By Rev. Kathryn Ray
At NSBC in this Lenten season, the question before us is “Why Did Jesus Die?” It’s a vexing question, not in the least because it’s widely considered a very central part of the Christian narrative. Why would so many different stripes of Christianity place so much emphasis on the violent execution of the leading figure in their faith?
I know a very devout evangelical woman in Nicaragua who is very against the practice of displaying crosses and crucifixes. “If your son was killed by gun violence, would you go around wearing a gun on a necklace?” is her logic.
Where is the grace in crucifixion?
I’m not going to answer that question today, but I am going to grapple with a related question: Where is the grace in Jesus’ humanity? Jesus died, in part, because he was human. That’s a thing humans do. We die.
I want to linger on that answer for a moment, “Because Jesus was human.” Because as self-evident as that may seem, it’s actually been the subject of considerable debate over the centuries. Was Jesus human or divine, or human and divine? How can you be both human and divine at once?
There have been thousands of pages written, innumerable battles fought over those questions. The text of Philippians 2:1-11 is an important one in those battles. Verses 5-8 read:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
One of the ways this text is often interpreted is that Jesus co-existed with God from the beginning of time, and then when he “emptied himself,” he temporarily gave up divine status and humbly condescended to dwell among human people, as a servant. In this interpretation, Jesus is sort of like the noble princess who disguises herself as a commoner to walk humbly among the people. Even though this is a common interpretation, it’s problematic for several reasons.
If the princess disguises herself as a commoner, she’s still a princess. She’s not really one of the people, not really sharing their experience. She’s just pretending. Maybe she’s doing a good thing here or there, helping people out, but if she has the power of royalty, she could presumably do more good for the people staying in the halls of power, effecting structural reforms and establishing universal education.
A God who assumes the illusion of humanity, but who doesn’t really share our heartbreaks and struggles, doesn’t really become human.
Another interpretation of this text is that when Jesus emptied himself, he actually renounced his divinity, and all the powers that belong to it. He gave up being like God in order to live among God’s people and truly share their pain. So again, using the princess metaphor, it would be as if she abandoned the throne completely, lived out all her days and died as a commoner, without having the power of the throne to return to or fall back on. To “share the mind that was in Christ,” to assume Christ’s humility, would then be to abandon what power we may have. To defer to others, to lift them up with no regard for our own status and our own needs.
From a feminist perspective, that is also a troubling interpretation. Because that it the command so often given to women, and to other marginalized peoples: to defer. To put others first. Because to assert yourself, to claim your power, is to be angry, overly proud, belligerent, unfeminine, out of line.
Whenever I read that Jesus was humble and obedient, I struggle with the image of the self-sacrifice that is all too often disproportionately asked of those who already face poverty, who are already hustling to find a way out of no way. That is not an image of Christ that saves.
So what do we do with this text? Where is the grace in Jesus’ humanity?
There is another way of seeing this text, which has nothing to do with questions of Jesus existing before the world came into being. Rather, it’s about how Jesus lived his earthly existence.
When Paul says, “being in the form of God,” he’s talking about Jesus, the person, being in the form of God. So Jesus, “being [a person] in the form of God, did not think of equality with God as something to be grasped at.” “Grasp” is a more literal interpretation of the verse than “exploit.” He did not see equality with God as something to be taken, to be snatched up. Instead, he emptied himself, gave of himself. And this, I think, speaks to how divine power works in this world.
Jesus did not leave the royalty to join the common folk. He was born into the world among the poor, among those who were struggling from day to day to buy food and pay taxes due to the Empire. But being in the form of God, he did not seek the power of royalty. He did not seek to exert influence by assuming a position of political authority from which he might coerce others to follow him.
Because that is not how divine power works. To use the words of Rita Nakashima Brock, divine power is not “hierarchical” or “demonstrated by dominance, by status, by authority, and by control over people, nature, and things.” Instead, it “heals, makes whole, empowers, and liberates.”
Now, the thing about this kind of power is it doesn’t come with bodyguards or armies. If Jesus had sought to build up an army with some firepower, he probably could have protected himself from the authorities that came down on him, at least for a time.
Divine power thrives in vulnerability, in the heart that heals and dares to be healed by opening itself to the movement of God. Divine power moves in those who risk breaking their hearts in the work of loving and be loved. It takes up residence when we empty ourselves of the illusions of hierarchical, dominating power - a power that claims to be able to offer us comfort and protection, but at the end, is only vanity and injustice.
Jesus lived out his days committed to the work of divine power, which meant Jesus was vulnerable. And because he was vulnerable, it meant he could be killed. He made no attempt to shield himself from this existence, in all its anxieties, its injustices, pains, and flaws. He settled into it deeply and thoroughly. He dared to open himself to it, so that his humanity might be the occasion for grace, for a stream to burst forth in the desert.
So may we all be, as well.
I would like to express my gratitude to theologian and philosopher Sarah Coakley, as this sermon draws in no small part on the first chapter of her book Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender.
 Brock, Rita Nakashima. Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroads, 1988), p. 25