“Emptying Ourselves”Dr. David Rutledge Exodus 17.1-7. Psalm 78.1-4, 12-16. Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-32.. Psalm 25.1-9. Philippians 2.1-13. Matthew 21.23-32. Year A - Proper 21 - Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The influence of culture on the minds and hearts of citizens is surely one of the greatest challenges of Christian life, and not just in modern times. When we read the gospels or the letters of Paul, we see early Christians struggling to keep their balance in an ancient world shaped by Greek, Roman, and eastern values quite different in many ways from the Jewish setting of the early church.
We say “different in many ways” because we have become aware through the patient work of scholars of how each of these ancient cultures overlapped with one another, so that it is difficult to speak of a society that was completely isolated from its neighbors. Indeed, we can see places in the New Testament where Christian thought has been influenced positively by Greek thought — for example, in the prologue to John’s gospel (Jo. 1.1-18), where Christ is explained in part by reference to the “Logos,” an important term in Stoic philosophy.
We can see the difficulty in separating religious faith from the surrounding culture in the close relationship between images of God and of Christ in Christian history, and the prevailing obsession with violence and power in so much of western culture. (Such a broad generalization is dangerous if taken literally, but can sometimes be helpful as a heuristic that helps us to see patterns we might have missed.) Consider the images of God in Christian hymnody: “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above,” and many others that are so deeply rooted in our subconscious that we rarely stop to think about the view of God we are espousing as we sing.
Particular lines from hymns makes the point even clearer:
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus going on before
Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe
Forward into battle see His banners go…”
Sung to a stirring ‘marching’ tune (composed by Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) this song has been a favorite of many children for several generations. Or, lines from Martin Luther, or Isaac Watts:
“A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing… Christ Jesus,…he must win the battle.”
“I sing the mighty power of God…”
“Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days…
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.”
“Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes…”
“Nothing can stand against the power of Almighty God!”
The point is not that there is necessarily anything heretical, or even unbiblical, about images of God’s power, but that when we live in a culture saturated with being stronger than others, with dominating our opponents, with using violence to solve problems, then a frequent use of such hymns leads us to a kind of triumphalism, a view of God that can become unbiblical, and contrary to the gospel Christians espouse.
It is this message that our reading from Philippians 2 brings home, reminding us that the strength of Christ is in his weakness, a paradox that we turn away from because it is not familiar, not instinctive, and is radically counter-cultural.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
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,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (2.3-11)
I submit that here Paul is presenting, with great clarity, an understanding of Christ that is at odds with the prevailing values of western culture, and with some prevalent views of Christ in Christian churches. The passage has become known in Christian theology as the kenosis, the “emptying” of God in Christ. It is from a Greek verb meaning “to divest oneself of one’s privileges,” “to destroy” or “to make invalid,” or even “to lose one’s justification.” Let’s look more closely.
Many scholars have noted, from early in Christian history, that the verses beginning “who, though he was in the form of God,…” have the character of a hymn, or a formal creedal statement, though we do not know if the words originated with Paul, or within the liturgy of the early church.
Paul prepares for this hymn by advising the Philippians to be unified with one another in “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord…” (vs, 2), and then goes further, urging his readers to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (vs. 3). In a culture of competition, of obsession with being “No. 1,” these are scandalous words!
What distinguishes Christianity as a religion, of course, is its claim that God entered into the physical world in the form of a human being — the incarnation ( or “in-fleshment”) of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This was a familiar idea in the ancient world, and there were many accounts of divine beings appearing in human form, such as Hercules, Alexander the Great, and Caesar Augustus. But in every case, these were figures who astounded everyone through their power — physical strength, or the ability to perform miraculous deeds, or through political power, as in the case of the emperor Augustus.
What was unique was precisely the image of the divine in Philippians, where one “who…was in the form of God” set that power aside, emptied himself of that power, in order to follow the path of humility and obedience. This was not just an unprecedented, but a repugnant idea, that the very form of power — a divine being — would refuse to use that power, and become weak instead, so weak that he will be arrested and executed as a common criminal.
Paul is aware that this message is “foolishness” to the people who have not yet understood the Christian gospel, and turns this expectation back on its proponents: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?….God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe….We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles….God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Cor. 1.20-25).
Many thinkers, including some of the most persuasive in the modern world, have claimed that this perspective is a despicable “slave morality,” teaching people to deny their natural strength and vitality to embrace a passive weakness, appealing for pity and protection rather than claiming and honoring the natural strength and power that nature has given them.
When Christians become powerful, even dominant, in the later history of the west, this elevation of weakness becomes a hidden tool by which those in power in society teach everyone else to be weak, and obedient, and compliant. ‘You’ll have your reward in heaven,’ the priests say, according to this view, ‘but for now you should show your virtue by being humble, accepting the station we’ve given you, and doing as we say.’
It is a cynical view, perhaps, but its advocates call it “honest” or “realistic,” and it has become a formidable adversary to the Christ of Philippians. It is important to note, however, that Paul’s tribute to God’s kenosis does not entail only Christ’s emptying of himself in death on a cross. It also includes the “therefore:” “Therefore god also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that the name of Jesus every knee should bend…” (2.9-10). To simply empty oneself of all strength and ability to act would make one a door mat, a genuine slave, rather than a metaphorical one.
If we look at the history of Christianity, is that what we find? Well, yes — all too often — but not always. There are times, more than we might expect, when faith leads believers into situations where an amazing kind of influence appears, an influence that changes things, that limits evil or encourages goodness. In short, this type of faith — a faith of humility like that described in Philippians, evinces a power, a strength, that is hard to explain according the usual categories of sociology or politics or psychology.
As an example of what Philippians has in mind, consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who opposed the Hitler regime, and whose letters, collected after his execution, have been a remarkable inspiration to thinkers and activists throughout Christianity, and beyond. At the height of Hitler’s power Bonhoeffer wrote an essay for friends and family which discusses “the view from below.” It is worth quoting in part:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value.
We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below,
from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the
powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.. ..
We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key,
a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.”
This is written by a man who had experienced “personal good fortune” until Hitler came to power, but also by a man who was a Christian, and was forced to think deeply about what could be learned from living under Nazi power.
Like Philippians, Bonhoeffer does not suggest that seeing things with humility, “from below,” gives one some kind of secret worldly strength that can be suddenly revealed to dismay one’s enemies, like Superman tearing open his shirt to reveal the big “S” on his chest. Bonhoeffer was hung, Christ was crucified, Martin King and Gandhi were assassinated — religious faith is not magic that removes all pain, all problems. But each of these men and countless others have wielded a kind of power, an influence that leads believers and atheists alike to ‘bend the knee’ in acknowledgement of a dimension to human life that cannot be reduced to the vocabulary of cynicism.
Bonhoeffer says that “personal suffering is a more effective key” for acting in the world than good fortune (or, we might add, simple power). He does not say that this view is more noble, or more beautiful, or more praiseworthy (though it might be all of those things also); he says it is more effective in changing the world. Bonhoeffer’s early death prevented him from taking his intended trip to visit with Gandhi in India, but he had discerned the realistic, political power of non-violent resistance, as King would later.
Part of the reason, I suspect, that this view of ‘power in weakness’ is so paradoxical and difficult for us is that our age is adamantly materialistic, seeing the physical world as the only reality. Belief in a ‘spiritual’ dimension of reality that transcends (“goes beyond”) simple matter is considered gauche at best, and dangerous superstition at worst. And yet this is a fundamental part of the religious traditions of humankind, and almost all of human history.
Can we account satisfactorily for things like “thoughts,” “intentions,” “beauty,” “duty” and so forth with reference only to matter, to physical realities? Certainly the extraordinary individuals mentioned above had no doubt about spiritual realities, and their lives were lived in an effort to conform more closely to that reality, rather than to the ‘realities’ venerated in their societies.
G. K. Chesterton once quipped that ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and so not tried.’ To ‘do nothing from selfish ambition; regard others as better than yourselves; look to the interests of others’— Paul’s advice is as difficult, as radical today, as foolish today, as it was in the first century in Philippi. Only when we have tried it fairly, with full commitment, can we see that it is a way of life full of power. Amen.
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology (Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
Psalms 78:1-4, 12-16
Guide Me, O thou Great Jehovah
All Praise to Thee
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name
At the Name of Jesus
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Wondrous Love — Paul Christiansen
Wondrous Love — Shaw/Parker
Let This Mind Be in You — Ruth Elaine Schram
The Majesty and Glory of Your Name — Tom Fetkke
Lord of the Dance — John Ferguson
At the Name of Jesus — Cindy Berry
Jesus, Name Above All Names
Of the Father s Love Begotten
Jesus the Very Thought of Thee