To be Filled with Christ, We First Must Empty Ourselves

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 26
October 01, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: As we work to rid ourselves of those aspects of ourselves that would compete with Christ for space within our hearts and minds, we can become more authentic followers of Jesus, who himself experienced a self-emptying that left behind his privileges of divinity so he could show us how to live.

In some religious or spiritual traditions - Buddhism, for example - adherents are encouraged to meditate and, as they do, empty their minds. The goal is to achieve what the Buddha himself was said to have achieved - enlightenment.

So people who are successful at meditation become blank slates, opening themselves to some higher truth. Truth be told, occasionally that higher truth is simply that they need some sleep, and meditation slows down their brains and hearts enough to put them to sleep. But many people find much benefit in meditation.

It turns out that there's a difference between what serious, unsleepy Buddhists mean by emptying themselves in meditation and what Christians who pay attention to the passage we read today from Philippians mean by the idea of Christ's own self-emptying - an emptying that Christian theologians call kenosis.

The late Dr. Rewata Dhamma, a prominent Buddhist monk and noted scholar from Myanmar (formerly Burma), once explained this difference at a Buddhist-Christian conference in London in 1993. "There is," he said, "a major difference here between Buddhism and Christianity. In Buddhism, one can become a Buddha in the realization of emptiness. But in Christianity, one cannot say that one can become a Christ .... Rather, this Christian realization is a participation in Christ's redemptive kenosis. Therefore, one does not become a Christ in the same way one can become a Buddha."1

We must become Christ for each other

And yet we Christians are called to be Christ for one another - to be the hands, feet and very heart of the resurrected Christ in our wounded world.

The good news is that the beautiful old hymn that's a major part of the passage we read today from Paul's letter to the church at Philippi can help us understand how Christ's own self-emptying, his kenosis, can show us how we are to act as Christ for others.

One simple way of putting it - maybe too simple - is that we empty ourselves so we can be filled with the spirit of the living Christ. This is similar to what we Christians say about baptism, which is that we die to ourselves so we may put on Christ Jesus.2

In other words, we remove from ourselves whatever is preventing us from living fully as Christ's disciples. We set aside our ego, our desire for power and wealth, our self-centeredness, our temptation to sacrifice the well-being of others for our own well-being. We do our best, in other words, to kick evil instincts to the curb and listen to our better angels.

Only then are we empty enough to make space for Christ to live in us, with us, for us - not for our own gain but so we may become instruments of his peace, his love, and channels of his grace.

How can we have the mind of Christ in us?

What biblical scholars recognize as a hymn that the apostle Paul has included in this part of the letter to the Philippians begins with a prelude in verse 5, which says, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." Do you see the idea of emptying, of kenosis, here? You do your best to replace your own scrambled, inattentive, unruly mind with the love-focused mind of Christ.

And who was Christ? Ah, now comes the fullness of the hymn. It's a remarkable and beautiful passage and we'd do well to hear that section again. But this time I want you to hear it from The Message, by Eugene Peterson, recognizing that this is a paraphrase of the original text, not a translation:

He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, becoming human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death - and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth - even those long ago dead and buried - will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

That, friends, is what theologians call "high Christology," which is to say that it reflects a properly exalted view of this lowly servant Jesus, who was both fully human and fully divine. This hymn focuses, of course, on the divine. You can find other examples of high Christology in the New Testament, including what may be the most well-known one in the opening of the Gospel of John, which describes Christ as the Word of God, a Word which is and was God.

The apostle Paul, as we know, sometimes wrote in complicated, meandering sentences - at least when the original Greek is translated into English - perhaps because the Greek version itself is complex and wandering.

So it's fair to ask whether these gorgeous words from this hymn were original to Paul. Many scholars would answer this way: Well, probably not.

The late and great Catholic scholar, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, writes this: "Most think that Paul wrote but did not create these lines; they are probably a pre-Pauline hymn that the Philippians knew and that Paul may have taught them at the time of his first visit."3

It's not clear, Brown writes, whether the hymn originally was written in Greek or in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke.4 In either case, Brown says, the meaning is clear: "... the Philippians are to have the mind of a Christ who showed that the way to God is not by grasping at a higher place on the ladder ... but by becoming humbly obedient to God, even unto death on a cross."5

Being Christ's disciples is far from easy

See what a paradoxical and difficult religion Christianity can be? We are to become like Jesus, who was God incarnate, by becoming servants. To become filled with the spirit of Christ, we must empty ourselves, not giving away our souls or spirits but getting rid of those aspects of ourselves that would compete with Christ for space within our hearts and minds.

Jesus said it plainly: If you want to be a leader, become a servant. It's a wildly countercultural idea in our time, when bookstores - physical and online - are filled with volumes urging us to watch out for No. 1, to crawl over others on our way to the top. But servanthood is a core idea of Christianity. It's one of the reasons it's such a hard faith to live out in authentic ways.

By the way, when Jesus speaks of us being servants, he doesn't limit that to people in the pews. It's also meant to apply to church leaders, including people whose job it is to interpret scripture in sermons.

If preachers praise the idea of having a servant's heart but then, in the rest of their ministry, act as if they have all the answers and that there's no need to challenge their wisdom, well, can you say the word "hypocrisy"? And it's just such hypocrisy that drives people out of the church.

That's the thing about the teachings of Jesus, including his words about servanthood. They apply to everyone who claims to be a Christ-follower, from the newest church member to the most seasoned pastor who may be addressed as the Reverend Doctor or Monsignor.

When reading the book of Philippians, it helps to know that Paul offers instructions concerning a dispute between two church leaders - both women, by the way, identified in chapter 4 as Euodia and Syntyche.6 Paul doesn't tell us what the dispute was about, but he knows it's causing trouble in this fledgling church and urges the women to move toward resolution and unity.

Each of them, in other words, is being asked to empty herself so she can be filled with the generative spirit of the living Christ. Indeed, Paul tells them how to do that when he writes this: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."7

So what is Paul asking us to empty out so that we can concentrate on that list? Whatever is false, whatever is dishonorable, what is unjust, whatever is impure, whatever is displeasing and not worthy of praise. Imagine what our politics, our churches, our economic system, our very world would look like if only we took Paul's advice.

So, friends, let's empty ourselves of what distorts life, of what dishonors God. And let's be filled with the life-giving spirit of the God who loves us and calls us to live in the light.

May it be so.