Sunday, September 25, 2011
Empty For Love
St. Paul sometimes preached and wrote in a cultural setting which makes little sense to us today. Many people today, for example, bristle when they read Paul’s admonition that women shouldn’t speak in church, or that they should cover their heads for worship. At other times, Paul’s letters convey an extraordinary insight into the Christian mystery, today’s passage from Philippians (2:1-13) being one of those.
In last Sunday’s passage from his letter to the Philippians, Paul expressed concern for unity in the Body of Christ: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that...I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel…” He goes on, in today’s passage to note that if there’s any encouragement in it, any incentive of love in Christ, any fellowship in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy -- and there is -- then, “be of the same mind...being in full accord and one mind.”
The Greek word Paul uses is thronéo = to center, to focus one’s thinking on something(one); to steer one’s actions according to such a mind-set. Paul wonders out loud with the Philippians about the norms, the goals, which he notices in Jesus’ example and which we might adopt for our daily following of Christ: 1) encouragement; 2) cheering one another on towards love; 3) fellowship in the Spirit; and 4) tender mercies and compassion. This, Paul says, is the mind-set, the same as we see in Jesus‘ life, that should characterize our own understanding and actions. Jesus himself is the norm for our living. You and I need to think and act toward one another in the same way that we would act toward Jesus.
In one of the most beautiful and profound of all passages in Scripture, Paul spells out the theological foundation on which this attitude, this mind-set rests. He quotes an ancient hymn, possibly used in the liturgy of the Hellenistic church at Antioch. It describes first the kenosis = the utter self-emptying of Jesus: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God [i.e., equal to God] did not regard equality as something to be exploited [i.e., held onto, achieved by grasping], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [i.e., a doulos in Greek, a slave in bonds], being forn in human likeness [i.e., he came to pass, he happened as man]. And being found in human form [i.e., as a man], he humbled [humiliated] himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.”
We all know what an empty container is, especially if it’s a “Got Milk?” or “Out of Gas” situation! Widows and widowers know exactly how it feels to be in an empty house. We’ve probably all known what it’s like to empty our pockets or pocketbooks, particularly around April 15! But what must it have been like for God’s Son to empty himself of himself?? To go from the supreme Community of Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to slave status?? From the highest imaginable reality to the lowest?? We could imagine an elephant becoming an ant; or someone with immense wealth and power becoming a skid-row bum. Many years ago, I was deeply moved by the admission of one of my priest friends in Wichita, KS, Fr. Dan Orth. Dan was a great guy, a diocesan priest with whom I’d worked on some workshops. He confided in me that every year he made a trip to Chicago’s bowery, where he lived on the streets for a week as a bum. He did it as a form of ministry, and, as he said, to keep himself grounded in reality. But even these examples would pale in comparison with what Jesus did for us. What Jesus did was incredible, unbelievable. Yet he didn’t do it for just awhile, to prove that he could or to make a point of living on the edges of poverty. Jesus made a commitment to becoming just as human as any of us: even unto death!
It could all have ended there: God, in Jesus, experiencing what the whole human cycle from birth to death was like. The message was loud and clear: God cares that much for you and me. Jesus is Emmanuel = God with us: in all our ups and downs, in all our highs and lows, and in all in between. That’s, indeed, good news...of a sort. But God, in Christ, went even further. The message of salvation doesn’t end with the Incarnation followed by the passion and death of Jesus.
Nor does Paul’s reflection end there. He now proclaims the mystery of the Resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him [gifted/graced him with] 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 the Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
To the man called “slave” God assigns the name “Lord” and “Master”. The whole cosmic power structure, controlling humankind’s destiny, as it still does today, under whose authority Jesus humbled himself, now is called upon to confess him as its Lord, which is still does not do today. The hymn’s purpose isn’t meant to present a systematic Christology, or to summarize Christ’s life. Rather, Paul uses it as a catalyst for his hearers, and for us, to jump-start our own thinking and acting.
The news that God “cares enough to send the very vest” in the Incarnation is, indeed, Good News. But there’s a quantum leap made in the Resurrection’s proclamation that God not only cares enough to be involved with us, but, more, loves enough to overcome our selfishness and sin with the giving of himself, our weakness with his strength, our death with his life.
As you and I look at our lives in comparison with Jesus, how well do we see ourselves encouraging one another? Do we find ourselves routinely cheering each other along towards love? What do we put into building up a fellowship in the Spirit? How much of tender mercy and compassion do we heap upon those who need it?
Francis of Assisi developed a way to do this in his own life, and urged his followers to do likewise. He summed it up by saying: “Preach the Gospel [the Good News], and, if necessary, use words.” The passage from Philippians today concludes with Paul’s exhorting his hearers and us: “...work out your own salvation with awe and trembling, for it is God [in Christ] who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”