Maybe this isn’t something to be confessed by a pastor, but this is lent after all. I don’t remember many chapel services from my seminary days. Perhaps that is normal, but seminary wasn’t THAT long ago for me. Maybe I should remember more than I do… There is always one chapel service that stands out in my head and in my heart: the seminary president, Dr. Ron Benefiel, stood up in the front of the sanctuary and begin to speak.
We didn’t have any music or readings that day, just Dr Benefiel speaking, or rather, reciting. Over the next 25 or 30 minutes the president proceeded to recite the book of Philippians. In it’s entirety. From memory. It felt like we were connecting with Christians in the first and second centuries in Philippi, Asia minor, and the surrounding region. Hearing the whole letter out loud in public somehow made sense.
When Dr. Benefiel came to our section for this Sunday the scriptures truly came alive. As he began he lifted his right hand in the air high above his head, “who, though he was in the form of God.”
Then as he cam to the second stanza slowly lowered his hand, “but emptied himself.” A little lower, “taking the form of a slave.”
By the end of the first half his hand was nearly on the floor, “and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
“Therefore God also highly exalted him…” his hand began to raise.
“and gave him the name that is above every name…” raised a little higher.
By the end of this hymn – “Every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” – his hand was back way above his head.
Dr. Benefiel presented this beautiful hymn in such a way that made these verses comes alive. This hymn has directions. It has a movement. The first half of this hymn tells of Christ’s downward movement. He empties himself; hence the Kenosis Hymn. The second half changes directions sharply. In response to Christ’s self-emptying there is his exaltation!
Did you notice who the actors are? The first half – the dipping portion of the parabola – has a main character; Jesus Christ. It was Christ who did the self-emptying. But then the second portion – the lifting portion of the parabola – has a main character; God the Father. Did you notice that it isn’t Christ who exalts himself, but he is exalted by the Father!
This movement is opposite of the first man. The first man, Adam, sought to exalt himself but ended up humbled and emptied. The second man, Christ, sought to empty himself and was exalted by the Father. This is, truly, the upside down Kingdom.
Maybe the best thing to do with this passage isn’t to merely “teach” it, but to experience it. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting here is this Greek word “phroneo” that gets translated as “mind” in verse 5. I don’t believe this is a bad translation, but I don’t believe it is complete. Phroneo means so much more than just our mind. Plus, what Paul might mean by “mind” is most certainly not what we mean. The seat of human thought wasn’t necessarily the brain, as we know today.
It is my opinion that to translate phroneo as mind emphasizes a modern dualism that would not have been present in Paul. We’ve come to distinguish emotion from intellect. Phroneo isn’t bifurcated. It means one’s thinking as well as one’s feeling. Perhaps a more comprehensive translation would be, “May you have the same disposition of Christ.”
When it comes to passages like Philippians 2:5-11, something that was most surely sung during ancient worship, maybe didactic teaching isn’t the most appropriate method. Maybe passages like these are to be experienced, not dissected. Maybe the glorious truth of the Kenosis Hymn can’t be merely explained. Maybe, just maybe, the way in which we “know” the truth of this great lyric is to do it, to practice it. After all, Paul began it by saying, “May you have the same disposition of Christ.”
Are we to be those who seek self-exaltation or self-emptying?
“May you have the same disposition of Christ.”
So, pastor, how can your people live into the kenotic love of Christ? How can our congregations know this hymn; not just in mind but also in heart and experience?
Maybe you can, like Dr. Benefield did for me, demonstrate the movement of the hymn. Maybe you could sing it! Can you, music leader, put together a version of these lyrics that can be sung?
I did this a few years ago and have included the recording below. Feel free to take this. You can also find it on SoundCloud. There is also a chord chart. This isn’t a phenomenal recording, but needed something to send to my musicians for practice, so it is what it is. Be creative in making this most beautiful of scriptures come alive to your people. Be imaginative. For once, Paul isn’t lecturing, he’s singing! May you experience the kenotic love of Christ in your life and in your church as we anticipate the exaltation that comes from the Father.