When they make a mistake, they don’t apologize, they do damage control. When a politician is attacked or insulted, they hit right back, because they fear looking weak. We’ve grown so used to the many Pilates and chief priests in the world around us, we don’t expect to see humility from those in authority. Too often, people cling to their honor and their prestige as though their lives depended on it. They worry that if people don’t recognize how important they are, they won’t have any authority at all.
Christ is different. He has the same power regardless of whether the crowds are shouting “Hosanna” or “Crucify him.” It’s a power expressed through humility. When Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s questions, Pilate reminds him he has the power to crucify him, because Pilate only understands power that works through violence. But Christ’s power is not enforced by violence. Throughout his ministry, he has been teaching a different way. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt."
And now, in the final hours of his earthly life, Jesus doesn’t just talk about turning the other cheek; he lives it. When Peter tries to protect Jesus, Jesus tells him to put his sword away. When the soldiers insult him, he refuses to return the insult. When he is beaten, he does not call on God to strike down his abusers, but goes willingly to the cross. By repaying hatred with love, by choosing to die rather than strike back against his enemies, Jesus strikes at the heart of the true enemy. In his death he conquers not the Romans or the chief priests, but the forces of evil, sin, even death itself.
The passion narrative captures this paradox well. The whole story is positively dripping with irony. The Romans designed their punishments to fit the crimes, and the mockery we read about in the Gospel was standard practice for punishing those who had elevated themselves above their station. “This guy thinks he’s a king? Well let’s give His Majesty a nice purple robe, and add a crown for good measure. Hail, King of the Jews!” Only the reader of the Gospel understands that these soldiers, in their mockery, are speaking to their own true king. The punishment is designed to humiliate Jesus, but it’s precisely in that humiliation that God’s glory is revealed.
And that’s the real scandal of this gospel passage. It’s hard enough to accept a crucified man as king, but as God? We can see why the Christian confession that Jesus was both divine and human seemed so preposterous to many in the ancient world. The deities of Greek and Roman polytheism were capricious, prideful beings, viciously punishing the slightest insult to their honor. The philosophers of the day had a different conception of divinity, one so high above the daily affairs of humanity that it was insulting to suggest the divine could suffer at human hands. Even today, when the word “God” is mentioned, the image that comes to mind for so many is of a richly dressed king sitting on a throne, an image that does little to suggest that God might be humble.
Frankly, if you were to go to the ancient world and look for a man to proclaim as God in the flesh, there were a lot better candidates than this peasant Galilean preacher who got himself crucified. There were emperors, governors, mighty generals who much more closely embodied the kind of authority and prestige that most people imagine when they say the word “God.” But we don’t claim that Jesus is the incarnation of these proud, distant gods. Jesus is the incarnation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And when we read the stories of that God in our Old Testament scriptures, we find that God has always been humble.
Out of all the nations on earth, this humble God chose an enslaved people for relationship, and led them through the Red Sea to freedom. When that people turned their backs on the God who had liberated them, God forgave them, over and over again. Their repeated sinning brought God into dishonor before the other nations, but God never abandoned them. God suffered humiliation again and again for Israel’s sake. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, calling Jesus God doesn’t make much sense if you start with any other conception of God. “But,” he writes, “if you start with the God of the Exodus, of Isaiah, of creation and covenant, and of the psalms, and ask what that God might look like were he to become human, you will find that he might look very much like Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps never more so than when he dies on a Roman cross.”
The witness of scripture is that God has always been willing to go to extreme lengths for our sake. And if dying on a cross seems like a ludicrous thing for the creator of the universe to do on behalf of a bunch of sinful humans, that’s because it is. I once heard a preacher tell a story about how one day, his dog was attacked by two larger dogs. Without thinking about what he was doing, he jumped into the middle of the fight, pulling his own dog out and kicking at the other two to keep them at bay. Luckily, he came away with only a few scratches, but his friends said afterwards, “We can’t believe you did that. Those dogs could have seriously injured you.” This preacher said that that experience helped him find new meaning in the phrase, “having a dog in the fight.” He said that when you have a dog in the fight, sometimes you do things that seem a little crazy. We were once a dog in the fight, and God did something crazy to save us.
There are so many people like Pilate and the chief priests in our own world, people who are so in love with their own honor and prestige that they will do anything to defend it, because they fear losing their power. But in the end, they always do lose it. The chief priests desperately defended the religious system of the temple, but the temple was destroyed. Pilate defended the might of Rome, but eventually the Roman Empire fell too. Only the Kingdom of God needs no defending, because it will last forever. Christ’s kingdom is not from this world, so worldly prestige is insignificant. It’s not on the throne, but on the cross that we see the power of God, a power that is expressed through humility. And the humility of God is more magnificent than all our glory. Amen.