A few years ago I wrote a book called Freedom of the Self that was an extended reflection on what it would mean to embrace the call of Philippians 2: 5 – 11 as more than a designation of Christ’s servanthood and self-emptying of the Divine, but a syllabus for the life we are to be living as what I called “the kenotic self”. The word ‘kenosis’ is the term used to describe Jesus’ emptying himself of all privilege so that He could be truly human and truly Divine in all aspects of his life and ministry. A challenging concept to get our minds around and, as I argue in Freedom of the Self, why we need to get our lives around this in community with others.
A few years back NT Wright gave a paper at a conference in the UK I attended entitled “One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment” that dealt with notion of embodiment of a kenotic life through the challenges before the Christian community as seen in I Corinthians as they sought to live out their faith in an increasingly pagan city. In this community members of the early church were becoming troubled with the challenges of faith being around people who held different values. One option for this ancient community was to withdraw from contact with the world, to retreat into an isolated world without contact with pagan culture. The problem with this was the strong Jewish belief in the goodness of creation: treating large areas of the world as off limits went against the theology of the Psalms with their celebration of the created order. A retreat into some mode of dualism, though it often happened, could never represent a wholeheartedly Jewish solution. The other option was of course to assimilate and join into the culture. Jews have always faced this possibility and this loss of distinct identity certainly haunts many faiths including Christianity.
As seen in the writings of I Corinthians, these choices (run away or assimilate) were further challenged by huge questions that would be debated constantly in the marketplace and people’s homes: degrees of monotheism versus polytheism, questions of the identity of the people of the one God, and questions of behavior with respect to food, drink and sex. As I Corinthians makes clear, these are not merely matters of abstraction. One of the key issues facing the community we see in I Corinthians was the very real challenge of dietary restrictions in a pagan world: should we be eating foods sacrificed to idols, we eat at tables with pagans, etc? NT Wright takes this question as voiced in I Corinthians and draws us back to the kenotic example of Christ in Philippians 2:
The incarnational Christology of Philippians 2:5-11 thus undergirds explicitly the appeal that Christians should give up their own rights for one anothers’ sake. What we have in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, I suggest, is the same theme spelt out in one particular way. To the question, should we exercise our God-given liberty and, scorning idols as nonexistent irrelevancies, go ahead and eat meat that has been offered to them? Paul makes three replies:
- First get your monotheism straight; it is true that there is only one God, but this God is now made known in and through Jesus the Messiah, and in loving this God you may find that there are other more pressing duties than showing your contempt for idols by eating their food without caring.
- Then recognize that among these more urgent need needs is to care for those who are struggling in the faith, and that this may mean happily forgoing your demonstration of monotheism in terms of eating idol meat in favor of a demonstration of this redefined monotheism in terms of abstaining from idol meat.
- then recognize that in this abstention, too, you are demonstrating that you are the people of this one true God, since in Jesus this God gave up his rights to come and rescue you too.
For Wright, the cross stands clearly underneath this argument. Sometimes, we need to lay down our militant fundamentalisms in order for the world to see the deep and abiding reality of God that animates our lives and things we love, not merely the rules we adhere to. For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus does not simply have to do with the attaining of individual salvation. It means the remaking of the community of the people of god in a particular fashion, namely, as the community that is given such security in the love of the true god that it is able to forgo all human privileges and rights to which it might otherwise lay claim. What is more, Paul saw clearly that the cross, in achieving this, offers the most fundamental challenge to paganism at every level. For what the cross offers is a true ‘freedom of the self’ by calling us to lay down our views, our militant beliefs and passions, our desire to be righteous and open the path to a vocation beyond all this so we can be found in the radical embrace of God. For Tom Wright, this is the real subtext of I Cornithians and I would argue is the deep challenge of Lent: Instead of asking “how far can we go?” in apparent assimilation to paganism or “what must I give up for the sake of God?” in Lent, Paul shows a different agenda altogether. The monotheism which has been redefined so as to have Jesus, and hence the cross, at its heart, is the monotheism which not only provides a way for its adherents to live within a pagan world with integrity, but which also issues to that pagan world a decisive and devastating challenge (compare with 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 for example). Instead of merely pursuing a path of private spirituality within the world, the church is to pursue a path of mission to the world. And the victory which is to be won by that mission is the victory of the cross.
In this we have a challenge this Lenten season: to be redefined and remade in this time of resignation. We are not fasting so that the world sees our willful allegience to the cross. No, we fast so that we rely so completely on Christ Jesus that what is seen is Christ and not us. Not our politics, not our denominations, not our moralisms, not our black-and-white views. No, in our releasing of things that distract and tempt us to grasp to things other than the grace and mercy of Christ, we ultimately are called to release the very thing we have no grip on directly but grips us more than anything… our very being. Whether it is our views, our politics, our need to be traditional, emergent, mosaic, denominational, post-christian, hipster, relevant, ancient future, missional, reconcilation-minded, urban, rural, global, church growth, culturally-attuned, ethnically-diverse, musically-excellent or scripturally-sound, any and all of these so-called platforms can become the idol that blocks the living Light of God. Yes, we give up coffee, Facebook, chocolate, watching TV, and other manner of things. But have we given up ourselves yet? Have we become so comfortable with ourselves that we couldn’t conceive life without the person we have managed, pampered, protected, and striven to be recognized by others? As Tom Wright challenges us in this reading from I Corinthians drawn from a kenotic reading of Philippians 2, perhaps the grand challenge this Lent is that we need to see more of Christ and less of ourselves.
Perhaps it is time to come on up to the house and leave all that stuff behind this Lent…