28 September 2008 – Proper 21A / Philippians 2: 1-13
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
This is either the last in a series of sermons on what it means to be imago Dei – created in the image of God – or, the beginning of a series on the Spiritual Life and the need to empty oneself to allow God to come in.
Beginning earlier in the summer, we have been exploring week by week what it means to be imago Dei – created in the image of God. Working backwards from last week to July, we have found that being imago Dei entails the following:
• God loves and God gives – we are created to love and give
• We are to be as generous with others as God is with us
• Extend an equal measure of forgiveness to others as God extends to us
• Forgiveness must be from the heart
• Allow Jesus to lead our Great Escape from slavery to sin
• Even in our failure to be imago Dei, we are the special objects of Jesus’ attention and mercy
• We are to treat one another as we would treat Christ: Serve Christ in one another
• Remember: We are standing on Holy Ground/Take off, take off your shoes
• Each person who stands before us is imago Dei – Holy Ground
• Listen carefully with the ears of your heart
• Die to self – look outwards toward God and toward others
• Know that you are a Pearl of Great Value to God in Christ
• Allow God to thank you for what you have done for God today
In the great Hymn at the heart of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we find perhaps the most succinct and sublime summary of what it means to be imago Dei:
“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 grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, 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.” -Phil 2: 4-8
Perhaps a helpful image here is the difference in energy it takes to keep ones hand grasped in a tight fist for a long time, versus allowing it to be wide open.
This is perhaps the very heart of life’s greatest mystery; it gets at the very heart of being imago Dei. The mind of God, the mind of Christ, is self-emptying – let this mind be in us. The word for this self-emptying is kenosis. That is God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. God’s way as that of the open hand and open heart.
God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate powerlessness so that the power and glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gave up security, status, dominance and reputation – all attributes of living life with our hands grasping tightly to all we can get our hands on. Jesus exemplifies another way, that of being made in the image of God with an open hand and open heart.
This is at the heart of one of the most fundamental and yet misunderstood Christian truths: that in weakness is strength; in seeming folly, comes wisdom; in giving up self, self is found; in death is life. These basic life-enhancing paradoxes were later turned around to be life-denying, so that we have come to believe that the only life worth living comes after death – this is not what Jesus had in mind at all. His is a life where kenosis fills kenosis – we empty ourselves, die to ourselves, so that God can empty God’s-self into us.
Maggie Ross on her blog, www.ravenwilderness.blogspot.com, asks, “What is the life of which we are emptied? Isaac of Nineveh (seventh century) has a wonderfully exact description of 'the world' (more specifically, the 'passions'):
". . . these are: love of riches; the gathering of possessions, fattening up the body, giving rise to the tendency toward carnal desire; love of honour, which is the source of envy; the exercise of position of power; pride and the trappings of authority; outward elegance; glory among men, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body."
Note that these passions not only induce the illusion of power and status, security and even immortality in the person who possesses (or is possessed by) them, but that they also provoke envy and resentment in others.”
[Our misunderstanding of Resurrection is also related to this kenotic vision of God. “Resurrection is not mere resuscitation, nor is the idea of the immortality of the soul, which enjoys new popularity these days, an early Christian doctrine. When we die, we die. All of us. Body, soul and spirit, if you like those distinctions. But God gives us a new life, a greater, a better. And we are prepared for this new life with the continual and simultaneous death and resurrection that takes place in our daily round…”Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace]
We rather casually discuss all of this as a theology of the cross – which theology surrounds us on all sides as we worship here beside the Stations of the Cross. Such theology of kenosis, or self-emptying, and theologies of suffering and the cross not only challenge conventional theology, but, as Walter Brueggemann observed almost a quarter century ago, “also [challenge] conventional cultural assumptions that justify our models of humanness and our practices of political and economic power. The subversive force of this theological assertion extends not only to the religious tradition, but to the derivative forms of social power justified by biblical faith. Western preoccupation with dominance and power is no doubt linked to and derived from our imperial “image of God.” Clearly when that discernment of God is challenged, the images which take public form are in deep jeopardy.” - Brueggemann in The Suffering of God, Terence Fretheim, (Fortress, Philadelphia:1984) p. xii
What is at stake in our being those people God creates and calls us to be is our understanding of God itself. If we are to be imago Dei, we need to come to a fundamental understanding of just how Christian writers like Paul understand God. Remembering that in the arena of New Testament writings Paul is the earliest witness writing the closest to the time of Christ – his letters are the first recorded writings about the nature of God in Christ. Imperial images of God come about much later in the post-Constantinian Church which allowed itself to become the legitimizing power for the Roman Empire and Empires and Nation States that followed.
This would be why this hymn at the center of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the young community of Christians in Philippi, which hymn is thought to pre-date Paul’s own writings, is one of the, if not the most, important texts for understanding ourselves.
Again, the mind of God, the mind of Christ, is self-emptying. The word for this is kenosis. God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate powerlessness so that the power and glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gave up security, status, dominance and reputation. Jesus exemplifies such a way of being: made in the image of God – open hand, open heart.
The most central understanding of all this is that kenosis fills kenosis. That is, we empty ourselves so that God can empty God’s own self into us, making us imago Dei – our emptiness is filled with the kenosis of God’s own life, the life of Christ.
This all sounds hopelessly technical until we look at our present economic crisis, which we are reminded hourly if not daily is a global crisis. And it is a crisis that, at least in part, derives from an imperial understanding of God rather than Paul’s kenotic vision of God. This is where the rubber of theology meets the road.
So that an inescapable dimension of the Christian Life and our being imago Dei hinges on having the courage to empty ourselves and allow God to come in. What we need to empty, of course, are the false understandings of God which accumulate like so much moss on a stationary stone, as well as a lifetime of hurt, anger, guilt, frustration, and all such notions that we must be strong, self-made and independent beings. We are to be God-made. Is it any wonder that when God in Christ looks at Jerusalem, that ancient citadel of political, economic and religious power, Jesus weeps?
(Jerusalem is of course a metaphor for the consolidation of the grasping hand. Today it might be Washington, D.C. – the epicenter of encouraged consumerism, greed, power and violence. It is the task of Spirituality to empty ourselves and distance ourselves from such consolidation so that God might fill us with God’s Love, Mercy, Forgiveness and Grace. This, by the way, is a non-partisan, bi-partisan, all-partisan critique since our entire political system and all of our power structures are enmeshed in this imperial, grasped-hand working out of the economic and ecological melt-down. )
Today we stare into the deepest mystery of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be created in the image of God. The tasks of self-emptying do not come easy. Thank God that Christ is with us, now and always to the end of the age to guide us in our search for an understanding of God and of ourselves that will grant us the perfect freedom and joy God desires for all God’s creatures and all of Creation. Amen.