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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

A Contest Between the Normalcy of Civilization and the Reign of God

A Contest Between
the Normalcy of Civilization
the Reign of God

By The Rev. John L. Kirkley

May I speak in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit


“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).  Amen.


The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard this morning is an early hymn celebrating the glory of the kenotic Christ.  “Kenotic” comes from the Greek verb kenoō, which means “make empty.”  Jesus emptied himself of any claim to divine privilege to become human, suffer, and die.  Yet it is precisely this self-emptying that reveals his divinity.  This man who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – this Jesus is Lord.


What could be more counter-cultural than this renunciation of privilege?  What could be more subversive than this acclamation that Jesus is Lord?  Remember that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison.  He has been arrested by the Roman authorities and is awaiting trial, perhaps in Caesarea or Ephesus, possibly in Rome itself.  The future doesn’t look too good for Paul.  Like Jesus before him, Paul knew that his opposition to Roman imperialism was likely to end in death. 


And yet, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is suffused with a sense of joy, repeatedly exhorting them to rejoice with him.  This joy is rooted in Paul’s own self-emptying, his renunciation of his own privileged status as a learned rabbi, so that he might be joined in mystical union with Christ.  In this same letter, Paul writes,


. . . I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8-11).


Paul’s identification with, and loyalty to, his Lord was complete.  From the perspective of the Roman authorities, this loyalty amounted to treason.  And so it comes as no surprise that Paul was executed during the Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in 64 C.E. 


What was the source of this conflict between Christ and Caesar?  Why was kenosis, self-emptying, such a threat to Roman imperialism?  What might it mean for us to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? 


At the heart of this conflict is a clash between two Sons of two Gods.  According to Roman imperial theology, the Emperor was the incarnation of divine authority, literally a “Son of a God,” and as such was the object of worship.  It was the Emperor who, as Lord and Savior, guaranteed peace and prosperity.  The cult of the Emperor was the glue holding the empire together.


The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.  Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps . . . He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.[1]


Thus on one side we have the Pax Romana with Caesar as Son of God, and on the other, the Kingdom of God with Jesus as Son of God.  Caesar incarnates an understanding of divinity exercising power through domination.  Jesus incarnates an understanding of divinity exercising power through self-emptying.  Conquest vs. kenosis, overwhelming force vs. vulnerable love, propagation of propaganda vs. proclamation of good news: these mark the differences between the affirmation that Caesar is Lord versus the affirmation that Jesus is Lord.


Please note that this is not a contest between “good” and “evil.”  It is a contest between the normalcy of civilization and the reign of God, which always subverts the privileges of global empires – built as they inevitably are upon injustice and cruelty.  It was civilization, with its belief that progress requires sacrificial victims, that placed the burden of Roman globalization upon the back of Jesus and the countless victims with whom he died in solidarity. 


Jesus demonstrated in his life, death, and resurrection that God has nothing to do with this demand for sacrifice.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea twice, saying, “Go and learn what it means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.”[2]  Against all those who would invoke God to legitimate the sacrifice of innocent lives that sustains civilization as we know it, Jesus proclaims that God is found beyond civilization, in that kingdom breaking in at the edges of civilization where compassion trumps progress and the renunciation of privilege makes room for victims to become fellow citizens. 


For those who cling to privilege, the status-conscious eager to defend themselves against the least hint of downward mobility, the in-breaking of this kingdom at the margins of civilization is a great threat.  There are none more subversive than those like Jesus and Paul, who willingly renounce their privilege because they understand that God wants mercy and not sacrifice.  If people really embrace kenosis, then who will buy our products?  Who will uphold the superiority of our way of life?  Who will fight our wars and enforce the sacrifices necessary to maintain our civilization?


Jesus comes to proclaim an end to this entire edifice of sacrifice, this willingness to trade in human lives for the sake of greed and status.   Jesus resisted the seductions of civilization, choosing instead to offer mercy to its victims, and so the empire nailed him to a cross in its own defense.  The passion narrative is an exposé of the mechanism of expulsion that sacrifices victims to maintain the unity of global empire.  Yet somehow, God raised Jesus up into the fullness of life in that kingdom beyond civilization, demonstrating once and for all the power of self-giving love to triumph over the power of


division and death.  The victim of civilization became Lord of the New Creation, not in a mere reversal of roles but rather in subversion of the entire system of domination.


Yesterday, I attended a rally and march protesting the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  One of the protestors carried a sign that quoted Marcus Borg saying, “Jesus is my commander-in-chief, not George Bush.”  I read it as a contemporary version of “Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.”  Another sign said, “I think when Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ he meant that we shouldn’t kill them.”  What a simple yet provocative witness to the power of self-emptying that reconciles enemies, in opposition to the power of domination that destroys them – and creates many more in the process.


At the heart of the current crisis in our national life is a desperate need to embrace kenosis, the spirituality of self-emptying.  We are awash in a consumer culture that recognizes no limits on economic growth or ecological destruction, and that violently defends the excesses of the “American way of life,” whatever the cost to other peoples or nations.  Wendell Berry, in commenting on the first Gulf War in 1991, grasped the depth of imperial hubris and national self-indulgence that continues to plague us.  Berry writes:


We sent an enormous force of our young men and women to kill and be killed in defense of our oil supply, but we have done nothing to conserve that supply or to reduce our dependence on it.  We will not ration petroleum fuels.  We will not mention the possibility of more taxes.  We wish to give our people the impression that except for their children, nothing will be required of them.[3]


As a nation, we are prepared to sacrifice our children to preserve our affluent lifestyle.  And if that doesn’t work, we will drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  We are seemingly willing to sacrifice the very possibility of a humane and ecologically sustainable future, and, what is more, to do so in the name of God.  What could be more blasphemous than this taking of God’s name in vain?


God does not want us to sacrifice our children or our wilderness, anymore than God wanted Jesus to be sacrificed.  Paul rightly understood that what was supremely magnificent about Jesus, what truly revealed God in him, was not just the sacrifice of his life on the cross, but rather the self-emptying of any grasping after status or security that led to the cross.  It is this self-emptying that makes both life and love possible.  The death of our ego opens our heart wide to receive the mercy that makes us daughters and sons of God.  Compassion, not sacrifice, is the basis for sustainable, humane life on this planet.


God wants mercy, not sacrifice.  God wants us to embrace mercy, mercy for our enemies and for ourselves, mercy for the earth and for generations yet unborn. 


When we are open to receive this mercy we discover true freedom; freedom from the fear that seeks to justify our grasping egos and empires.  Released from such fear, we can affirm with Paul that “Christ will be exalted now as always in by body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil. 20c-21). 


Jesus and Paul could speak and act boldly in opposition to imperial power because they had attained such freedom.  Whether they lived or died mattered not, so satiated were they with divine compassion, so confident were they in the power of divine love to raise them up into fullness of life in the kingdom of God beyond civilization. 


What might it mean for us to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus?  I think it means speaking and acting in opposition to imperial power with the same freedom and confidence.  And that requires us to empty ourselves of our own need for status and security.  Our security, our salvation, rests in the hands of One who exposed the violence of this world and triumphed over it with the power of self-giving love.  Trusting in the power of this Love, let us empty ourselves in compassionate service to the world, and discover in this the true freedom and joy of living and dying. 


“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:1-5).  Amen.





[1] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: HarperSanFranicsco, 2004), p. xi.

[2] Matthew 9:13; see also Matthew 12:1.  Both quote Hosea 6:6.

[3] Wendell Berry, “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1993), p. 72.

The Rev. John L. Kirkley
Interim Rector
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
1661 Fifteenth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 861-1436 - church office
(415) 522-1198 - church fax

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