Emptying Himself Jesus Became Full of Humanity
A sermon based on Philippians 2:1-13
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 28, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A kindergarten teacher was walking around her classroom while her students drew pictures. One little girl was scribbling so intently that the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl replied, “I’m drawing a picture of Jesus.” The teacher said, “Oh honey, nobody really knows for sure what Jesus looked like.” The little girl responded, “Well they will in a minute.”
Paul draws a picture for us of Jesus in the reading today. I wish we’d know it in a minute –and we should since it’s been around for two thousand years in the Bible– but Paul’s picture seems to me to defy the general picture of Jesus most of us grew up with and still quite often hear about. Paul’s depiction in the text to day clearly defies depictions of Jesus as some sort of all powerful supernatural being who donned a human body exploiting his divinity to pull off miracles and intentionally planning his crucifixion in order to save an exclusive better-than-everyone-else elite few who agree with this or that select denomination, church or pastor’s theological views.
And it is not just the picture of Jesus that Paul provides which contradicts a lot of our idea of who Jesus is– perhaps even more profound, is how much Paul’s description of what Christians are supposed to do is in opposition to what we’ve often been taught to do, and what we see or hear Christian leaders in the media doing and telling us Christians must do. Listen to verses 1 to 9 again where Paul describes what Christians are to do –and that we are to do it because of the Jesus Paul describes. Here’s what Paul wrote
f then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
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 . . .
Looking at this Bible text, a Lectionary reading for today, I find myself asking a number of questions about the Christianity we were raised with and still hear about from many quarters of the tradition, a Christianity many of us may still have lingering in our minds.
I am talking about, one: the general notion that Jesus lived his life on earth as an unnatural Divine-infused super man wielding super powers that we can never hope to have. And I am also talking about, two: the general notion that followers of Jesus act like an exclusive elite bunch because we’ve got the “right” religion and so we are better than everyone else– better than other people who go to other types of churches, better than those of other faiths, and certainly better than atheists, agnostics and those we deem to be sinners or other enemies of the faith or of us.
How does a supernatural Jesus and an exclusive elite Christianity jibe with the lesson today? Do they line up at all with what Paul calls the church to be and who Paul tells us Jesus is in our lesson today?
Paul meant this stuff to be taken seriously. Overlaying what he wrote onto modern portrayals of Jesus as a supernatural being and Christianity as blessing Christians as better than everyone I am in a word, stupefied. How is exclusive Christianity loving, sharing in the Spirit, compassionate or sympathetic? How is it being of the same mind as Paul, early Christians and Jesus the Christ? Indeed, if we are using Christianity in any way to think of ourselves as superior to any other person because of faith; non-faith; color; gender; age; political party; sexuality; nationality; physical or mental make-up; or income bracket, how is that complying with Paul’s very clear and quite literal commands?
I mean his command is pretty concise: “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.”
As a teen I left the church over experiences of the exclusive self-centered side of the Christianity and did not return for twenty years. In those years of wandering without a faith community I would have come running back in heartbeat if I had heard a preacher tell me Paul said we are to “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.” Indeed I joyfully came back to church precisely because I found a United Church of Christ in Oregon with a preacher teaching the very heart of the reading today and a congregation striving to live into those teachings.
Does that make the UCC better than other churches? For me, and many others, it does. It’s a lens that works for us – especially with respect to getting Paul’s commandments done. But – and this is important it– that does not mean I regard myself as better than other Christians, preachers or anyone else for that matter.
The New Revised Standard translation indicates Paul instructs Christians to “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” The phrase “regard others as better than yourselves” is a bit tricky to translate from the Greek. It is not meant to suggest there is a requirement of low self esteem, but rather as The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary puts it, it is meant “to encourage a recognition of the rights and achievements of others.” See, it’s not about putting your self down, but about putting others first. Modern Christianity in the media with its frequent “me first” approach (as we discussed a few weeks ago) seems very far away from Paul’s requirement– in the Bible– to put others first.
Paul ends any confusion in the translation in the next verse (verse 4) where he sums it all up commanding in the part that resonates so well for me: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” . . . “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Those words are really there. We may have never heard that scriptural command on the airwaves or even in church before, but Paul does not soft peddle this point. [L]ook not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”– it’s so hard to do, but we are supposed to do it, not ignore it or gloss over it. According to Paul a Christian’s duty is to look out for the interest of others.
There’s a popular song from 1972 by Bill Withers called “Lean on Me”that speaks to this idea of putting others first. Remember that song? I am not sure Mr. Withers drew his inspiration from scripture, but his lyrics nail the concept of what we are supposed to do. The refrain is “Lean on me when you’re not strong/And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.” The last verse goes “If there is a load/ You have to bear that you can’t carry/ I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load/If you just call me . . . /Call me . . .” That’s how we are supposed to be, right up the road ready to carry others’ loads–with no prerequisites, no believe this or believe that’s. Our call, our vocation, our undertaking as Christians, is to really, really care about the well being of everyone, we are to desire and act toward others’ well being, that’s what love is.
Paul tells us why we are supposed to act like this, to put others interests above ours. And he tells us by also quoting a song–which is where I got the idea. In the middle of the reading today we cannot see or hear it in the English prose, but Paul is quoting a Christian hymn. What’s especially cool about that is this hymn may be some of the earliest written Christian theology known. See, Paul is our earliest writer in the New Testament so a writing he quotes would be even earlier getting closer and closer to the beginnings of the church. I love that verses 6-11 echo one of our faith founders’ first known songs.
Here are the words, notice how they do not describe the magical supernatural God-like Jesus on earth that we grew up with, notice how Paul writes about the opposite sort of presence. The early church song says this about Christ :
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. (Vs 6-11)
Paul understood Jesus the Christ to have been fully in the form of God before arriving at birth, but upon arrival Paul indicates – unequivocally– that Christ, GOD, did not exploit this divine nature while in the human form of Jesus. Paul tells us Jesus “emptied himself” and took the form of a slave or servant. Christ came here as Paul puts it “born in human likeness” to be “found in human form.” To make certain we get the point Jesus did not act with God-like powers, the hymn points out that Jesus was so humble he was put to death on a cross as a human being. What this meant in First Century Palestine, to Paul’s audience, was that Jesus became the lowest of the low, a criminal condemned and suffering the most scandalized form of death, crucifixion.
Jesus so emptied himself of divine form, acted so humble as a servant to humankind that he reached the lowest class of personhood on the planet a crucified criminal. To Paul, Jesus’ strength is his un-superpower. Nonetheless Jesus of Nazareth– whose power for Paul was clearly a non-superpower– is nowadays credited and lauded for having superpowers.
Almost as ironic are claims that Christians derive an elite salvation and better-ness and holier than thou-ness by being Christian. The irony being Paul instructs us it is to mean the very opposite. For Paul, following Jesus means striving to have love and accord, aiming toward doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves. Taking Paul’s writing seriously and literally would mean that we Christians have to get off our high horses, empty ourselves of whatever divine supernatural blessings we think we have, and assume the form of servant to others. It is only when we do so that we can fully do as we are charged and look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Imagine what the world would be like if all Christians did this.
Even better, imagine what the world would be like if we thought that Jesus acted as a fully human being when Jesus did what he did before he was crucified. It makes sense of Paul’s admonition to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” It means that we don’t have to be a superman or superwoman to be like Jesus. If he was human, then what he did is within our grasp. We can be of the same mind in our very mortal bodies and we can do as Jesus did. For Paul it is not about turning water into wine, healing the sick, walking on water or raising the dead with magical mystical super power; it’s about humbling ourselves and serving others. Just as Jesus did. And if we do that we too will be exalted by God.
The good news in Paul’s writing that we have considered this morning is that all of this is within our reach. We can strive to have love and accord, aim toward doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, and in humility regard others as better than ourselves; looking not to our interests but the interests of others. We can strive to do it and we can do it. Jesus proved it. Paul promoted it . . . The good news is, we can be like Jesus– Love incarnate on earth.
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