I have had a week of world-weariness and I suppose I am not alone in this. Our government can’t seem to balance the budget, wars continue to wage around the globe, poverty and sickness takes the body, soul and spirit of thousands upon thousands of people who are created in the Imago Dei.
It gets simply tiring, doesn’t it?
In Lent we find a season that acknowledges that to be weary and world-worn is part of God’s heart as well. God is with us in this season of lack, of hungering, of isolation and of silence. We feel separated in this season from other people, from the created order, and ultimately experience the faint echo of both Psalm 22 and Jesus’ cry in Matthew 27 – “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” As we hear all-too-clear in the Aramaic cry of Christ on the cross, to be forsaken is not exclusively a human endeavor. To experience forsakenness is always bound up in the things of God with the intimacy of hands and feet nailed to rough sun-bleached wood.
Yet this season is also a reminder that through emptying ourselves will we ultimately make room for God in our lives in ways we could never have imagined. As Bono sang so well, what we need to release is “all that we can’t leave behind” – those things we have come to see as so essential to our lives that we can’t imagine life without it.
Last year I published a book entitled Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads. Some have found the book pretty dense in parts – lots of philosophy and theology rattles around in the book and if you are not familiar with these strange folks, it can be pretty dry going. That said, the book was really a long mediation on Paul’s letter to the Philippians and in particular the notion of Christ taking the form of loss for our sake. Thi call comes in the form of the Carmen Christi, the grand Christ hymn of Philippians 2: 6 – 11:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
As I mention in Freedom of the Self, Paul challenges us the young church of Philippi amidst their pagan context to become something different than what the surrounding culture values and strives for by challenging them on the one hand to “have the same mindset” with one another (ἀλλήλους) that is to be maintained both corporately and in our private lives, yet also states in verses 3 through 5 to “do nothing (μηδὲν/meden) out of selfish ambition (ἐριθείαν) nor vain conceit (κενοδοξία/kenodoxia, empty conceit, empty glory), but rather in “humility” place the concerns of others upon/within yourselves (ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι/alla kai ta eteron ekastoi, but make the things of others personal).
So Paul begins this ‘master plan of relationship’ with a mandate that in all things to “make things personal.” This is a call to not merely “look” from a safe distance at what divides us in ideology and power structures, to fashion some new utopian “system” that will merely replace a sinful system. No, this is a radical call to “get personal with one another”—to literally move into the lives of others and find habitation there and conversely to create an expansive space of hospitality within our hearts and homes to allow and encourage others to be part of our family.
From Front Porch to Back Patio:
One of the biggest architectural shifts in home building since the 1980’s works against this and given that the city I now live in of Mill Creek was incorporated as a city in 1983 we can see this in many of the homes throughout the housing developments that surround this church. This is the loss of front porches. In the days of the front porch in America, this was perhaps an easier thing: people could walk down a street and see the family who lived there talking in the evening, laughing and perhaps crying together. We have largely become a nation in middle class culture that has moved the family from the front porch to the back patio: putting our lives in the backyard, fenced in and closed off from others. Our churches have largely shown a similar shift: youth rooms pushed to the back rooms of labyrinthine church buildings, nurseries and children’s rooms pushed away so crying does not distract worship and children’s art on walls is kept away from the ‘main areas’ of the church, many churches have their food banks work out of the back parking lot and Alcohol Anonymous groups will meet after the so-called “main church business” has concluded. By challenging us to “make it personal,” Paul is calling the church in Philippi to move to the front porch with each other. This is a statement of cohabitation and existence within the space and orbit of each other that is intimate at a level deeper than acknowledgment.
Faith is about belief as dwelling – with Christ and each other:
Many speak of their faith as having “Faith in Christ” or “Faith in God.” Paul throughout his writings speaks of the importance of having ‘pitis christi’ which some translate as “Faith in Christ.” Yet this translation has resulted in a strange absolving and separation from Christ – there is Christ, way over there, the one who lived a sinless life and died for our sins and we have faith “in Him.” Many NT scholars such as Richard Hays have challenged this. In his book The Faith of Christ: The Narrative Subgenre of Galatians 3: 1 – 4: 11, he makes the case that what Paul was arguing for by calling for those who are Christians to have ‘pitis Christi’ is to have the “Faith of Christ” not merely the “Faith in Christ.” Hays makes a strong argument picked up by others that certain passages in the NT normally translated “faith in Christ” to be the “faith or faithfullness of Christ”, or to put a “NT Greek geek factor” on it, that translations of the NT should be attentive in these passages to “Subjective Gentive instead of the traditional “Objective Genitive.” Think about what a massive shift a shift from ‘in’ to ‘of’ makes. To have the “faith of Christ” means that I don’t merely just intellectually agree as if this were a benign math problem that has little impact on my day-to-day life. This is the difference between how you respond if someone asks you to marry them. Is the response an affirmation of a truth claim or a binding of your life to someone? This is the move from seeing faith as a series of “true and false” to “yes and no” moments. (“Will you marry me?” “I believe your question has merit and therefore true!”)
In verse 5 Paul proceeds to set up what many scholars to be one of the first hymns of the early church – the Carmen Christi or Song of Christ found in verses 6 through 11. By returning to the question of mindset (be of one mind) from verse 2, Paul pushes the point further by stating that we are not only to adhere to the mindset of one another on the horizontal plane of community (breaking bread together, sharing property and possessions) but to adhere to the vertically transcendent yet imminent way of Christ (τοῦτο φρονεῖτε/touto phroneite, this way to think) that is to dwell in us (ἐν ὑμῖν/en hymin, in you) which is also in Christ Jesus (ὁ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ /o kai en christo iesou). In short, it is not enough to merely ‘belong’ to the church in so-called membership alone if you are to say that you are a member of the church. This is vital for as Paul states the only Christ you will know is the Christ you meet with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
We find Christ through what we release and give away, not by what we accumulate
What follows in the Carmen Christi, the great song of Christ that Paul evokes in verses 6 through 11 frames two essential points that the community of faith needs to frame itself by: that as the form of God (μορφῆ θεοῦ/morphe theou), Christ ἐκένωσεν (ekenonsen, emptied) himself by becoming human (vv. 6–7a) and secondly as a human (ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος καὶ σχήματι /en omoiomati anthropon genomenos kai schemati, likeness of humans and having become so in schema), Christ humbled himself (ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν/etapeinosen eauton), by becoming obedient unto death (θανάτου/thanatou). Therefore, in this double humiliation — both as fully God and fully human—Christ is glorified (εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός /eis doxan theou patros, to the glory of God the Father) which stands as a counterpoint to the vain conceit (κενοδοξία/ kenodoxia, empty conceit/empty glory) found in following the path of the pagan.
This use of μορφῆ/morphe is important in counterpoint to εἰκὼν/eikon in that this “form” that is created by Christ is a “forming form” within which we are called to inhabit and thereby become one with Christ and others. As the Eastern church father John Chrysostom reminds us in his teaching on Phil 2:5–8: “For nothing so sustains the great and philosophic soul in the performance of good works as learning that through this [move in Christ’s self-release] that one is becoming like God.” What is evoked by Chrysostom is the movement of kenosis as the emphasis of Christ’s binding himself to us through His incarnation is a transformation by union, or participation, more than mere imitation. Therefore, kenosis is not exclusively the identity of God in isolation in the incarnation, rather the mark and form of God’s union with us and as such is the μορφῆ θεοῦ/morphe theou as the ever-forming form of God with the Church for the sake of the world.
Finding the “Wonderful Life” in the lives of others – Ode to George Bailey:
In Frank Capra’s classic film, “it’s a Wonderful Life” we get an example of God’s economy in relation to what Christ is doing for us and through us in Philippians 2 in order for true relationships to be possible. At a critical moment in the film, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) speaks to a growing mob collecting outside his Savings and Loan. This is the fall of the stock market in 1929 which throws America into the Great Depression and people are making a run on the bank to grab whatever money they have there before the bank fails and all is lost. George Bailey tells the crowd that their money was never there in the first place – the money that was put in was invested into the lives of the community (“Your money isn’t here, it’s in John’s house over there. Why, your money isn’t here – it’s in Paul’s business over there…”)
As seen in the Kenotic turn of Christ that creates a forming form (μορφῆ θεοῦ/morphe theou) through the incarnation, we are offered a fully embodied manifestation of God through Christ that calls us to our particular humanity in relation to the particularity and otherness that arises from life in the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12). Your life is in his life and her life and their life – it is not your life and your search for a relationship with God is found in these people.
As Paul challenges the church in Philippi, how we see ourselves and others as human beings framed by the kenotic turn of Christ is to embrace the realization that just seeing another as my brother or sister in Christ and repenting of my sinfulness doesn’t preclude me from the journey of continued sanctification that leads into the kenotic form of Christ.
Put another way, your joy is my joy and my sin is your sin.
As Christ’s models for us, to find God is to affirm a move of double humiliation: it is first a release of that which I have seen God as being and doing in and for the world in relation to my culturally formed identity and then coupled with a move beyond self and into binding intimacy (John 15) that sacrifices systems, institutions, and power for the sake of deep and abiding relationship.
What is underscored here in Philippians 2 is a clarion call beckoning us to listen to our lives as a symphonic response of complete relinquishment into Christ as the “morphe theou,” the ‘the forming form of God’ in and for the sake of the world.
We lose nothing in the losses we fear… for only in releasing all will we find all that we were created for.