22 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: V. The X-Change

Philippians 2: 1-11

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 21st March 2010

What does it mean to live a cross-shaped life? That’s the question we’ve been exploring these weeks in Lent. What does it mean for us to live lives formed and informed by the cross of Christ? Jesus was quite explicit about the role of the cross, not only in his life but in the life of everyone who bears his name. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).”

Last week we saw the link between the depths of Jesus’ compassion that led to his passion on the cross, suffering with and for God’s people. To live a cross-shaped life means that suffering of some kind is never very away. It’s not just any kind of suffering that comes from living in a fallen world. A cross-shaped life is not glorifying in suffering. Instead, it’s the suffering that comes when we are committed to the vision and values of God’s Kingdom; it’s what we’re willing to endure for God when we confront the injustices of the world; it’s the consequence for attempting to resist everything and everyone in the world that is at odds with God’s redemptive vision for humanity. It’s the suffering that comes when God’s Kingdom comes up against all the kingdoms of this world, all the powers and principalities and forces, all the injustice, and sorrow, and evil that tries its best to undo God’s vision. The New Testament calls this force, anti-Christ. The anti-Christ is not the name of a person, but the name given to anything and anyone in the world and, yes, even within the church that is at odds with the redemptive purpose of God’s world. (1) It means being anti-God. Cross-shaped suffering is the kind of suffering that comes when in compassion we see the plight of God’s children and then choose to enter into their suffering, to stand with them, and struggle to alleviate their suffering.

That’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry because it’s God’s way. Jesus is the link between compassion and passion; they cross in him. The more we link the two in our lives the more our lives become cross-shaped. We saw last week that the word for compassion in the Bible (splaghnizomai) does not refer to pity or “feeling sorry” for someone, but it means to be moved to one’s guts, one’s bowels. (2) It’s a deep feeling in the gut. Jesus looked out and saw the suffering of God’s people and it made him sick to his stomach. He suffers with them. To suffer means, literally, to undergo, to receive. He participates in their condition and makes it his own; he shares their pain and makes it his own. And that experience moves him to act, to care, to alleviate their pain and suffering. We begin to see that what Jesus did among the crowds in the Galilee was intensified on the cross, receiving our experience and making it his own, receiving into himself our sin and making it his own, participating in all the suffering and hurt, undergoing the brokenness of our lives and making it his own, sharing our plight, our sin, taking it all into himself. Yes, he takes it all into himself, absorbing it all, every blow. Blow after blow after blow. He bears it all.

But Jesus doesn’t stay there. He just doesn’t sit with our suffering and pain; he participates in it and then gives something of himself to the situation. He acts, he moves us beyond that point either by overcoming it all and offering something new in its place, or taking our suffering and while not removing our pain does something meaningful, something creative with it. He reframes our understanding of suffering. He puts in a new context.

It’s very clear that the early church saw within Jesus something new and different. He showed that suffering can have meaning, for there was meaning in his death. “If the suffering embodied on the cross did not have such a powerful and creative [dimension] to it in love, the eye-witnesses of Jesus would have seen only his pain, misfortune or even his failure, instead of the embodiment of something new about God. Otherwise they would have dismissed it as only another instance of regrettable pain in a tragic hero.” (3) There were thousands crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus (36- c.100) tells us that at one point there were no trees left in Jerusalem for the Romans to construct crosses with. (4) Yet they saw in Jesus’ suffering love and resurrection, the sign that something new has broken into human history.

With compassion Christ participated in human suffering in order to confront it, face it head-on, in order to judge it, redeem it, and offer in its place the healing presence of God. This is what I’m calling the exchange. Receiving one thing into himself, Jesus offers something new in its place. He takes all the sin and brokenness in the world – what the Bible calls death (which is more than just physical death) – absorbs it into himself, suffers through it and extends resurrection. That’s the exchange – and it’s powerfully reflected in the symbol and meaning of the cross itself. It’s actually the cross linked with resurrection, for together they have yielded something new into the world and into our lives through faith.

For people like Paul, for the early Christians, this exchange occurred in the life of Jesus, but it didn’t stop there. It didn’t just happen in his life. Because of the power of the Spirit of Christ at work in us now, this is also a description of the life of one who is, as Paul loved to say, en Christo, “in Christ.” In Jesus we saw how God participated in humanity and how his humanity participated in God. Right from the start followers of Jesus believed this same pattern, this same dynamic, this same “mind of Christ,” as Paul says here in Philippians 2, was available to everyone who is “in Christ.” Because we are “in Christ,” God continues to participate in humanity, in the human condition, in order to bring humanity, the human condition into the very life of God. This is the exchange.

This understanding of the cross as exchange is found in the early centuries of the church. We see it in the words of Irenaeus (2nd century – c. 202), Bishop of Lyons, writing sometime in the second century, “Lord Jesus Christ…did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” (5) See the exchange here? Or as Athanasius (c.293-373) said in the fourth century, “God became what we are to make us what [God] is.” (6) This way of viewing the Christian life has always been more prevalent in the Eastern Church. They called it theosis, it means humans become like God. For them, following Jesus meant participating presently in his presence. They believed God was actually at work in them, doing something beautiful with their lives, shaping their lives to reflect more and more the glory of God. It’s why Irenaeus could say, “The glory of God is when a human person is fully alive.” The more a human being comes fully alive by participating in and with God, God’s glory is all the more shown. This approach is still central in Eastern Orthodoxy.

This view never caught on in the Western church, in either the early Roman Catholic Church or later in Protestantism, although you can find it in John Calvin (1509-1564). In the West the emphasis has been upon imitation. Think of Thomas á Kempis’ (c.1380-1471) classic text, The Imitation of Christ from 1418. The title alone sums up how many view what it means to be a Christian. How often do we assume that being a Christian means only imitating Jesus, doing what he did, trying to be good as he was, trying to behave like him. It’s as if we’ve set Jesus up as an ethical ideal or role model and have tried to emulate him, copy him, be like him. This view inevitably sets us up for failure, for who could ever attempt to be like him?

That’s not Paul’s understanding. Contemporary Pauline scholar, Douglas Campbell, argues that Paul’s theology “is no mere imitatio Christi! [imitation of Christ], for “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” to participate in Christ, such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian life into the likeness of Christ.” God is inviting us to participate in God’s life through Christ. For Paul it’s about cultivating the “mind of Christ:” “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

It’s here Paul offers this glorious hymn to Christ. What is the mind or way of Christ? What is the mind or way of God that we discovered in Christ? And what is that mind or way, what does it look like? It looks like a cross. As Jesus revealed with his life, at the very heart of God there has and always will be a cross. If Jesus is the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever experienced, then that means that Jesus on the cross is telling us something of God, of God’s way of being, of serving, God’s way of sharing and participating in human suffering. At the center of Jesus’ life was a cross. At the center, the crossroads of the Christian life stands a cross. Because in the heart of God there has and always will be a cross – the symbol of suffering love, of love that suffers for and with God’s people, the “furthest point which a God of love can go – that is, to the uttermost depth of alienation and estrangement.” (8)

Most translations of the hymn read, “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….” Such readings make it sound like when Jesus was born he gave up part of his divinity, to take up the role of a servant or slave. It sounds like he did something that a God usually doesn’t do. That he chose to condescend to being human. However, as Michael Gorman has recently shown, the text can also be translated, “who, because he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to grasped, but emptied himself….” (9) And it should be noted here, that empty doesn’t mean divestiture or a limiting of divine attributes. It’s really a robust metaphor for total self-abandonment and self-giving. (10) In Jesus, God is shown to be a servant, who pours Godself out in service and compassion for the sake of the people. Why? Because this is who God is. Because God is the One who gives and serves and gives God’s life as a suffering servant, no doubt echoing Isaiah 53. Jesus served because that’s what a God does, serve like a slave. This is a shocking claim, if you think about it.

In Jesus’ day this was not the normal way to view the “form of God.” As a matter of fact, scholars have recently shown that this phrase “form of God” was a term used to describe the characteristics of the Roman Emperor, of an Augustus, whether Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) or Tiberius Augustus (42 BC – 37 AD), of one worshipped as a god. For the Romans the emperor as form of god was demonstrated with “Piety, War, Victory, and Peace” – a demonstration of brute force and strength, the very opposite way of a slave. In the eastern section of the Empire, “form of God” was language that only applied to the emperor. For Paul and the early Christians to use this phrase in their hymn to Christ sets Christ over against the Roman emperor.”(11)

In fact, this hymn says,
if you want to see the true form of God,
if you want to know what it means to be a true God,
if you want to see how power ought to be used,
then look not at the imperial eagle of Rome,
but to the cross inflicted by Rome
which has now
by God’s grace,
in a surprising turn of events,
been given an exchange of meaning:
a symbol of death becomes of a symbol of power over death,
a cross which symbolizes God’s self-emptying in Jesus who gave in love,
and remained faithful to this love,
to the point of death,
even on a cross.

Let his life, his way of suffering-love and service, his way of compassion, empathy, sympathy, let this way, which is the very way, the mind of God, unfold in you. That’s what Paul is saying. This is not the language of imitation, but the language of participation – spoken directly to the church. Because a community that lives “in Christ” will be shaped by the journey to the cross; our journey of the cross is shaped by the story of Christ narrated here in this hymn. This is the cross-shaped life. Such a community does not simply remember and try to imitate a story. The world today is tired of a church that tries to imitate Jesus – because for the most part we’ve failed miserably at this. People have given up on the church because we have failed to yield what we say we believe. Instead, the world hungers for a church where people participate in the way of suffering-love, an experience of the present activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in us now, forming and transforming us, sometimes in costly ways, and shaping us into a body that reflects the grace and justice, the glory and love of God.

This is what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to look like and what the world needs. We see glimpses of here and there in the world and now and again in ourselves and in this church. It’s because we’ve seen what God can do through the church that keeps us here, but there’s so much yet to be done. Our journey of the cross never ends. We are called to take it up daily. The vision set before us is shaped by the mind of Christ at work in us, forever enabling us to live lives shaped by his cross.

1. See John 2: 18 & 2: 22, for example. Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155) warned the Philippians that everyone that preached false doctrine was an antichrist.
2. See Matthew 9: 35-38.
3. Hiroshi Obayahi, Agape and History: A Theological Essay on Historical Consciousness (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981), 271-271.
4. Josephus in his Jewish War tells us during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, five hundred or more were caught daily venturing outside the city to forage for food. These were crucified until there was no more room for crosses, nor any more wood to build them (5.451).
5. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c.180), 5.1.
6. Anthanasius, Incarnation of the Word, 54.
7. Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, cited in Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 71.
8. Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), .
Gorman, 9ff.
Gorman, 21.
9. John Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostles Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, cited in Gorman, 18. See also Gorman, 19.