A Narrative for Universal Transformation
The story goes that General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was scheduled to deliver a message at a major convention to chart the future of the organization for the next 50 years. As the time approached, he became ill and could not attend in person; but he wired the message he wanted delivered. The people waited on the edge of their seats for the telegram. When it arrived, the one chosen to deliver the message walked up to the platform, opened the telegram, and a confused, puzzled look came over him. There was just one word on the telegram. It was the word “others.”
In Philippians 2, Paul exhorts the church to focus on others. He says in 2:3–4: “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.” Clearly the focus is on “others.”
To commend this way of life—this other–centeredness—Paul draws upon an early Christian hymn that he quotes in 2:6–11. It is not likely that Paul composed this hymn, though he may have tweaked it for his purpose.
In 2:5 he introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In 2:2 he says, “make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
Paul is clearly not talking about being in agreement about doctrinal matters. He is talking about having the same mind-set of Christ. The NIV says “attitude,” but it’s more than that. Paul is calling for the adoption of a whole Christ-way of life, a mind-set that is embodied in tangible ways, a whole orientation and lifestyle—a way of life.
It actually matters little whether you understand this hymn in a literal way as many evangelical Christians do, or whether you read it metaphorically as I do along with many moderate and progressive Christians. What matters is the transformative pattern that unfolds in the hymn.
This hymn to the cosmic Christ narrates the pattern for cosmic transformation. We begin with divine origin/birth and being made in the image of God and end with the universal gathering up and reconciliation of all things in Christ.
A key element in our transformation involves awareness of our divine origin. The first thing about us is not that we are sinners. That we are sinners is obvious, but we do not begin with original sin. We begin with original blessing. Even in the pre-history of the early chapters of Genesis, we begin, not with the fall, but with the creation of the human couple in the image of God.
We reflect God’s image. The Divine is within. God’s Spirit is what gives us life. We are God’s offspring, whether we realize it or not.
But this provides no cause for pride or arrogance, or for any sense of moral superiority or feelings of exceptionalism or entitlement. This is true of all God’s children.
The Christ refused to grasp after equality with God (my understanding of 2:6 contra-NRSV) but “emptied himself” of all grasping, “taking the form of a slave.”
If we are to undergo the transforming power of God’s love and grace we must empty ourselves of any need to grasp power or control. We must relinquish any desire for prominence or prestige, so that in humility we can serve one another.
The Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and gave of himself for the good of others, being obedient to the cause of God even unto death on a cross. He continued to love, serve, and give even though it led to his execution by the religious and political powers.
In the Lukan narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus, his other-centeredness is emphasized. As the soldiers lead him away, Jesus laments over
. He says, “Daughters of Jerusalem,
do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” He identifies with
the plight of those who will suffer when Jerusalem
besieges the city. He forgives his killers saying, “Father, forgive them, for
they do not know what they are doing.” He extends grace and hope to one of the
criminals crucified with him. At the peak of his suffering, he is still
faithful to his mission of servanthood. He is thinking about and serving
Loving others by emulating and mirroring the way the Christ loves others makes us vulnerable, and there is no way to avoid the suffering that naturally and inevitably becomes part of our experience because of such vulnerability.
Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island . . . A rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” True. Nor does a rock experience joy or hope or pleasure.
The suffering that inevitably comes with love is necessary to the development of our spiritual consciousness. When we set aside our little selves and conform to the pattern of the self-giving of Christ we experience a wider, deeper love and connection to all people and all creation. It increases our suffering, but it also increases our capacity to experience the beauty, mystery, and joy of life.
This pattern of transformation symbolized and represented by the cosmic Christ is how we are all gathered up into a new humanity and a new creation. So, the hymn concludes with every person and every creature reconciled to Christ to the glory of God.
This pattern of transformation is true for everyone, no matter what a person’s religious faith or tradition and no matter what one’s context in life.
We claim our divine origin—that we came from God and will return to God. We are all God’s offspring. The Spirit indwells all of us whether we know it or not.
We realize that life is a gift—that everything is grace—and there is no place for pride or arrogance or feelings of superiority.
We learn to let go of our little self with its false values and refuse to grasp for power and prominence
We surrender the need to control others and become a servant of others, obedient and faithful to God’s cause in the world.
We embrace the suffering that comes with loving widely, deeply, indiscriminately, inclusively, and unconditionally.
We embrace death, so we can live freely, fully, and abundantly. When that narrative becomes our narrative, we become more than we are.