Philippians 2:5-7 – Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not. . .cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing. . .”
I’d like to introduce a term to you. You might not have heard this term before, and chances are you will never use it in everyday conversation (unless you’re talking to theology nerd-types. . .like me!). That term is kenosis (KEH-NO-SIS), and very simply it means “to empty oneself.”
Now, personally, I can rarely encounter this word without thinking of Keno, the game of chance that I have - admittedly - only experienced in Nintendo’s Vegas Dream video game. I don’t know if the two words are related, but the conceptual connection is appropriate, since all too often the end result of participating in games of chance is empty pockets (at least in my virtual casino career)!
In any case, professional theologians – that is, people who think/teach/write about God for a living – use the term kenosis to describe what Christ did in coming to earth and living, teaching, and dying as a man for all men and women. And while they might disagree about what exactly it is that Christ gave up or emptied himself of, the idea of kenosis points to the fact that the sacrifice Christ made commenced long before his death on the cross.
One of the most profound lessons in what scholars call the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 is the idea that Christ “made himself nothing.” In the original language of the New Testament, that phrase is “he emptied himself” (that’s right – kenosis). Paul makes clear that the Son of God would have been well within his Divine rights to stay in Heaven.
But he didn’t.
He took “the very nature of a servant. . .he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:7-8).
About those empty pockets. . .
Think of it this way: Imagine there’s a person in a deep pool – a pond or lake or something. And this person is drowning. And on the shore someone (the only person around) notices the one drowning. Now the one on the shore is a person of some influence (with a cell phone full of speed dial numbers to prove it), wealth (with a wallet and car keys that signal it), and status (with forms of identification and certificates to verify it). The one on the shore knows in that moment, though, that despite all of this the drowning one needs someone to get into the water and perform a rescue operation. So, the bystander empties pockets, strips expensive clothing, and dives in, pulling the drowner to safety.
As with most analogies, this one fails to capture everything about the Christian idea of salvation. But you get the picture: God the Son is the one on the shore with all the Divine power and status that he holds by right. But he doesn’t stay on the shore; he dives in to save. He leaves Heaven to perform a rescue operation.
Is it hard to comprehend Christ willingly leaving heaven to come to earth, in his case ultimately to be rejected by the people he came to save? Yeah, it is for me too.
I had a hard time getting off my comfy couch to take the trash out when I was young (and I still have that problem at times, to be honest!). My wife would be perfectly happy living at the beach, which is her favorite place in the world. And getting my kids to leave the playground or prying them away from their favorite cartoon? Fuggedaboudit!
It’s not in our nature to willingly leave behind the places or people or activities we enjoy. If it were us faced with the prospect of leaving Heaven, chances are we’d be asking “You want me to leave here and go where and do what?!”
Good thing the Savior is more loving and giving then we tend to be.
And that’s kind of the point.
Without God’s help, we are dead in the water, so to speak – bound to follow the natural course of our frail, limited, and self-absorbed human existence. We don’t need to follow that course, however. God saw humanity drowning and dove in to save us. We’re free and clear of the pond. Sputtering and wet (read: FLAWED), to be sure. But on dry land, at least, and (hopefully) drying out.
What’s more, we’re encouraged on multiple occasions in Scripture to pattern our lives after Christ’s. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul writes. “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other,” Jesus taught (John 13:34).
And perhaps the most challenging instance of this teaching?
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it” (Jesus in Mark 8:34-35).
This is hard for us to digest, mostly because we are taught from an early age to be possessors and consumers. The twin notions of having and keeping are pillars of our North American society. Heck, the American Dream is all about what one can achieve and the (especially material) life one can make for oneself.
So, the charge to be like Jesus – who emptied himself of his Divine rights (and, some would say, his Divine power) and gave even his life for others – challenges what we’ve been taught and modeled elsewhere.
Hitting the gym (spiritually)
So, how do we “unlearn what [we] have learned” from our culture to follow more closely the example of Christ? Simply put: practice.
One opportunity for practice is the season of Lent that many Christian traditions are currently observing. The season of Lent is a season of emptying. People give up something in order to experience – albeit in a small, shadowy way – the sacrifice Jesus made, and to help break again the hold in which consumerism so easily snares us.
Hopefully by doing this, we can train ourselves to give more and more deeply.
Hopefully, we can learn how to trust more completely and implicitly the God who gave so much for us.
And hopefully we remember that Jesus didn’t teach his followers to take up their cross and go,
He told them to take up their cross and follow.