What happens when we kneel?
I prefer to kneel. Even when there isn’t much room or the floor is hard or (as often happens) the hassock uneven or too small. Body language is important as Colin Kaepernick discovered a lifetime ago in 2016. To kneel is to assume a posture of vulnerability. Moreover it is entirely non-threatening: the very opposite. It’s very difficult to attack someone if both your knees are on the ground. Instinctively we use it as a sign of deference, even submission. It’s striking how people knelt before Jesus during his ministry and more than just a sign of respect. That the man disfigured by leprosy should kneel before Jesus is no surprise but for the synagogue leader to kneel before him would have shocked most onlookers. (Matthew 9:18) Both were in a position of great need and understood in their desperation that Jesus could help. It was important for them that they showed homage, even in full view of everyone watching. And their trust was vindicated – the leper cleansed, Jairus’ daughter raised to life. So for me it seems entirely appropriate to kneel when we pray, demonstrating (especially to ourselves) that we are honouring God and showing our reliance on his faithfulness. It can be uncomfortable but even as a child I tried not to cheat by resting on the edge of the pew. Nowadays people tend not to kneel in church especially as comfortable chairs replace pews. Kneeling anywhere is something we don’t do nowadays. Few people know how to kneel properly, as I have witnessed in countless wedding rehearsals. Except, that is, when we take communion. How often do I see an elderly person determinedly struggling to kneel, usually with help, to receive the bread and the wine. I recall how Evelyn always enjoyed coming to a Church of England service because it meant kneeling to receive Communion. Entirely outside her tradition she loved to kneel down at the communion rail – it seemed to her the right response to Jesus crucified for her. And now, in a very different context kneeling has become a very important statement, one which has aroused strong feelings and especially now following the tragic murder of George Floyd. It began with American footballer Colin Kaepernick deciding to kneel, not stand, for the US national anthem before a preseason game in August 2016. His cause? Police violence against unarmed black people. “I am not looking for approval,” he explained. “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.” His kneeling started a movement, as many NFL players, entire teams even, “took the knee” while many in the crowds booed. President Trump denounced any player who chose to kneel a “son of a bitch.” However, to kneel as a sign of protest has proved to be a powerful symbol by using a non-threatening posture to convey an important message. This in complete contrast to bearing a fist. You may know how in 1968, the year when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Olympic medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave a black-power fist salute from the podium. For the record they also bowed their heads as sign of respect and humility but all people could see was their clenched fists. This caused shock waves throughout the world. They paid the price along with the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, a Salvationist, who chose to support them by wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. Only recently have all three athletes been exonerated for their protest. What Kaepernick has done has given the act of kneeling a new significance by taking a signal of deference to demonstrate the demand for justice inherent in the American flag. It is significant that sports authorities in the US have now changed their stance in allowing this sign of protest. To kneel in public, even in our own country, is now a sign of acknowledging the need for racial justice, even from what would appear a position of weakness. But as Christians we are familiar with how often God uses our weaknesses to demonstrate this power. How often his Kingdom turns our values on their head, how Jesus subverts our struggle for status. Even as his cross darkens the sky, the mother of two of his disciples kneels before Jesus to ask they be given positions of power. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:21) Jesus responds: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And then he demonstrates what this means even on their last evening together, as he kneels before each of his disciples, towel wrapped around his waist, to wash their feet. Peter, for one, found this reversal of values deeply troubling. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (John 13:6) But that what Jesus does, his power being made perfect in weakness. So when we, along with the entire creation “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” bow our knee before Jesus as he reigns in glory, we kneel before the one who knelt before us to cleanse and commission us. Indeed, we kneel with Jesus.