Years before the first Gospels were written, maybe even decades before, the earliest Christians were sharing the story of Jesus through hymns they could quickly memorize. Paul quotes one of them in this week’s reading. Here’s how it probably went as it was being circulated:
Christ Jesus, being 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.
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.
This looks a bit like a creed. It sort of is a creed, but only sort-of. At this stage, it’s a poem. (That’s what hymns are—poems, before they’re set to music.) And it’s a poem that says something downright revolutionary about God, at least if you read it the way many Christians read it these days.
Here’s one way to read it, the way I did read it the first time I saw it: Jesus could have used his Godly power to control everybody else (to exploit them), but he chose instead to use the self-emptying, self-humiliating power of a servant. Go Jesus! Now he’s back in control. That’s probably the way most Christians have read this. It assumes that Godly power is the power to control.
But here’s a more revolutionary way to read it, the way I and a growing number of Christians now read it: Jesus rejected the very idea that his Godly power is the power to control everybody else; he did not regard this power as the power to exploit. Instead, his living out a servant’s self-emptying, self-humiliating power revolutionized the very idea of Godly power. And his exaltation is the final verdict that this is indeed God’s ultimate power.
In other words, Jesus lives an utterly self-giving, humanly divine and divinely human life whose unconditional embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection, devastation, and death. The shape of his humanity is the shape of the divinity he shares with the one he called Father. So God’s power is not the power to bypass utter rejection, devastation, or even death, but the all-embracing power to outlive and undo them.
This is not the kind of power most of us want. Our default is to want the power to bypass suffering, and we tend to project that onto God. And then when God doesn’t give us that power, despite our devotion, we feel betrayed.
But what if God’s power, the power God shares with us, is the power that Jesus lived and still somehow lives? Then we needn’t feel abandoned when things get devastating.
In that light, look again at Paul’s closing words: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Fear and trembling? You bet! What could be more unsettling than realizing that no less than God is at work in you? Well, maybe what could be even more unsettling is realizing that this God who is at work in you is drawing you, and me, into Jesus’ way of a servant’s self-emptying, self-humiliating power! Yes, our salvation lies in outliving and undoing utter rejection, devastation, and even death, but only by living through them, not by bypassing them. Still, Paul is also saying that we can live through all this precisely because God is living through it with us.
And here we are these days, surrounded daily by news of utter rejection, devastation, and death—and for many of us it’s not just news but our experience. Paul quoted this poem to encourage reconciliation among his readers. We certainly need reconciliation now, as well as encouragement. Will we get it?
Don’t expect the virus to go away suddenly. Don’t expect conflicting people to start embracing one another overnight. Don’t expect deranged conspiracy theories to disappear. Don’t expect to avoid taking stands—like Black Lives Matter—that provoke others’ rejection.
Do expect the God who lives as Jesus lives to be here in the middle of all this, dragging you through it one way or another. If that evokes fear and trembling, why shouldn’t it? But there’s also courage to be found here, as we let the mind of Christ dwell in us.