The Dignity of Humility
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
March 16, 2008
Scripture: Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54
“He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men.” — Philippians 2:7
This week culminates on Good Friday with the murder of God by church and state, by you and me. This is what the Cross tells us about our part in this matter of the death by torture of the young man Jesus. We did it, or we applauded it, or we ignored it, but in any case we are responsible. Not the Jews alone, not the Romans alone, but all of us together, and each one of us individually. This is the human message of the Cross; so what is the divine message, the other side of the coin? That is, what does the Cross tell us about God?
The “murder of God” is, of course, a highly paradoxical phrase. Gods by definition do not die and so a fortiori cannot be murdered – unless they allow themselves to be, and that is the point of our text for today. God willingly transformed himself into a slave so that he could approach us slaves on our level and persuade us to join him on his level; and not only did he become a slave for us slaves, but he also allowed himself to be tortured to death by us torturers, so that we might be able face to face to see his agony and to hear his invitation to take his wounded hand and come with him out of the torture chamber.
Our passage from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a fragment of a hymn regularly sung in the liturgy of those earliest churches in Asia Minor. So this is not a peculiarly Pauline doctrine, but a common teaching of the church of that time. The hymn tells of the original divinity of the man Jesus, how he was, is, and always will be one and the same as God the Creator and God the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, despite his incomparably exalted status, God by an act of his divine will became a man so as to enter the world of us men and women in order to raise us from that world, which because of our sin has become a place of eternal death, to his world, which because of his forgiving love remains a world of eternal life.
In traditional Christian theology the self-humbling of God is called the kenosis, which is Greek for “emptying,” and the phrase “emptied himself, ” as in “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is in Greek ” heauton ekenosen…” The kenosis is the first of two primary characteristics of God the Holy Trinity, the other being perichoresis, that is, mutual deferment. I do not wish to overload this sermon by explaining both of these primary words, so let’s put the latter aside and go with the former. What does the Cross tell us about the self-humiliation (kenosis) of God?
Simply the fact of it; the fact that his love trumps his dignity, that like a loving parent he is not too proud to humble himself in hope of winning back his rebel children. How many cases do you know of where pride ruined a relationship and then made it irreparable? How many fathers are there who do not talk to their sons any longer because of an old insult, or an act of defiance that pride will not allow to be forgotten. I often think that there is nothing quite so destructive of the human world as the pride that will not bow or even admit the possibility of a mistake, or the fact that there may be several valid understandings of the same phenomenon. The Cross tells us that God whose dignity is beyond compare is willing to humiliate himself in order to get through to us. A proud human parent may drive a child out of the house rather than concede the value of the child’s point of view; our divine parent sets his dignity aside altogether and appears alongside slaves and traitors in the blood and din of crucifixion agony. God became a man, not a wealthy business man, not a professional man, noted virtuoso of the arts, but a young man who owned nothing save a seamless robe and was forsaken by most of his fiends and tortured to death with thieves.
The wise can see that there is no dignity like the dignity of the humility of the parent who humbles himself or herself to win the will of a child. The kenosis of God is such a perfectly dignified self-humiliation. Clearly, only God can effect a self-emptying without ceasing to be God. This means that there is no need for us to try to reconcile logically the fullness of the empty God; both emptiness and fullness pertain together and thus are a mystery to human minds, which is hardly surprising. Only the most juvenile human mind holds that because I cannot understand something it cannot be so, that the limit of my understanding is the limit of all possibly real things. God emptied himself and became a slave and by the same action filled himself and became the name above all names, which every one of us puny and perverse human beings will sooner or later acknowledge as Lord and God. Only God can make the deepest humiliation be the highest exaltation, the work of the slave be the reign of the king. Only God can do such a thing and only God has done it!
Because God had made his kenosis we do not need to strive and struggle to get to heaven because God has descended to the hell of the Cross to meet us there (Martin Luther). So salvation is a gift given to us at the precisely appropriate point of our sad existence, on the skid row of the soul, the soup kitchen of the heart, the slave pen of addiction and self-deceptions, including especially pride, that will not accept a slavish savior, but only one dignified enough to be worthy of being our friends; or much of the time no savior at all. “Leave me alone! I do not need help! Such pathetic irony!
Our sick souls can barely claw their way up to the low point of the divine humility, to the Cross, but those who allow God to pull them up to that point find that it is the highest low point imaginable. So don’t be fooled by the donkey he is riding; this is the King of Glory! Go to him! He can really help you!