The Self Emptying of God – A Sermon

Philippians 2:5-11

Verse 5: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

Now there are two primary ways this phrase has been interpreted, each with it’s own nuance. The first is how I just read it above, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The emphasis here is on imitation. Jesus had this particular attitude, this mind, and so we should try and emulate him. However, the second, and I think better translation, is something to this effect “Think this way among yourselves which also you think in Christ Jesus.” In this translation, the emphasis is on the location of the believer. We exist in the fellowship of Christ. We are members of his body, and on that basis we think in certain ways. It’s sort of the difference between your father saying that you need to act like your mother because she’s a really humble person, and him saying that you’re part of the family, and the ethos of this family is that we have a way of being in the world – a way that’s exemplified in your mother.

Verse 6: who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

As children of the enlightenment, the modern era, we’re a people of rights. It’s built right into our constitution, that as humans we have certain ‘inaliable’ rights. Rights that can’t be stolen. You’ll recognize rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or perhaps in the capitalistic world we might say that the capitalist has a right to his profits, or that the worker has a right to a living wage. I’m not against this language of rights per say, it certainly has it’s place, however the example of Jesus models something very different for us because Philippians 2:6 says that Christ was equal with God, however he didn’t see this equality, this position, as something to be held onto; a right to be defended at all costs but rather, as something to be released for the sake of the liberation of others.

vs. 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
vs. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

First, what’s evident here is that Paul doesn’t see the incarnation (God becoming Man) of Jesus as an upward move, but rather a downward move. In other words, he doesn’t begin with this man Jesus and how he was such a religious genius that God ended up highly exalting him. Instead, he begins with the pre-existent Christ who then empties (Ekenosen – kenosis) himself, not of his deity or his God-ness, but an emptying/humbling that allowed him to take on the form (morph-n) of man. So in terms of direction we see a downward movement from pure Spirit into flesh and worldly life.

The other point of interest is to pinpoint exactly what this emptying and humbling consisted of. To do that though, I think we need to understand what it means to be human. There’s an old dead German philosopher named Martin Heidegger who in 1927 published a famous book named “Being & Time.” In that book, he explains that if you want to understand human beings, and specifically if you want to understand what distinguishes us from all other living creatures, then you need to understand that we are ‘Being-Towards-Death’. In other words, what distinguishes humans from all other creatures isn’t simply that we die, but rather that we know we will die. So what’s interesting about Philippians 2:8 is that Paul seems to agree with this analysis and in effect says that this is what the self emptying and humiliation of Christ consisted of, precisely that he not only took the form of human, but that he actually subjected himself to death. But it wasn’t just any death was it? No, it was one of the most humiliating deaths a person can undergo: stripped naked, exposed, humiliated, abandoned by his closest friends, and if we take his cry on the cross from Mark 15:34 seriously then we’d even say he experienced being abandoned by God.

vs. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
vs. 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
vs. 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I recall a friend pointing to a crucifix (You of course, know the difference. A cross is empty, while a crucifix displays the corpse of God.) and telling my brother and I that that crucifix is the difference between us and the Catholics – “the Catholics want to keep Jesus on the Cross.” That crucifix is the difference between us and the Catholics – the Catholics want to keep Jesus on the cross. Now my friend’s anti-Catholic bias came out a bit there, but still I have to admit that this was really insightful theological analysis. Because while I don’t think Catholics deny the resurrection, I do think our crosses tell us something significant. So rather than taking a swipe at Catholics, let me cut at myself, my own tradition, for a moment. The reason we don’t like crucifixes is because for us theologically the resurrection is the negation, the erasing, of the cross. The cross is the humiliation of God, the resurrection is the exaltation. The cross is the humbling of God, the resurrection is his glory. The cross is the moment of loss, when it looked like all was lost, but the resurrection is where God declared that we would not be the losers, but the winners. But that’s not what this hymn seems to be pointing to. Instead the idea is this: in the cross we see the glory of God. That the weakness and humility of Christ was in fact His greatness.

The way we know this is the word “Therefore” (or ‘For’ or ‘Wherefore’ depending on your translation) at the beginning of verse 9. If we were writing the text we might have used the word “Yet, God highly exalted…” or “In spite of this humiliation…” but the text says ‘therefore’. In other words, this self-emptying (kenosis) this self-humiliation isn’t a compromise of His deity, but rather the very expression of it. It’s interesting that in other texts Paul speaks that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel and I wonder if the cross is what he has in mind. That Paul isn’t ashamed by the cross, isn’t ashamed by a God who is for us precisely in his death, a God who’s power is expressed through weakness. A God who’s moment of self humiliation is in fact his glory. As Karl Barth wrote in his wonderful Church Dogmatics, “He is not a God who is what He is in a majesty behind… this cross on Golgotha. On the contrary, the cross on Golgotha is itself the divine majesty…” (C.D. II.1 – pg. 517)

So perhaps our Catholic brothers and sisters have something to teach us with that crucifix, at least insofar as it exists as a symbol that reminds us that we serve not simply the God of glory, omnipotence, power, might, and strength… but that we serve the crucified God. The God who’s strength is not the strength of this world, but is in fact expressed in weakness. The God who’s might is not the might of a Caesar Augustus, or a Barack Obama, or a President Bush, but who’s might is shown in his furious humility and humiliation. The God who’s victory is achieved not by worldly systems of coercion and force and violence, but by sacrificial love. That word ‘therefore’ in verse 9 is so extremely important because it stops us from importing all of our very human and worldly concepts of power, victory, and glory into the text. In other words it stops us from reading verses 9-11, in isolation from verses 6-8.

Reflection & Application

There’s a story towards the end of a popular Christian book that came out a few years ago that’s stuck with me for quite some time. The story is about a small group of Christians on the secular campus of Reid College in Oregon. This college was known as a major party school, and they had a week called ‘Ren Fair’ where all of the students just went crazy: lots of partying, excessive drinking, drugs, people running around literally in the nude – it was pretty wild. So what these Christians were pondering is how on earth they might make an impact during that week. In other words, how could they witness to the reality of Christ in a godless, largely post-Christian environment. So here’s what they came up with: they decided to setup a confessional booth, but not so that the students could confess to them, instead the Christians would confess to the student. And so they did. They built the confession booth right in the middle of campus, they dressed up in robes like monks and when people walked in they’d say something to this effect. “This is a confession booth. It’s a place where confessions are heard, and if you don’t mind I’d like to begin.” And then they would. They’d confess the short comings, the failures, the weaknesses of the church. They confessed their irrational fear and violence towards people in other religions like in the crusades, they confessed their failure towards people of color in this country, they confessed they’re failure towards the LGBT community, they confessed they’re failure to look after the people Christ said to always be on the lookout for – the poor and the needy. On this day, they were the confessors.

To me this is the kenotic – self emptying – move. It’s not about a formula, or a quick list of do’s and don’ts, that ensure you’re sufficiently humble and Christ like. Instead it’s a posture, an invitation to think our faith through the lens of the cross, through the lens of a life poured out. I think that’s what Paul is doing in this passage he’s grabbing our shoulders, looking right into our eyes, and asking us “Do you see? Do you see the implications of the humiliation of God? Do you get what this means for you politically? Do you understand what this means for your patriotism? For your views on war?  For your posture towards the lowly and despised in society? Do you understand, Brett?

This passage in Philippians 2 is an invitation to think our lives, and our churches, in light of the unsettling memory of the crucified God.

Let us pray.

4 thoughts on “The Self Emptying of God – A Sermon

  1. Barbara

    I really love this sentence:
    “The God who’s victory is achieved not by worldly systems of coercion and force and violence, but by sacrificial love. “

  2. Lance Westbrook

    Awesome commentary on my favorite passages about the cross. This goal of life has been taking shape for me for some time now (selfless love, sacrifice, humility…). How to apply it in the context of our culture, environment, families, backgrounds, etc. gets a bit tricky. I guess maybe you gave us the key in those last three words :-)

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