Humility is the second of five themes for Lent this year at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.
The New Testament Scripture for humility was the following passage from Acts (8: 26-40) (New Revised Standard Version):
- “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.
- Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
- Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard [the eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ [The eunuch] . . . replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
- ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
- The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
- Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
- As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
- But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”
The complete passage from Isaiah (53: 1-9) (New Revised Standard Version) that the eunuch was reading was the following:
- “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
- Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
- But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
- He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
- Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”
When I first read these passages, I was puzzled as to how Philip or the eunuch exemplified humility for us today.
The March 16th sermon, “What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Humility,” by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen eliminated my puzzlement.
He emphasized the passage of Isaiah as prophesizing the humility of God in coming in the human form of Jesus, who was “despised and rejected,” who experienced “suffering and infirmity,” who was “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” and who was “oppressed and afflicted.”
Christian faith, the sermon said, “is founded on the paradox of an all-powerful God submitting to suffering and the shame of an ignominious death. Pride hangs on the cross and dies, forever linking Christianity to a humble God. We cannot genuinely follow Jesus and keep our pride and ourselves at the center.”
The sermon also noted that the Isaiah passage and hence the Christian message were especially powerful for the Ethiopian man in a time when some young boys were captured, enslaved and castrated to render them unthreatening to the family they would be enslaved to serve. The Ethiopian man was a “slave, robbed of his capacity for family” and “not seen as a full human being by others.”
Hart-Anderson also said the message of humility was directed at “the powerful, not to the weak. They are a warning to those who lord it over others, not to those on the underside of history, where God is to be found.”
As I thought about this passage from Acts, I was struck by the fact that the man from Ethiopia does not have a name. He is identified only as the “eunuch.” I do not like this.
Too often today in the press and elsewhere we refer to someone as a “felon” or as “an illegal or undocumented alien” or as a “drug addict.” Yes, this is a convenient shorthand way to talk about someone in the context of a particular discussion. But the practice can easily cause us to believe, at least subconsciously, that this label completely describes a human being and to advocate or adopt public policies that are unfair.
For example, I am opposed to laws in most U.S. jurisdictions that forbid voting to “felons” or “ex-felons.” In my opinion, all U.S. citizens should be able to vote, including those who have been convicted of a felony, whether in or out prison. This was brought home to me in the Fall of 2012 when I was door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in north Minneapolis, which has a high percentage of African-Americans. I met several people who told me that they could not vote, which I interpreted as an implicit admission that they had been convicted of felonies.