“What He Did, He Does – in Us”
I’ve been one of those homilists who occasionally complain about having been dealt a hand of really difficult readings. Well, I certainly have no complaints today. You might say that I hit the homiletic jackpot this Sunday.
A Precious Text
Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of the oldest, and most precious, passages in the entire New Testament. Paul wrote this letter in the mid to late 50s. But in the section we heard this morning, scholars tells us, he was quoting from a liturgical hymn that was already current in the Philippian community. That means that what we heard this morning is how the early Christians understood and related to Jesus just 20 years or so after his death. That understanding was focused, as you heard, on Jesus’s self-emptying –in Greek kenosis. – In my reflections today, I’m going to concentrate on this second reading. And I’ll be doing so with the help of a commentary on Philippians titled The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahayana Meditations by a friend of mine, John Keenan, who is both an Episcopal priest and a practicing Buddhist scholar.
Have the Mind of Christ
Before Paul quotes from this previously existing hymn, he opens with a theme that is the heartbeat of all his letters: He invites the Philippians to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This is a variant on a phrase that repeats over 160 times in his letters: Paul constantly invites his fellow Jesus-followers “to be in Christ Jesus.” He repeats this call in different variations: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14) “Do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2Cor 13:5) “I announce to you a “mystery, which is Christ Jesus in you.” (Col 1:27) And what for me is his most powerful announcement: “I live not I, but Christ lives in and as me.” (Gal 2:20) We can say that for Paul, being a Christian was not primarily a matter of believing in Jesus’s message (he says very little about the historical Jesus), but of being Christ, of somehow becoming identified with Christ.
What is the Mind of Christ? Emptiness
But in this letter to the Philippians, Paul not only calls Christians to have the Mind of Christ: he goes on to remind them what this Mind of Christ, according to this earlier hymn, is: It’s empty. For this early community, only 20 years after Jesus was executed, they believed that the reason why Jesus was divine and a savior is not because he is the incarnate Word of God (that came some 70 years later in John’s Gospel) but because he emptied himself!
But what does that mean? Please allow me to try to answer that question with the help of the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart and the Asian mystic Buddha, both of whom talked a lot about self-emptying. For Eckhart, self-emptying is expressed in his notion of “Gelassenheit” – a German word that, like many German words, is hard to translate. Some scholars translate it with the maybe even stranger English word “releasement.” It indicates “letting go,” “letting be.” Tibetan Buddhists speak of total openness to what is, allowing everything to be.
Eckhart and Buddhists are indicating, I think, that to make oneself empty is to make oneself receptive. You can receive only if you make space to receive. Emptiness becomes receptivity.
One empties oneself of one’s need to be in control, to know and understand everything. Paul says that Jesus even let go of the “forms” or images of God that he had. To empty oneself is to fall completely open, to accept things as they are in order to respond to them as we can.
But to really do this calls for a profound act of trust. To empty ourselves, to let go completely, to give up control is implicitly an act of trusting, open-ended trusting, even when we can’t say just what we are trusting. Emptiness is really a trusting openness, a trusting receptivity.
And if we do this, Eckhart and Buddhist teachers tell us, something can happen. The result of such emptying or letting go, of such radical trusting is that – paradoxically and almost miraculously — we can become aware, we can feel, that our emptiness already contains something that we weren’t aware of. Our emptiness is really a fullness.
In Christian terms, in opening, emptying, allowing, and trusting — we come to realize that we are already filled with, and held by, the love and presence of God – a presence that is as mysterious as it is real. The cliché applies: let go in order to let God… empty in order to receive.
But Paul adds something else to his description of Christ’s self-emptying: when we experience or wake up to the Holy Mystery that fills and holds us, we realize that it fills and holds everyone and everything. And so, emptying ourselves leads us to the service of others, to naturally feel compassion for each other, readiness to love even if it means, as it did for Jesus, death on a cross. We become servants of others. — Thus, the Holy Mystery we experience in emptying, in letting go, both sustains us in peace and connects us in compassion.
The Self-Emptying Jesus of the Gospels
This kenosis or self-emptying of Christ that Paul announces in Philippians is evident in what we see in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels.
- Jesus’ primary image for, or way of speaking about, Holy Mystery was Abba – Loving Mother/Father with whom he could totally let go and be like a trusting child. He lived with the abandon and acceptance and trust of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
- Many Gospel stories describe how he let himself be led by the Spirit of his Abba. We hear how he emptied himself and entrusted himself to the “will” and action of Abba, even when that will was not clear as in the Garden of Olives – “Not my will but your will be done,” – or even when Abba’s will contradicted what Jesus expected: After crying out on the cross “My God why have you forsaken me,” his final self-emptying and letting go, his final trusting was “into your hands I commend my Spirit.”
- Jesus summed up his life of self-emptying in his paradoxical teaching: you must lose yourself in order to find yourself…. The seed must die to what it is now in order to be what it is meant to be.
- This was the self-emptying Jesus that this early hymn in Philippians was pointing to. This was the mind of Christ.
We Have the Mind of Christ
And now comes what for me is the most stunning and promising part of this reading: Paul tell his community of Greek and Jewish Jesus-followers in Philippi that they can, and need to, have this same mind of Christ. They have the opportunity and the capacity to live as Jesus did. This is why I titled this sermon “What He Did He Does – in Us.” But let me stress again: this is not just a call to imitate the self-emptying Christ. It is an offer to be him, to identify with him, to be so empowered by him that one can say that we live “in Christ Jesus,” that “it is not I but Christ who lives in me and as me.”
This is the mystery of what it means to be a Christian or follower of Jesus. It is not just to obey him, but to feel his risen, ongoing presence in our very selves and in our community called church. We experience and nurture this sense of Christ with and in us in our coming together for the liturgy of the Word and Eucharist; we nurture it in some form of daily prayer or meditation when we can open ourselves in trust, let ourselves go in knowing that our True Self, as Merton calls it, is not the self we think we are. It is the Christ Spirit living and animating us from within.
This is what Paul was getting at, I think, at the end of the today’s reading when he urges the Philippians and us “to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling” – but then he immediately adds that in doing so we will discover that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work.” Having emptied ourselves in trust, we realize that our “working” is really “God’s working” – or in the words of our opening hymn: “God toils wher’re we toil.” Not I but Christ who lives and toils in me.
Having the mind of Christ, knowing that it is not we who live and act but Christ who is living and acting in and through us, we really do have what we need to deal with what life brings us. Whatever it is that we face – whether the devastating and ever-lurking Covid virus, the coming elections, the state of the Supreme Court, persistent White Supremacy, financial stress, failing health, failing memory – Whatever it is, because we are in Christ Jesus we can face it, even welcome it, and then, with Christ, we respond as calmly, as trustingly, and as compassionately as we can. –
I invite you, I invite myself, to trust this, to practice this — and see what happens.
Prayers of the Faithful
27 Sept 2020
In these Prayers of the Faithful, we feel and express the compassion of Christ that connects us with each other as it connects us with the needs of our world
- We hold in compassion the millions of people throughout the world who are suffering because of the coronavirus, either as victims of it or as witnesses of loved ones affected by it, for them we pray:
- We hold in compassion those who are suffering economically because of the virus, having lost jobs and health care, unable to pay bills or buy food, for them we pray:
- We hold in compassion all our fellow citizens who have suffered and are suffering from racism and White privilege, may they find strength and support in our shared struggles for justice, for them we pray:
- We hold in compassion our political leaders, our broken legislatures both state and federal, may they be inspired and healed by examples of honesty, courage, and compassion, for them we pray:
- Take a moment to bring to mind and speak the names of those for whom you wish to extend the compassion of Christ…. For them we pray:
In the words of Richard Rohr we pray:
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens and blessings. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world.. . . Knowing that we are heard better than we can speak, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, amen.