Homily for Oct. 1, 2023
Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Just about half-way through our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we encounter what many scholars believe is the earliest known Christian hymn. Whether it was written by Paul or is quoted here it profoundly summarizes what Paul and the early Christian community had come to believe about Jesus, the Christ. In the translation I best remember it begins:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself…being born in human likeness.
In their book, The First Paul, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan discuss three aspects of this hymn:
The first is that it echoes a common Pauline theme contrasting Jesus with the first created humans, whose original sin with the apple was motivated by the desire to shake off human limitations and be like God.
The second is that it parallels a development in John’s Gospel of Jesus as the pre-existent Word who sets aside divine powers and willingly becomes vulnerable in obedience to God’s plan for human redemption.
Thirdly, Borg and Crossan observe the stark contrast between Jesus’ behavior and that of Rome’s imperial rulers who had started to make a habit of having themselves (and more often than you might expect, their horses) declared to be objects of divine worship. To assert that it is name of Jesus to which every knee must bend is a deliberate challenge to the ruling powers, institutions and cultural norms of the time.
All of these insights are helpful and I am not proposing that any of them be set aside. But I will say that over the last couple of weeks as this profound hymn entered my head and heart over and over again, it is not any of these three interpretations that explain why it so unsettled and preoccupied me..
Your attitude must be that of Christ. He emptied himself…being born in human likeness…and being found in human form Christ humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…
The week before last my wife, Nancy and I were pulled in quite different directions. She spent much of the week in Chicago assisting as our son and daughter-in-law welcomed our third grandchild. At the same time, I was in Gladwin Mi, providing some respite to my sister-in-law as she cares for my youngest brother who is terminally ill with cancer. At one point we were talking on the phone and she said something to the effect of “it’s a little strange. We’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. Here I am welcoming new life, and you’re there dealing with Scott’s impending death.”
And that’s when it hit me. Whether pushing my baby brother in a wheelchair down a riverfront path on a beautiful fall day, sharing memories, discussing pain medications and preparing, as best we can for what we know is coming
Or sitting in a living room with a lap full of three wriggly grandchildren trying hard not to drop the newest one
It is all the same.
It is emptying.
It is obedience.
The emptying that Christ embodies is not an act of abnegation-of denying oneself.
In a recent essay writer and pastor Liz Cooledge Jenkens put it this way:
“Maybe this is what self-emptying looks like—not that we make ourselves nothing, as some English versions translate verse 7, but that we empty ourselves both of arrogance and of self-belittlement. That those of us tempted toward narcissism are met with loving accountability from our communities. And those of us tempted to think our own needs aren ’t important find joy and true fellowship with those who consider our concerns essential.”
Likewise, the obedience exemplified by Jesus is not a slavish submission to outside authority. It is rather an embrace of the full image of God in which we are created.
Emptying and obedience are about setting excessive ego and insecurity aside and entering Intentionally, uncertainly and faithfully into each of those moments that draw us into our human form.
The hymn that Paul, Lydia, Timothy and the rest of the church at Philippi sang with such joy was not primarily an exercise in early Christology. It was and is a template of how each of us is to live each day.
Being found in human form, we humble and empty ourselves, becoming attentive to-mindful of-each moment of joy, of suffering and everything in between. In doing so we uncover a deep interrelation with all living things and the world, itself.
The grandson in my arms connects me with the infant born to a refugee mother in sheltering in a Chicago police precinct. The grief I feel for the parents and brother I have lost and the deep tenderness I feel toward the younger one I am losing brings me into a deep and mysterious communion with those who are suffering and dying around the globe and calls me to respond in whatever ways that I can.
We make ourselves obedient by stepping ever more deeply into the humanity inhabited by God – tender, generous, and striving always for a more just and compassionate world.