Climbing Down the Ladder of Kenosis

In a world where we are told to always “look out for number one”, and rewards climbing up the social and corporate ladder, Jesus calls his followers to a life of servanthood characterized by kenosis, emptying ourselves for the sake of others.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Mark 10:35-45; Phil. 2:3-10


When you’re hiking up a mountain, climbing up to the top is a lot harder than going back down.  If you’re like me, going up, you have to make a lot of stops to catch your breath, but on the way down, you can go a lot faster and further without stopping.

But with some things, going down is more challenging than going up.  I have found this to be the case with navigating stairs after my knee surgery two months ago.

I find it a lot harder to go down the stairs than up the stairs right now. Walking down the stairs hurts my knees more, I feel less stable, and I have to take it slower.

This idea of going up being easier and better than going down is something that plays itself out in a lot of ways in life.

It’s usually more appealing to upgrade rather than downsize, whether that be a cell phone, an appliance, a car, or a house.

It’s more desirable to get a promotion and move up the corporate ladder than to get a demotion that puts you farther down the ladder.

In a culture like ours where a person’s worth is based largely on social class and the kind of lifestyle a person leads, associating with people who are higher up on the social ladder is more appealing than being associated with the poor and marginalized on the bottom of the ladder.

But Jesus turns all of this upside down.  The interaction between Jesus and his disciples James and John highlights the tension between the way of Jesus and life in his kingdom versus the way that the kingdoms of this world operate, the contrast between the easy and attractive way of going up versus the hard and costly way of going down.

Of Ruling over others versus serving them.  The difference between getting everything you want in life versus sacrificing your own agenda to care for the needs of others.

On the surface, the question that James and John ask Jesus is kind of shocking.       You wouldn’t expect two of Jesus’ most faithful and seasoned disciples to ask him the favor of putting them up at his right and left hand when he rules over his Kingdom in glory.

They should know better by now, right?   I mean, they have been hanging out with Jesus for a long time.  For years they have heard Jesus’ words and seen him in action.

Over and over again, Jesus has taught and modeled a message of choosing others over self, a message of being vulnerable and being willing to suffer, over protecting yourself and insulating yourself from the pain of the world.

Over and over again, Jesus has shown them that in the values of his Kingdom, greatness is found in servanthood, in giving of yourself to others.

So why would James and John stoop so low to ask for something so high?

But would you or I have acted any differently?

I mean, all around us we are bombarded with messages that tell us we deserve “the best”, that as a commercial a long time ago said “you only go around once in life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can get”.

I mean, I’m all for having a healthy self-esteem, and practicing self-care.  These things are important.  But if we’re serious about following Jesus, this shouldn’t translate into an attitude of privilege or entitlement.

And this sense of entitlement is what I see behind James and John’s request.  They’re like, “look, Jesus, we’ve stuck with you from day one, when you called us to drop our nets as fishermen and follow you.”

“We’ve never abandoned you, well, at least not yet.  We were by your side when you healed people.  We passed around bread and fish to thousands of people.  We navigated a boat all around the Sea of Galilee for you.”

“So haven’t we earned the privilege to be right up there with you, one of us on your right and the other on your left?.  We deserve this, right, Jesus?”

Can you relate to this mentality that James and John had?  If I’m honest with myself, I too can get to the place where I feel entitled, where I’ve earned a higher standing, a more favored status with God and with others.

It’s like in those rewards programs, I like to have those upgrades, those perks that only certain people get, those privileges that allow you to rise to the top of the customer base.

It appeals to the most self-centered parts of my human nature.  The nature that likes to be in control, that likes to feel special and superior to others.

So I need to constantly be reminded of the Jesus way, which is the way of losing our lives in service to Jesus through serving others as the way to find true meaning and joy in life.

I think I already used the story of the The Giving Tree at least once before for the Children’s Time in the past year, but it’s a story I need to keep hearing,

A message to keep sharing with others in order to keep us from being seduced by the barrage of messages around us that say in so many words “you need to look out for number one!”

That’s why I need to keep books like “The Upside Down Kingdom” close to me on my bookshelf.  This a classic by Donald Kraybill that I first read soon after I joined the Mennonite Church, and referred to many times since.

I need to keep reading books like Kraybill’s, and like this recent one by Marlena Graves called The Way Up is Down: becoming yourself by forgetting yourself.

In this book, Graves talks a lot about this Greek word called Kenosis as a way to describe the servant way of Jesus.  Kenosis is the word used in the Philippian passage that we heard, when Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself”.

These verses are a beautiful description of the way of servanthood and humility that Jesus voluntarily chose, even though he could have used his power to lord over people like other Kings do.

And the apostle Paul reminds us to “have the same mind” of Jesus in the way we relate to the people and the world around us.  He says,

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Look out not only for your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:3-5)

This is kenosis, folks.  Marlena Graves describes kenosis as a voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s.  It’s a life characterized by self-giving.”  (p. 6, The Way Up is Down)

And then Graves uses Jesus’ mother Mary as one who embodied kenosis.  When Mary found out that she was going to be the mother of Jesus the Savior, Graves says

“Mary embraced…a spirit of humility even when she had no idea what was happening and no guarantee that all would turn out well.  Nevertheless, she risked everything on God.  She gave herself over to God’s plans for her life instead of plotting her own.”

And then Graves wonders “could it be that Jesus learned the habit of voluntary self-emptying and renunciation of self-will by observing his mother?”  p. 7

I know that in many ways my own mother has been an example of kenosis—always giving, always serving, always putting others before herself.  Maybe for her it wasn’t so much of a choice because she had to raise 8 kids!  But she did it with so much love.

Throughout the Church’s history, there are wonderful stories of how the Church and its members have followed Jesus’ example of kenosis, of self-emptying for the sake of others.

Graves tells the story from history of when a plague spread across North Africa and Western Europe in 250 AD, Christians put their own lives at risk by caring for the sick and burying the dead.

While other people were so concerned about getting the plague that they left others to die, from the elderly to babies, people of faith were doing works of mercy and demonstrating generosity and compassion to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Some historians point to this period as the beginning of the first hospitals, nurses, hospices, and funeral homes.  (p. 96)  We’ve seen this kind of kenosis being lived out by health care professionals, educators and so many others during this pandemic we’ve been dealing with for a year and a half.

Another story:  in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, a group of Christian friends in Clapham, London, who were wealthy and influential got together and decided that they wanted to use their resources and their influence to serve God’s Kingdom purposes.

They were known as the Clapham Sect.  Their most well-known member was the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who together with the group worked to abolish slavery.

They worked tirelessly and sacrificially, emptying themselves, climbing down the ladder of kenosis for the sake of racial justice.

As we know, the struggle for racial justice continues in our country.  The other day, Joe Walsh, a former congressman who I follow on twitter tweeted this:

We’re at a point in our history where white Americans need to talk less and listen more.  We’re at a point where white Americans need to feel a little more uncomfortable.

Maybe this is one way that those of us who are white and American can practice kenosis.  We’ve had a prominent voice in our country’s history up until now.

And instead of feeling threatened by the increase of people who are not white in our country, now is a good time to empty ourselves of some words in order to better listen to the voices of those who have been silenced or muffled in the past.

Another story:  one of my contemporary heroes of the faith is Rich Mullins.  I mentioned him in a sermon a while back as the writer of the song, The Maker of Noses.

Mullins became a very successful musician in the contemporary Christian music scene in the 80’s and 90’s.  He was a household name and made a ton of money.

But the servant way, the kenosis way of Jesus grabbed hold of him, to the point where Mullins made the decision to move to a small village in the Navajo reservation on the border of Arizona and New Mexico.

He lived in a traditional Navajo Hogan on that reservation during the last years of his life.  He moved there to do something that he was really passionate about: teach music and art to Native American children, children who in many ways have been pushed to the bottom of the ladder of society.

Mullins put someone in charge of managing all the money he had made, and he basically said, “give me this much to live on here in the reservation, and then give the rest away to causes that serve and empower the poor, those who have been neglected or trampled upon in the world.”

Rich Mullins is a great example of kenosis and the joy that can be found in downward mobility.

Our church right here, is also part of the history of Church seeking to be faithful to the call of Jesus to be good stewards and servants of what God has given us to serve those not only inside these four walls but outside them as well.

There’s an announcement in the bulletin saying that 45 years ago TODAY this congregation had its first public worship service.   About a year later, in 1977, Northern Virginia Mennonite Church formally organized and had its charter service.

As the bulletin states, we’re planning to celebrate our 45th anniversary sometime next fall and we’re going to try to invite anyone who’s been part of the church’s history to join us to celebrate God’s faithfulness to this church from the beginning until now.

Michele Smolenski is the current member who’s been here the longest, and I met with her the other day to help get started on planning for the anniversary service.  We’re going to bring others into the planning as well.

I found this folder in a file cabinet that tells the early history of the congregation as well as a plan for procuring a permanent meeting location, along with a strategy for fundraising for that project.

One thing that struck me as I read through this was the focus on serving those in need in and around our community.  Serving with time, money, and by showing hospitality.

This church has a long history of reaching out to immigrants and refugees moving into the area.  There was a strong ministry to prisoners and helping them transition back into society once they were released.

In the history of this congregation, many resources and much love has been poured out to people both inside and outside of these four walls.  It’s fitting that I read this during the week I was preparing for this sermon, because kenosis seem to be part of the DNA of this congregation from its inception.

My hope and prayer is that we stay true to this identity as we move forward into the future here at Daniels Run Peace Church.  Let’s keep our eyes and ears open to hearing and seeing examples of Jesus-style servanthood among us and around us.

Let’s remember that climbing down the ladder of kenosis, self-emptying, is countercultural to the self-serving ways of our world.  And let’s remember that it is the way that leads to true meaning and joy in life.

Let’s remember that we need each other, to encourage each other, to hold onto each other’s hands when we stumble, to gently call each other back to this narrow path when we start to lose our way.

As a church committed to peace, let’s remember the quote that I saw posted on a church marquee:

When the power of love is greater than the love of power, there will be peace.

And finally, let’s remember to nurture our own spiritual life and draw near to Jesus and to his Spirit, so that we can experience the power of God’s love,

Let’s make sure that our own cups can be filled with the strength and the love that we need to be able to pour into others.

With this in mind, I’ll close this time by playing an instrumental version of “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Afresh on Me”.  If you’d like, I invite you to sit with your palms facing up to symbolize being open to receive God’s love and whatever else you need from God right now to fill your cup.