Christus Paradox, II: Earthly Jesus, Cosmic Christ

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December 3, 2017

Christus Paradox, II: Earthly Jesus, Cosmic Christ

Passage: Philippians 2:5–13

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Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, —Philippians 2:5

This season our Advent worship is shaped by the hymn, Christus Paradox, we sang in response to Advent candle lighting and will conclude in response to this sermon.  As Bill introduced it last week, the hymn writer, Sylvia Dunston, was inspired by Søren Kierkegaard’s writings of the paradox of the Incarnation: the mystery of God becoming human.

The apostle Paul was the first to write of the almost incomprehensible way God chose to live among us—by emptying God’s self into the flesh of a man.  By becoming incarnate in Jesus, God teaches us the power of being humble—not weak, but humble—before God and others.  God teaches us to embrace the grace and beauty of our humanity. God’s incarnation teaches us that we are included in God’s plan to redeem creation.  Through God’s incarnation in Jesus, we learn who we are created to be and the good our lives can do.

Before I read Paul’s letter, please pray with me

Prayer:  God, Gather us to hear your word so that we too may have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus.  Empty our minds of all the noise that gets in the way of hearing and believing.  May your words and the words we share give us the courage to work out our salvation with fear and trembling in the new life we have through Christ. Amen. 

Philippians 2:5–13
Let the same mind be in you that was in 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.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and
gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me,
not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

Written before any of the gospels, this passage is one of the earliest and trusted sources, claiming that into Jesus’ flesh, God “emptied” a portion of God’s self.

Paul’s letter reminded the Philippians that to follow Christ Jesus they were to set aside any personal desires, so they may “let the same mind be” in them as was in Christ Jesus.  Never before on earth had God walked in a manner that was recognizable and intelligible to us. Jesus was both man and God.

Throughout history, human beings who had been caught up in envy and selfish ambition, imagined equality with God to be the ultimate prize and opportunity to triumph. Yet, the way Jesus lived reflected God’s will was not what anyone expected.

We know the stories.

Jesus exhibited strength and wisdom that was beyond human imagination when in service for others, not dominating or controlling others.

When tempted or exhausted, he turned time and again to God in prayer.

Jesus lived humbly, with reverence for relationships and people without any distinction of birthright, profession, religion or ethnicity.

We can never underestimate how radical Jesus’ acceptance of women and children was in a society that saw them as nothing more than useful tools or slaves to another’s will.  Jesus’ compassion towards women, children and anyone without power, set the example for the way our minds are to see and relate to all others.

We have the same mind that was in Christ when we resist ambitious, self-seeking models of power.  Christ never filled himself at the expense of others.

We also have the same mind that was in Christ when we defend the defenseless.  We have the same mind that was in Christ when we stand up for others and our own humanity.

When God entered the time of human history, God gave us Jesus and Jesus alone as the guide for a holy and pleasing life.  God has no position to defend so there is no envy or ambition in God or Jesus. Accordingly, to be in the form of God is not to exploit power, but to embrace and give God’s free, dispossessing love.

Whenever I think of the Incarnation, I recall the two dogs one of my professors had at University of Chicago.  Susan Schreiner was a tough, cranky, intellectual historian—she studied what people thought, who influenced them, and what ideas they in turn sparked. Did I mention, she was cranky?  And, had little time for Masters students. I think since I was so much older and she was curious about by prior career, and had a black lab, she was a bit kinder towards me.

Susan had two golden retrievers.  One was named “Luther” for Martin Luther.  The other dog was named for a theologian who was as obscure as Luther was notorious.  The dog’s name was “Cusa,” for Nicholas of Cusa.  I was not as bright as my fellow students, but I was savvy enough to pay attention to the work of theologian for whom my professor named her beloved dog.

Nicholas of Cusa was a German monk in the 15th century who was schooled in the medieval theories that attempted to prove God’s existence by positive or negative arguments or define the essence of God. At that time, structured arguments won respect while human curiosity and experience were dismissed as inferior guides to knowledge.[1] It was almost as if the Apostle Paul’s call to humility had been forgotten.

Mathematics dominated the academy with its foundation to measure, define, and rationalize ideas and Cusa was a mathematical scholar.

Cusa was also a gifted mediator whose success in reconciling warring factions within the Catholic Church equipped him to be part of a papal embassy to Constantinople in an attempt to reunite the church of the east with Rome.  In 1437, the negotiations failed.  On his return, they sailed through a storm during which he experienced a revelation from God he called a “celestial gift.”  This experience and his curiosity to understand what it meant inspired his masterpiece “On Learned Ignorance.”[2]

His treatise is described as “elliptical and sometimes obscure to the point of intractability”[3] in the Latin and is even denser in English translations.  “On Learned Ignorance” remains for me the most difficult and lucid examination of the Incarnation.

Cusa argues all things have a comparative nature about them such that to explore the uncertain, you can only go through that which is certain.  But since material things are always unstable, he pursued the only discipline relatively free of subjectivity: mathematics.  He wrote…throughout the ages, “the wise, wisely sought illustrations of things that the intellect could search…” and mathematical signs have an inherent incorruptible certainty.  They were the path to divine knowledge.[4]

“On Learned Ignorance” explores the nature of points, finite and infinite lines, then the center and circumference of circles to argue the paradox and possibility of the infinite being including the finite.

After grinding a reader to fatigue, Cusa makes his point: we are to seek and seek until we finally let go of our understanding—comparative, quantified or logical—and when we empty ourselves of such lofty ideals of knowing, and finally admit ignorance, then we find God.  For this monk and mathematician, it is elusive, but at that moment when you know that you cannot know, God reaches us from the divine, moving us from curiosity to be certain, to desire an intimate relationship with God.  God seeks our faith and love and we should seek nothing more than to love God and be faithful.

 For Cusa, only by following Christ—who is both God and man—may we possess some secure norm for what God may be.

Advent is a time to ponder these paradoxes, so we appreciate what a gift God’s presence in human flesh was and is.  Empty yourself of desire for certainty.  Instead, marvel at the mystery, really imagine God in our flesh, and rejoice.  Accept we have limits in symbols and language, but we never have limits in the ways God can startle, comfort, and inspire us.

I was thinking of Cusa, the Incarnation and Paul’s call to “let the same mind” be in us, as I flew to Texas a couple of weeks ago with the mission team.  As much the Incarnation is a paradox, I am a preacher and should have something to say.

On our red-eye flight to Houston, against the clear, star-speckled sky, I noticed a few dense clouds and then the city lights.  To say it was beautiful seems trite.  Past midnight, what struck me was the contrast between limitless horizons of the Texas countryside, the city, and these dense clouds that obscured everything behind them.

In the wee hours of the morning, we piled into vans and sailed along on deserted highways for about an hour…until it seemed we slam into one of those clouds that had descended. Caught in thick fog, we had to slow down to focus on what little we could see and trust.  Thank God for Google maps and calm drivers.

Those dense clouds foreshadowed so much of what I learned on the trip.

We worked under the guidance of the Cajun Army.  It is a paradox.  It has no authority, no governing hierarchy.  It has neither entrance requirements nor ongoing funding source. It is merely the collective efforts of ordinary people who have decided to help those whom society and governments have abandoned.

Here is a sample:

  • Veterans were healing from PTSD and other invisible wounds by helping others.
  • A woman volunteered as a dispatcher for the Cajun Navy for three days to coordinate the rescue of residents during Hurricane Harvey.  She started in August and has not returned to her home to Baton Rouge. Tears came to her eyes as she described her grandchildren’s rescue from the second floor of a motel by a guy in a bass boat.  Her law practice will be on hold for the next year as she works with the Cajun Army to find those whom FEMA and others ignored to help them rebuild.
  • Our youth took up crowbars and sledgehammers to tear down mold infested walls and ceilings and shoveled out cockroach-infested belongings from homes.
  • They became skilled in hanging dry wall and applying mud to taped seams.  They embraced the jobs, the people, and their mission. 
  • I saw God animate them in ways they never imagined.
  • Throughout the experience, I saw they held in their minds the mind of Christ to become servants to care for the lost and least.

Those dense clouds startled me.  In hindsight, I was reminded to empty my mind of what I think I know and any limits I may place on what we can do and particularly do together.

Having the same mind that was in Christ calls us to do for others…and to stop anything that stands in the way of God’s will for all of humanity.

Scripture claims we were all created in God’s divine image—male and female.  We all bear a unique aspect of God that was only further blessed by God’s Incarnation.  To believe our bodies are God’s creation compels us to think and speak theologically about the claims of sexual harassment and abuse surfacing. No part of our existence is lived outside of God’s care and presence including our bodies. I am aware tender ears may be listening among all ages and hope any questions prompted may be answered with confidence grounded in God’s love.

The exposure of prominent leaders’ inappropriate and demeaning behavior is rippling across industries, regrettably confirming that exploitive behavior can be found almost anywhere.  In the past, the military and the church were exposed for instances of sexual harassment of the vulnerable within their respective institutions.  Now we learn of abuse in entertainment, media, higher education, and government. Commercial industry was never immune.

I recall from my decades in corporate, both within my employer and client organizations, how cover-ups were manufactured to remove someone rumored of harassment, place him on “special assignment” (often a career enhancing exposure at headquarters) only to be moved back into a new position after the dust had cleared. Yet, the victim endured some form of retaliation or was ostracized.

Now, we need to applaud the courage of those who had been silenced by intimidation and very real threats and yet have spoken of abuse and mistreatment.  It took a sense of self-worth to not be demeaned into being only an object for another’s desires.  It took the mind of Christ and his strength to stand up against the establishment. Think of Mary’s words when she learned she was pregnant, “my soul magnifies the lord…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

The ripple across industries at the highest echelons now encourages us to do more—to let the mind of Christ animate each of us.  We are to live as though we truly believe God emptied a portion of God’s self into everyone.

As holiday gatherings at work and with families begin, we can stop the co-worker, relative, or neighbor who has lorded above others.

Sometimes it is subtle—innuendos, sarcastic jokes, or comments that might get a chuckle by being “naughty,” but which strung together are toxic. These mere words are painful and license more words or behaviors.  Sometimes it is a nasty, verbal violation or worse, a physical encounter that strikes another to the core with fear, shame, and anger.

Now is the time for us to say “no more” to those statements that were previously brushed aside.  No one’s body is to be used by others or dehumanized in speech.  We don’t need to wait for human resources or some authority to define inappropriate words or comments.  We can say “no more” at the dinner table, playground, locker room, and office.  Now it the time to say “no more” to the persons who seek to fill themselves up at the expense of another. Now is the time for us to live as though we are the followers of Christ we claim to be.

God entered a human body to show us our bodies are beloved.  God redeemed the body of our slain Jesus to tell us the self-serving violent forces that did their worst toward Jesus are emptied of their power and declared null and void.[5]

We have the opportunity and obligation to ensure the youth who found God by working side by side with others will not face the hostile and degrading environments. In Advent, empty yourself.  Let God in…and be transformed so we can usher in a new world.

[1] Susan Schreiner, “Nicholas of Cusa,” Lecture, Early Modern Catholicism, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, October 12, 2009.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor. "Night-guides," Sewanee Theological Review 55, no. 4 (2012 2012): 363-373. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2017).

[3] "A concise introduction to the philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa," Cross Currents 32, no. 3 (September 1982): 366-369. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 10, 2017).

[4] Nicolas of Cusa, “On Learned Ignorance,” Trans. Jasper Hopkins,

[5] Amy Plantinga Pauw “Philippians 2:5-13, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 2.,  Ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010 ),172.