Christ’s Call To Kenosis

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:    Philippians 2:1-11

Summary:  On Palm Sunday and through the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus embodies the spirit of kenosis, yielding and submitting to God’s will through giving up his divine power, and modeling the way of a servant to the point of suffering and death on the cross.  Mennonite communities have followed Jesus’ example of footwashing as a symbol of our desire to submit to one another in humble service.   

Philippians 2:1-11 is one of my favorite passages of scripture.  If I had to list my top ten passages, these words of the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi would probably make that list.

There’s so much here to reflect on—in the first part of the passage, the apostle Paul gives some great insight of how we in the church are called to treat one another, and in the second part he gives us the mindset, the model for how we are to live together in community.

And that model is Jesus, and specifically here, Jesus’ willingness to give up his divine power as God and instead live as a humble, sacrificial servant to the point of dying on the cross.

There’s a Greek word used here that is a key to Jesus’ attitude and actions in this passage.  That word is kenosis, and it literally means self-emptying, self-giving—say it, “kenosis”.  Now you can tell people you can speak Greek!

Kenosis is a voluntary giving up of one’s own will and power and giving it over, yielding it in submission to someone or something else.

For example, there was a young girl who was suffering from a rare blood disease. Her only hope was to receive a transfusion from someone with exactly the same blood type as hers.

After testing various members of the girl’s family, it was discovered that her 10-yr. old brother had a precise match.  The doctor talked to him, and gently said, “Your sister is dying, but your blood would save her.  Are you willing to give your blood to save your sister?”

The boy hesitated for a moment.  The doctor could see that he was anxious and afraid.  But then, the boy smiled and agreed to go through with it.

After the transfusion, the doctor went to visit the brother in the recovery room.   When he entered the room, the boy asked him, “Doctor, how long will it be until I die?

The doctor then realized the boy’s misunderstanding, and that he had been willing to give his life so his sister might live.

This is kenosis, folks.  It’s the same attitude that Jesus’ mother Mary had when the angel told her as a teenage girl who wasn’t married yet that she was going to bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.

In the midst of Mary’s questions and her fear, she submitted to God’s will for her, saying “Here I am, willing to be the Lord’s servant.  Let it be to me according to your word.”

Jesus is our ultimate model of kenosis.   In his divine identity as God, he could have played the ‘God card’ to prevent his suffering and establish his kingdom by force, but he resisted the temptation to do that.

Instead, our scripture says that Jesus “didn’t equate equality with God as something to be grasped, but instead he:

“emptied himself, taking the form of a slave (or servant), taking on human likeness. And then as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

This idea of kenosis is one of those mysteries and paradoxes that we encounter as followers of Jesus.   I’m still trying to grasp it and understand what it means to flesh it out.  It’s like Jesus saying that in order to save your life, you must lose it.

A book that has helped me better understand the idea of kenosis is by Marlena Graves called “The Way up is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself”. 

Graves says this about kenosis:

 “Jesus didn’t cling to his rights.  He repeatedly gave them up.  His posture was “not my will, but yours be done”.  Similarly, each day of our lives God asks us to relinquish our rights in favor of his will—that our will and his will may become one.  To choose emptiness entails a deep trust in God as we take the downward descent into servanthood and humility… 

Graves talks about this merging of our wills with God’s will in kenosis.  Our agenda becomes subservient to God’s agenda, and doing this requires a radical trust in God.

Then Graves goes on to talk about how kenosis is countercultural in our world.  She says that it’s like the ladder of success is inverted.

It’s downward mobility instead of upward mobility.  And it makes absolutely no sense from the human perspective.

I recently read a story about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest college and pro basketball players of all time who won all kinds of championships and MVP awards.  Anyone remember what shot Kareem was famous for?

It was the skyhook.  (I never quite mastered it myself; I always shot it off of the wrong foot, and of course it didn’t go into the basket as often as Kareem’s did, usually because it got blocked by someone a foot taller than me!).

Anyway, recently Kareem did something that made no sense from a human perspective.  He took all 4 of his championship rings, his 3 MVP trophies, and other memorabilia and sold it all for $2.8 million not because he needed the money, but to fund a youth education program.

He literally emptied his shelves, and gave up all those things that in the world’s eyes determined his value and identity and greatness, for a cause beyond himself.

That’s what kenosis is about.  It knows that in God’s economy, there are more important things than money, power, and status as the world defines them.

Henri Nouwen is another great example of kenosis, both through his words and through his life choices.  While he was a professor at a prestigious Ivy League school, he felt a restlessness, and a nudging from God to pursue a much different calling.

Nouwen gave up his coveted position and accepted the call to serve as pastor at L’Arche community in Toronto, and he lived in community among adults with intellectual disabilities,

people who he couldn’t impress with his best-selling books or his reputation as a distinguished speaker.

In a couple of Nouwen’s books, he reflects on Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness.  Nouwen describes these temptations as first,

relevance– that our worth is measured by our productivity and how successful and respectable we are, because of our accomplishments, our titles, and who we associate with.

The second temptation is to be spectacular; to gain attention, recognition, popularity and influence; in today’s world people might measure it by how many followers they have on social media.

The third temptation is the temptation to gain power and use that power for your own benefit.

Jesus didn’t give in to Satan’s temptations to bolster himself; they were indeed tempting, but he gave them up and instead put his identity and his trust in God.

I saw a quote recently on social media which said that people who embrace Christian Nationalism might say that Jesus made the wrong choices in rejecting relevance, spectacularity, and power.

Folks, the temptation is real because kenosis is countercultural and doesn’t make sense in the eyes of the world around us.

In Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ, he says that the temptations of being relevant, spectacular, and powerful stay with us all of our lives.  They are strong because they play directly on our desire to join others on the upwardly mobile road.

 Nouwen makes a clarification:

 I am not denigrating ambition, nor am I against progress and success.  But true growth is something other than the uncontrolled drive for upward mobility in which making it to the top becomes its own goal…There is a profound difference between the false ambition for power and the true ambition to love and serve.  It is the difference between trying to raise ourselves up and trying to lift up our fellow human beings.

In our Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, serving with humility is something that we talk about and value highly.  In fact, beginning in the early Mennonite communities in the 16th century in Europe, there was a German word that reflected this spirit of servanthood.

That word was Gelassenheit.   Gelassenheit doesn’t have an exact English equivalent, but for the early Mennonites it seemed to be very similar to kenosis

It meant things like humility, and yieldedness, and submission to God’s will, or a serenity that came as a result of trusting in God.

They also used gelassenheit to describe their relationships with one another—that God calls them to submit to each other and humbly serve one another to follow Jesus’ example and teachings.

And Anabaptist and Mennonite communities have a ritual or ordinance that has been an important part of their church life over the centuries that symbolically expresses gelassenheit—

it’s something that Jesus first practiced with his disciples at the Last Supper to model the idea of humble servanthood– what would that be?  Footwashing.

Footwashing spoke to the heart of Anabaptist spirituality, as a visible expression of the spirit of humility, service, and love.  It is gelassenheit fleshed out, and maybe we can say it is an expression of kenosis as well.

This coming Thursday we will continue the Mennonite tradition of footwashing at our Maundy Thursday service, as a reminder to submit to one another and serve one another as Jesus practiced in his life, and calls his followers to do.

I want to say a couple more things about kenosis and submission before I close:.

First, at the beginning of my message I said that kenosis is a voluntary giving up of one’s own will and power and submitting oneself in service to God and others.

This idea of it being voluntary is important to remember.  Much abuse has happened in the church as a result of church leaders demanding that church members submit to them and yield to them, or one spouse (usually a husband) demanding that his wife submit to him,

Often these demands are done in order to control, silence, or take advantage of others. And they often happen when the leader or husband have done something wrong and don’t want it to be challenged or revealed.

Obviously these are abuses of power; no one should ever be forced or shamed or guilt-tripped into submission, especially when there is no accountability involved.

The way of Jesus is the way of voluntary mutual submission and accountability.  That’s the environment where people can flourish and the community built up through a spirit of gelassenheit and kenosis at work.

The second and final thing is that it seems like those of us who have more prestige, possessions, and power in the world often find it harder to empty ourselves in submission to God and others than those who have less.

As a middle-class American, I am in that camp of the “haves” compared to most of the rest of the world.  And when we lived in Bolivia, I was humbled and challenged by the kenosis,

the humble servanthood I saw in so many of my Bolivian brothers and sisters in Christ, who had so much less than I did according to the world’s standards.

I think of people like Balthazar Opimi, a church leader in a rural Mennonite congregation that I often visited.  He was a self-supporting pastor, who grew tomatoes to make a living, and often struggled to provide for his family.

When Balthazar wasn’t in the fields, he was serving his church and also his community, as he was on the governing board of his village as well.

He had a lot of clout in the community, but he didn’t let it go to his head or push his weight around.  He listened to people, consulted with others to make decisions, even though it often took hours of deliberating to come to consensus.

Balthazar was a humble servant leader who submitted himself to God and to his fellow brothers and sisters.  He was a living example of having the mind of Christ rooted in kenosis that the apostle Paul talks about in our passage today.

Balthazar’s Christlike example has rubbed off on his daughter Angela, who has been a wonderful servant leader in the Mennonite church in Bolivia ever since we left Bolivia in the early 1990’s.

Today is Palm Sunday.  I want to close with a quote that I saw on threads this weekend by a guy named Ray Chang:

Perhaps the greatest apologetic against Christian Nationalism is in what we celebrate on Palm Sunday.  Instead of riding in on a majestic horse, Jesus rode in on a donkey declaring that his Kingdom is not of this world.  He could’ve easily taken Jerusalem and overthrown the Roman Empire, but he didn’t.  If he wanted to make Jerusalem great again, he would’ve gone in as a warrior king or a conquering hero.  Instead, he went in on a donkey—a sign of humility.

So friends, let us seek to follow Jesus’ way of kenosis, yielding ourselves to God and to one another in humility.  And may our way of selfless living serve as a powerful countercultural witness to the world around us.

I want to close with a prayer from St. Ignatius of Loyola:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will, all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.  To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.