April 21, 2007

Up Through the Ranks

There is something qualitatively different about a person who has come up through the ranks. So often in life the people we respect, the leaders we are willing to follow, are people who have patiently and deliberately worked their way up from the bottom to the top. Someone else less wise, someone who has not climbed the ladder rung by rung may have the same qualifications and skills, but the one who has come up through the ranks brings something unique to life at the top: memory. We appreciate those leaders who have worked their way up precisely because they have a living memory of life “down below.” They lead, they govern, and they act differently at the top because they know something of life at the bottom.

In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul grabs a common hymn from the worshipping life of the early church and uses it to make a powerful point about the Jesus we believers call “Lord.” He wants the Philippian Christians to come down off of their individual high and hobby horses, so he urges them to “have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.” What follows is his use of the “Christ hymn” (as scholars call it)—a musical celebration of the downward and upward journey of Jesus, the condescension and exaltation of the Eternal Son. Close attention to the hymn reveals that even its language, the style of its rhetoric, allows one to feel the downward—upward movement of Christ. My own translation:

Though Christ was in the form of God,

he did not regard that equality with God
as something to be exploited or held on to,

but instead he emptied himself,
poured himself out,

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.

The one we confess was present in the Trinity from the beginning of beginnings is, astonishingly, the same one who chose not to exploit that very status—not to hold too tightly to it—but instead emptied himself (ekenoson in Greek – literally “to remove the content”) and took on our form. With each downward rhetorical step in the hymn, the Lord (master) willingly becomes more and more a slave.

I heard tell quite recently of a man who stood by his friend even when giving him that support proved most unpopular among his rank and file. It is quite a thing when one gives up one’s status for another—especially when that downward movement proves costly, sacrificial. So you see, the great scandal of the cross of Jesus is not so much that he suffered as much as he did, but rather that he (the Eternal Son! the Christ! the Word! the Lord!) suffered at all. The Master has become the slave. He who was “in the form of God” gave up that very form to take up our lot, to clothe himself in our sullied garments, to walk among our ranks. Amazing.

But our Christian story does not end even there. The second half of the hymn insists that the Father would not rest until the Son was restored. One notes in the second stanza how the emphasis shifts from Christ’s action to God’s action. Whereas the Son moves downward toward us, the Father lifts him upward toward himself.

Again, my own translation, to be read from bottom to top:

to the glory of God the Father.

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,

and gave him the name that is above every name,

Therefore God also highly exalted him

The servant now becomes the Lord; the slave again becomes the master. With each phrase of this stanza, we feel the upward movement of the exaltation. Only it is not a movement from human back to divine, from one form to another—as if now the incarnation is over and Jesus must turn back into God. No, there is no transformation in the second stanza, only exaltation. The one raised up as “Christ the Lord” is none other than the man Jesus, the being-found-in-human-form Jesus, our brother in the flesh. Our humanity now sits at the right hand of the Father!

Consider this: “Lord” is powerful description to ascribe to someone. I don’t know about you, but power tends to make me nervous—whether mine or someone else’s. Power is potential: the potential to strike down or to build up, to bless or to curse. It all depends on the character of the one with the power. Part of my nervousness is an American thing: we Americans are suspicious of power, even cynical about it at times. We worry about its effect on people. It is why we’ve built a government of balances and checks, because we’ve learned it is the rare person who can handle too much power without gross error. (We Presbyterians, too, have a system designed to keep any one person or group from taking over the church.) Yet even with checks in place, still we learn weekly about various misuses and abuses of power in our world. As such, I cannot help but feel it is something of a scandal when we Christians affirm that Jesus’ name is “above every other name,” that he is the “Lord.” Lord of heaven and earth?! That’s just about as much power as can be given a person. I’ve never known any other who could pull that off without abuse. It makes me nervous sometimes even to say “Lord,” given the kind of abuse than can happen when someone is too far removed from us at the top.

Yet my nervousness is quelled, perhaps even redeemed, when I consider the Christ hymn above. What those earliest Christians were celebrating in song was precisely that the one who has been exalted by God to the highest possible status is none other than that same one who freely gave up his status in the first place. In other words, our Lord Jesus has come up through the ranks. He is not ignorant of our plight, not unsympathic to our sins, not unmoved by those sins visited upon us. Why? Because he reigns as Lord at the top with a memory of his life and death at the bottom. He knows what it’s like down here, knows what it’s like to be me and you, knows all those downward, spiraling descents of this life that cry out for God’s upward, life-giving redemption. He knows. He has come up through the ranks.

We worship him, we adore him, we give our lives over to him, not because he rules with unearned, unfettered power, demands blind obedience, or has a needy, capricious ego (all the marks of a corrupted ruler). Rather, we give ourselves over to him completely because he has born our lot, he has trod our soil, and he has worn our flesh. He sits now at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33, 7:55, etc.) with a memory of also sitting with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). It is not so much that he is Lord. The good news of the gospel is that he (the crucified one! the suffering servant! the son of humanity! our brother!) is now Lord.

The wonderful scandal of the gospel: God has come up through our ranks.