Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Uplifting Low-Down

SJF • Palm Sunday 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.+

Some years ago, I heard a voice speak 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 or me. The recording was made almost 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 of time into the middle of the century before last — the time of the Civil War.

Joseph Johnson had been a slave in the American South, already in his teens when slavery ended. He, and his family before him for three generations, had been slaves — his grandfather, Mr Johnson said with a mixture of pride and resentment, had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

What most struck me about this recording wasn’t the reminisces of this elderly former slave, but the attitude of the man who was interviewing him: his great-grandson. In spite of the number of times he must have heard these stories at his great-grandpa’s knee — you could tell he wasn’t grasping the meaning that they held.

His old great-grandfather kept trying to give him the low-down on what it meant to be a slave, but the younger 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 younger 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, or more importantly the total lack of the ability to say, “I’m going to quit this awful job!” — and the deep, deep pain of 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 again?” 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.” The old man had summed up well what the philosophers say of slavery: it is the loss of self-determination that means so much to what it is to be a full person, it negates humanity by converting a human being into an object, an appliance, a tool to use until it is of no more use, and then to discard. “You can’t be a man where you’re a slave.” And maybe then that young man finally understood what his great-grandfather was trying to tell him.

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Most of us are like that young man. It is hard for us to get the full implication — the ultimate low-down — on 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.

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 — lots 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 an object whose very existence is at someone else’s discretion.

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 of the Incarnation — that the Son of God took that step down, 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 human beings — 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, valued while serviceable but dumped out on the sidewalk for collection by Sanitation when it is of no further use. A slave is one with no control over his or her own life, one who is placed at our mercy — placed himself into the hands of fallen humanity — our hands. We just said together those words said by our forebears — our hands were reached out, to “crucify him, crucify him.”

This is a great mystery: that Jesus accepted all of this willingly — for us, for our sakes and for our salvation. At his final meal, 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, you don’t want to fall into human hands.

But, as they say in the TV ads, “There’s more!” Jesus would go beyond the mere humility of a servant, even the humiliation of a slave. As the old language of Apostles’ Creed said so bluntly, “He descended into hell.”

Paul describes the step-by-step process in Philippians. The ladder of humility led from God’s majesty, at his right hand, to humanity (just below the angels), to slavery — that so distorts human beings that they are no longer seen as human beings, even by themselves — and then to that final step of death, where being — human or otherwise — 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.

And this is the glory of the cross: that the cross which marks the lowest point to which the Son would descend — that it 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.

The cross is the mark 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 — only from the grave, the pit of death and hell — 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 to new life.

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And all the while the means of this great miracle, the means of our salvation, the cross, stands before us, there above the altar, a representation in brass instead of dark and bloody wood. This is a representation of 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 a 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 with him 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 today from this place at the end of our worship, to a world enslaved by riches that cannot make one free; to a world that cheapens human nature through injustice, sexism and racism, that enslaves the children of God and binds them in chains of hate and pain; 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 today at the end of our worship in the power of the Spirit let us lift high the cross upon which he was lifted up, to draw the whole world to himself. +


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