Today’s sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany in Greyfriars Kirk was prompted by servant imagery of Isaiah 49 in which God’s servant becomes the one, whom ironically, princes and potentates fall down and honour. Also, the humility of both John the Baptist, who steps aside as a leading prophetic figure to make way for Jesus and Andrew, the first Apostle to be called by Jesus, who immediately runs off and fetches his brother Simon Peter and introduces him to Jesus, probably fully aware that Simon Peter will eventually have a much bigger role to play in the drama of Jesus‘s ministry.
Perhaps you know the song by Lou Reed, who sadly died recently. “Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good”.
It is not uncommon for us to feel a bit of self-loathing and to wish that we were someone else. But however far we fall, goodness (the image of God etched in every soul) is planted far deeper than that which is out of joint.
If only we could accept the fact that we are acceptable, we’d undoubtedly be better people and would not have to wish we were someone else. We would become ourselves, discovering that identity deeply rooted in us that was given to us before we were even knitted together in the womb.
The relationship between Christ and ourselves is not a power relationship, it is neither propositional nor conditional, but is about love. It is more like the relationship Lou Reed had with his friend that he chose to write his song about. Jesus is one who is for us in spite of what we might have become, he makes us feel like someone good. That is because Jesus, and those people who are for us and who love us unconditionally see the good in us that we can often be blind to ourselves. They help us to become the people we were meant to be.
It couldn’t be any other way with someone who tells the story of the loving father who spots his “prodigal” son on the horizon heading home and rushes out to meet and welcome him home without waiting for either explanation or apology.
Think of the people whom you have known who have had the biggest and most positive influence on you. It isn’t those who have put you under pressure and tried to shape you and form you but those who have loved you for who you are and have maybe seen something in you and drawn it out? There are people who uncover the reality of your better self and let you become the person you were always meant to be. It is a great gift to be that kind of person for others and it requires a certain passivity in our mentoring or nurturing of others, because it is not about imposing our will or manipulating but enabling and nurturing.
We are so tempted to manipulate and exercise power and influence over others. But there is something so important about letting go and standing back. There is a Greek word, kenosis, that St Paul uses in his letter to the Philippian church “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” Philippians 2.
Kenosis means self-emptying. It is not the same thing as moderating power or exercising power with grace, it really means becoming as nothing and turning away from power. The wonderful Anglican churchman, Charles Gore was an extraordinary character who was born into the English aristocracy and had everything. He became a canon at Westminster Abbey and ended up as Bishop of Oxford, but he renounced all the trappings of the privileged life that could have gone with these posts and gave everything away. He once wrote of the incarnation of this self –emptying Christ in this way: “In taking life he lived through all the stages of a perfectly human experience and restored our nature from within by a contact so gentle that it gave life to every faculty without paralysing or destroying it”. (Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation, by Charles Gore MA, Radley, published by John Murray, 1895, p.224.)
That’s such a deep idea and it is also beautiful. It is about a God who reveals himself not to Lord it over people but to walk with us, to be alongside us. Immersed in the thick of humanity with all its tears and laughter, not paralysing or imposing, not an almighty God so much as an all-embracing God. This gentle identification with humanity has no power, no institutional protection, no ideological undergirding, its only trajectory is towards the cross.
It is a thought that if the Christian church seeks to mirror or represent the character and manner of the presence of Christ in the world (as I believe it should), such an idea is a real challenge for the Church with its legacy of institutional power and manipulation.
Think of those people you have known whom you really admire. Isn’t it true that they are the ones who have not exercised control or manipulation? They are the sort of people who have few insecurities or anxieties about themselves, they just want you to flourish and find whatever great work is yours and yours alone to accomplish for the sake of the world. Isn’t that how the church should be? Sadly, it has not always be so.
When President Obama spoke at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela recently he said this, “he (Mandela) would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations, a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, not by his own election but by his willingness to step down from power”.
It is that humility thing again, that self-emptying “kenotic” idea. It reminded me of a UN ambassador who once said that the greatest thing the UN could do for the world would be to persuade every nation to legislate for a president or leader to govern for a maximum of only 8 years in office and then force them to clear off. Think of all the places in the world where tyrants cling to power by brutalising their own people and plundering the wealth of their nation. They just cannot let go.
But look at John the Baptist, who said “he must increase I must decrease” or the fist apostle to be called, Andrew, who runs off to fetch his brother who ends up being far more prominent. The great gift of the self-emptying Christ to the world is, as Bonhoeffer said, “the opportunity to witness the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the maltreated, the powerless and the oppressed, in short from the perspective of those who suffer”.
The manner of the Church’s presence in the world should surely mirror that of the presence of Christ, who had no power of appeal, no resort to institutional muscle save that of the cross. Can we take the risk of love all the way to the cross for the sake of love, for the sake of enabling others to find their true selves and the discovery that they are, after all, someone good?