Harrowing Of Hell
March 13, 2022

St. George and Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I am so glad to see you.  It is good to be home. You have been on my heart these last two weeks as I have been on pilgrimage with 22 other Epiphany parishioners in the Holy Land.  It was a rich experience, AND I am glad to be home with you.

I wrote a prayer for Epiphany that I wedged into the Western Wall. It is a tradition. As I did, I lay my head against the 3000-year-old cut limestone. It is a hard surface, which is also a thin place. I pressed my skull against the unyielding rock, my skin dimpling around the bumps and crevasses, impenetrable, and even still, through it, beyond it, something tugged at my soul, as if I were swimming at the edge of a whirlpool seeking to draw me in. That is the kind of thing pilgrims experience in the Holy Land. 

The Western Wall is a place well suited for big prayers. That is what Bishop Hosam, the Archbishop of Jerusalem said to us, and it is true. I prayed big prayers for Epiphany, and for my family, and for myself,and I also for the liberation of Ukraine… which is a big prayer indeed.

This last prayer was said to keep my promise to our brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox church, our neighbors, who have shared this sacred ground with us for over 65 years

There is a war going on in Europe right now, and that’s what I want us to reflect on today. Paul gives us the structure in his letter to the Philippians for how to think about Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. We begin with these words from Paul: “Jesus will transform the body of humiliation to conform to the body of his glory” (para – Phil 3:21).  Our humiliation to his glory. That is the lens through which to view the vapid illegitimacy of Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine. “Jesus will transform humiliation into his glory” (para – Phil 3:21). 

Now this Jesus glory is a particular kind of glory, a kind memorialized all over the Holy Land. The patron saint of the Holy Land St. George, in fact, is a prime example of this. So, he will be our guide today in helping us understand this Jesus glory.

George was born in Cappadocia to Christian parents. His father died when he was 14 and his mother soon thereafter. George joined the Roman army, where he rose in the ranks. But during the Christian persecutions by Emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century George, not willing to renounce his faith, was picked out to be made an example of; an example of what NOT to be like. He was tortured over seven years, under 20 different torture techniques. Finally, he was murdered by having his head chopped off  (pretty gruesome).

In the end, George’s landed in the tomb. Dead. No glory, no honor, no gilded epitaph. All he wanted was to worship Jesus, and he lost that battle.  Murdered; martyred… and yet, in his death, his shameful death, he became the hero of Jerusalem, and its guardian saint. It is a good story worthy of another sermon, but suffice it to say, at the end of the day, he went from zero to hero because “Jesus transforms humiliation into his glory.”

That is Christianity for you. It is a familiar theme in the Holy Land: the losers are the winners;  the zeros are the heroes. Which is funny, because of the 84 Epiphany pilgrims I have traveled with to the Holy Land, I don’t think one of them joined me aspiring to come home a loser. I doubt there is a person here today (or joining us on-line) who aspires to humiliation, and a forgotten death.   Nor do our siblings in Ukraine.

And yet, that is what often happens in war… humiliation and forgotten death. Our Ukrainian siblings are faced with an aggressive neighbor, Putin, and while they are not seeking to be heroes, nor are they desiring to be losers, many of them will put their life on the line, and lose it if they must, in a way that sets comfortably within the parameters modeled by St. George.

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the whole of Christianity isn’t on the same page around the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian patriarch of Moscow describes the conflict as part of “a struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners to hold ‘gay parades’ as their price of admission to their ranks.”

I’ll just say it: that is not the brand of Christianity we practice at Epiphany. That is more hubris than humility. And still, we pray for Russia. And we still agree, at every twist and turn, to meet them as brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s Christianity for you.

Paul explains the structure in his letter to the Philippines.

He uses three phrases to guide our thinking, all from Phil 3:19:

  • “Their end is their destruction.”
  • “Their god is their belly.”
  • “Their glory is their shame.”

So, what do these three phrases mean and how can they be helpful in thinking about Putin’s aggression toward Ukrainian?  

Let’s start with phrase #1: “Their end is their destruction.” Another way to translate this is: their end is their death. So here is what Paul is getting at: when we live our lives against the backdrop of death, when death becomes the screen against which we project our ambition and impact and success then humiliation and being a loser is entirely unacceptable.

To take it one step further: the dead one is the loser and the live one is the winner. That is the lesson of war after all… isn’t it? That is probably what Putin would say.

But the Epiphany Christian believes that the backdrop against which we project our lives and measure our worth comes from the accounting we offer God when we meet face to face. Death is a portal, that is all. It is a one-time event we all experience; and all experience the same whether we are  famous, infamous, forgotten or forsaken.

And we all meet God face to face. That is the backdrop for the Christian; not the tomb, but our encounter with God. Death is an event, God is forever. God is the backdrop against which we justify our life. Which is what enabled George to endure the torture, anticipating with each humiliating blow these words from God: “Well done good and faithful servant.” How would you like to hear that from the mouth of God?

A war monger prioritizes death over God. Which means they also puts their belly first. That is what Paul is talking about next when he writes this second phrase: “Their god is their belly.” If the grave is their end, then the priority is the body right now. That is what this belly reference is all about. It is a body, first priority, which obviously wasn’t George’s priority. But it may be the priority of the patriarch of Moscow, and it is certainly Putin’s priority. You’ve seen the videos of his meetings and press conferences. He stands super far away from people.  Turns out he is a germ-a-phobe. The distance is to protect his body. 

And when the body is the priority, it can lead to isolation. When the body is the priority, other people become dangerous. And what happens then is thinking becomes myopic; perspective becomes limited; decision-making becomes distorted. Sound like a Russian leader we know?

But here is where the real danger lies, not in how we think or act now, but what isolation does to our souls over time. As Desmond Tutu says: “I am because you are (Ubuntu);”meaning my well-being is deeply connected to your well-being. That is practical and physical, but more so spiritual and metaphysical. Our soul’s atrophy in isolation. That is why we worship as a community. Alone we atrophy spiritually, and spiritually anemic is just the opposite of how you want to be when you meet God face to face.

So, Paul is encouraging us to focus not on what we do before we die, but how we are when we meet God face-to-face. Paul is encouraging us to think less about the body and more about relationship soul to soul.

Finally, in phrase #3, Paul says: “Their glory is their shame.”  This reminds me of the statues of Stalin I saw on my many trips to Russia years ago.  They were the symbol of his glory;  the power he accumulated unto himself that gave rise to statues, street names, and institutions.  His glory was spread across the Soviet Union, and the shame of it all was how he attained it…the murder of 20 million Russian citizens. We see the pursuit of glory in Ukraine in the same way… the shame of it.

For St. George it was just the opposite.  The glory was for Jesus. It was not about preserving his life; it was not about protecting his body; it was not about the glory of his good name. Humiliation was preferred to any of these, because in pursuit of relationship with Jesus, glory appeared not for the doer, but for God in anticipation of meeting  God face to face. 

Before I end this sermon I want to make sure I am clear about one thing: we can live for the glory of Jesus and stand our ground. That is what George did. He fought a losing battle against Diocletian, and in his losing he won. That is how the Kingdom of God works.

We know our life is bigger than the prospect of the tomb; we understand that dying in a losing battle against a stronger army is something done not for our glory, but about what we will say to God when we meet face to face. It is this Kingdom of God thinking that will allow the Ukrainians to defeat the Russians ultimately. The statue that Putin puts up of himself in Kyiv will be torn down. His glory will be his shame. We know that because, as Epiphany Christians, we know the bad thing is never the last thing.

The battle of the faithful persists, even when victory is improbable, even when losing is the likely outcome. The indominable spirit of the faithful will always endure because we worship a God who died on a cross and rose from the tomb. That is Christianity for you. And if is why we will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Ukrainian siblings in Christ.

Finally, I’ll end by circling back around to pilgrimage. As Christians, our priority, if not core purpose, is the glory of Jesus even at the risk of our own humiliation. Remembering this is very much a part of why we take pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In the pilgrimage we step into a river of history that aligns the deepest recesses of our souls with the brightness, the humble brightness, passed down by the faithful who have gone before us. This reality vividly comes to life in the land of Saint George.