by Jason Micheli
Philippians 2.5-8 (click to see Scripture text)
In his 1920 short story Jesus Christ in Texas, W.E.B Du Bois recasts the incarnation of the Son of God in Waco, Texas during the worst of the Jim Crow era. Christ’s visitation begins on a roadside along a chain gang with the Christ figure eavesdropping on a conversation between a police officer and businessman scheming about the profits they’ll net by taking advantage of cheap, convict labor. “We can squeeze them,” the businessman tells the cop, “man, you’ll be a millionaire in less than ten years.” Jesus, whom Du Bois refers to only as “the Stranger,” appears before them, interrupts, and asks, “The work— it will be a good thing for them?”
The businessman shrugs his shoulders and replies, “It will do us good.”
But the police officer shook his head, Du Bois writes, for “he felt a desire to justify himself before the Stranger’s eyes, and he answered, “Yes, it will do them good; or at any rate it won’t make them any worse off than they are already.”
Still not recognizing the Stranger, the police officer offers him a ride into town. By some odd compulsion the police officer feels bearing down on him, the offer of a ride turns into an invitation to dinner. Despite mumbling something about being about his Father’s business, the Stranger accepts the invitation. It’s only when the Stranger steps into the warm, bright light of the living room that they see what they’d not recognized in the glooming twilight. The Stranger’s coffee-colored complexion.
At once, the police officer feels the urge rise within him to order the Stranger out of his house, but he bites his lip. His wife immediately thinks of the other guests soon to arrive. “What will the judge’s wife say? How did my husband come to invite this man here? How shall we be rid of him?”
The Stranger sat with their child on his lap as the other guests rang one after the other. The judge’s wife walks by the Stranger completely, neither asking his name nor seeing him. The judge steps into the living room behind her and, seeing the Stranger, suddenly recalls a case of theft over which he presided. Another guest confuses the Stranger for the servant. The last guest to arrive for the supper is the pastor, “a man of about forty, and well-dressed.” He starts to pass the stranger, stops, and looks at him inquiringly.
“I beg your pardon,” the pastor says. “I beg your pardon, I think…have I met you?”
The Stranger makes no answer as the hostess nervously hurries the guests to dinner. But the pastor lingers and looks perplexed.
“Surely, I know you. I believe I have met you somewhere,” the pastor says, putting his hand vaguely to his head. “You—you must remember me?”
But the Stranger passes out of the door, uttering in a low tone, “I never knew you.”
All through Du Bois’ story, none of the characters recognize the Son of God in the lowly form before them; that is, not until an accidental incident with a white woman sets off a lynch mob.
“He—attacked—my wife,” a farmer gasps.
Some help the farmer’s wife into her house, while the rest hoist the beaten black man onto the limb of a red oak tree.
From inside her home, the farmer’s wife looks out the window and peers out into the moonlight where she sees the dead man writhe. “He stretched his arms out like a cross,” Du Bois writes, “looking upward.” “A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul…She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for suddenly she saw him— she knew and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the Stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. And her dry lips moved to the truth of him, “Despised and rejected of men” who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, 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.”
I often recall how, shortly before the Arab Spring uprising in 2010, a congregant of mine returned from a tour of Egypt and, after worship one Sunday, approached me to share the distress induced in him and his wife by the museum in Cairo. As it turned out, in the surprisingly detailed archive devoted to Ramses II, the events narrated by the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus received only a single, incomplete sentence mentioned almost as an afterthought at the very bottom of a stone tablet, the place where today an asterisk would go.
This churchgoer was uneasy that God’s work of deliverance would be so unimpressive as to go unnoticed by those who recorded Pharaoh’s own deeds and administration. “How could there be so little contemporaneous mention of Moses, the Israelite slaves whose labor built the Egyptian temples, or their miraculous liberation to freedom through the Red Sea?” he wondered. The disjunction sowed a little doubt in him about the veracity of scripture’s witness.
I responded to his consternation by stealing, as I’m wont to do, from Karl Barth, “Even in the act of revealing himself,” I said, “the Living God always remains concealed.”
“What’s that mean?” he asked.
“It means, if you’re a part of the Empire, if you’ve got a stake in the status quo, if, down deep, you really think the Pharaohs of the world are in charge, then you are likely to miss altogether the mighty acts of God in history.”
That is to say, before we can know what to make of history— before we can know what to make of current events, for that matter— we first have to know what history we believe in, where its center lies, and what its inner logic is.
The Attorney General, William Barr, often retorts to journalists that history is told by the winners, which is a statement about the present as much as it is a statement about the past. To assert that the so-called winners will get to determine how the past gets remembered is to assume that the only sovereigns of the present are the proud and the powerful. And Bill Barr’s not the only one. The assertion that history is told by the winners has become a cliché, because most people assume that it’s true. Indeed— let’s be clear, by faith alone— you would have no reason whatsoever not to believe that the past, the present, and the future belong to the Strongmen and Pharaohs of this world were it not for the Word of God. It alone bears witness to us today that seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, to whom has been given all authority and dominion over the earth, is the Son, who did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
The power of the Living God which governs over and moves in and works through our present-tense world is the humble weakness of the “heaven-tall, earth-wide Stranger.”
In his commentary on Philippians, my former teacher, George Hunsinger, offers his own gloss on our text today:
“And being found in the form of Adam, the incarnate Son humbled himself, putting the interests of others ahead of his own, by becoming obedient, as the suffering servant, to the point of death, for our sakes and in our place, even death on a cross, in the shameful form of a crucified slave, by which his divine glory and lordship was concealed.”
The Philippians— They’re not hearing about the death of Jesus Christ for the first time. The Apostle Paul himself founded the church to whom he writes his jailhouse letter, the same Paul who declares to the Corinthian Church, “I am determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This is the same Paul who insists that “Christ crucified” is the entire content of the Gospel message, and who charges believers to proclaim, with Word and wine and bread, “the Lord’s death until he comes again.” The Paul who writes to the Philippians today is the same Paul who is resolute that the testimony that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” is of first importance in the life of the Church. For the Apostle Paul, the cross of Jesus Christ is the central event of all history. The death of Christ on Calvary is the hinge between the Old Age and the New Age. The crucifixion is the point from which we— those who behold him— interpret the past, present, and future, for Good Friday is the time when all the world is born again.
Therefore, there’s no chance the Philippians are hearing about the death of Jesus Christ for the first time in today’s text. Likely, Paul has already taught them that by virtue of his obedience and humility Christ Jesus, the Second Adam, reverses and supersedes the First Adam’s disobedience. Paul’s already taught them that just as all are implicated in the Old Adam’s sin, so all are implicated in the New Adam’s saving action upon the cross. He’s already proclaimed to them that the death of all occurs in the death of the One, that the death of the One is in the stead for all. And surely, Paul has already preached to them the glad tidings that the passion of our Lord is the very undoing of Death, that the death of Jesus Christ is the death of Death.
They’re not hearing about the crucifixion for the first time, and certainly Paul has already catechized them as to its meaning.
Rather, Paul mentions God emptying himself into “the shameful form of a crucified slave” so as to remind them of the manner in which the Living God continues to conceal himself among us. And the way in which God continues to reveal himself in our world— reveal His Almightiness in Weakness, His Glory in Humility, His Sovereignty in Suffering— should determine who and where we are in the world.
Remember, today’s text is logically prior to last week’s passage that precedes it. What Paul is after here is not theological abstraction, but instead the practical implications of the form in which our salvation has come to us. Paul’s point is critical. He’s pleading to believers who are bitterly divided between themselves, grasping at power and privilege and their own prerogatives, to live as those who know that “the shameful form of a crucified slave” sits at the right hand of the Father and is right now King of Heaven and Earth.
Otherwise, we’re liable to be like the judge’s wife in Jesus Christ in Texas, walking right past, failing to see, the here and now presence of the Living God in our world.
Not all the characters in W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story fail to recognize the Stranger in their midst— just the white ones.
When the story begins on the roadside along a chain gang working in the dusk, one of the convicts looks up from his labor and locks eyes with the Stranger and immediately drops the hammer in his hands.
At the dinner party in the police officer’s home, when the butler, “an ancient black man, with tufted white hair,” enters the living room with the tea service, he totters with bewilderment, and then with sudden gladness in his eyes drops to his knees, and the tray crashes to the floor.
“My Lord and my God!” he whispers to the Stranger while the lady of the house screams, “Mother’s china!”
After the Stranger declares to the pastor, “I never knew you,” and turns to leave the party, the wet nurse, who’d been lingering at the top of the staircase, flies down after the Stranger, catching his coat, trembling, and hesitating, she kneels before him.
Having left the dinner party, the Stranger encounters an escaped prisoner in the woods. As bloodhounds bay and the dinner guests chatter inside about law and order, the Stranger makes a cup of his hands and gives the prisoner water to drink, bathes his hot head, and gently takes the chains and irons from his feet.
Just then, Du Bois writes, the convict looks down at his striped clothes, but the Stranger without the prisoner even noticing had taken off his long coat and put it around him so that now his prison stripes disappeared.
Looking into the Stranger’s face fully for the first time, a moment of gladness sweeps over the stains of the prisoner’s face.
Using the n-word, the prisoner says to the Stranger, “Why, you, Lord, look just like me.”
The black characters in the story– they’d been trained to know what true power looks like.
Christ coming among us in “the shameful form of a crucified slave” does not simply describe how God has saved the world, in the past, and us with it.
Christ Jesus visiting us in “the shameful form of a crucified slave” also determines how we are to perceive our world, in the present, and our place in it. The cross of Christ Jesus is the means by which we look for the true and living God at work in our world.
For Christians, David Bentley Hart says, recognizing the presence and power of God at work in our world is like learning to find
“a picture cunningly concealed within another picture, a puzzle or hidden pattern, the true history of the Kingdom, which none can see, except those who know to look for it. And when the story of the world is told aright, Christ is always there, always risen and present, passing through the ages in the company of the forgotten and outcast…Though history might deprive them of their names, God has given them the name of Christ; though the world might forget them, God has given them Christ’s story as their own. Where they are, he is present; and, in our world today, God is most truly present nowhere else.”
In other words, “discernment” is no small part of discipleship. As Karl Barth says, “We are not thinking or speaking rightly about God, we are not thinking or speaking rightly about the present events of the world, if we do not take as our starting point the fact that should be first and last: that from all eternity God has elected to bear this form.”
The shameful form of a crucified slave.
Discipleship entails discernment, learning how to see and recognize the company in which the Living Christ conceals himself in our world.
Discipleship entails discernment, learning how to distinguish the form Christ takes today from all the other fraudulent saviors in our world.
This is why we bother to mention Pontius Pilate in the Creed.
Pilate is exactly the sort of “Great Man” about whom history is meant to be written. He made a name for himself. He had station, wealth, and power. He possessed the authority of an Empire at his disposal. Yet, Pilate’s story vanishes in the light of Easter. He is remembered today only insofar as he is written in the margins of the story about the crucified slave.
Discipleship entails discernment, but such work of discernment does not come easy to any of us. In this time between the times, where none of us are completely free of the dominion of the Old Adam and the Prince of Lies still reigns, we are nimble with our golden calves, skilled at making God into our own image. We are quick to take our preferred news sources as the true story of the world. We are too ready to accept that history is told by the winners and thus, easily, we miss the mighty acts of God in our midst. Our only hope is in the promise with which the Apostle Paul began his Epistle, the promise that “the God who began a good work in you [covering over your own convict stripes] will bring it to completion.”
Sometimes the Living God continues that work on us by thrusting himself before us in such a way that makes it impossible not to discern his true presence.
For example, this summer I was watching the funeral of George Floyd on my computer. Again, I thought about my former church member who came back from Egypt chagrined the Exodus story had been omitted by Pharaoh’s historians.
During his funeral sermon, when Rev. Al Sharpton led the congregation in reciting the tragically long litany of names that had preceded George Floyd’s, names that would otherwise be forgotten— names that in many cases were forgotten for months until stubborn protests pushed them into the public consciousness.
“The mother of Trayvon Martin, will you stand?” Sharpton said.
“The mother of Eric Garner, will you stand?”
“The sister of Botham Jean, will you stand?”
“The family of Pamela Turner, right here in Houston, will you stand?”
“The father of Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri, will you stand?”
“The father of Ahmaud Arbery, will you stand?”
The litany went for nearly eight minutes, name after name of victims who might otherwise have remained nameless to history.
After the funeral, a reporter asked an elderly worshipper about the significance to the Black community of so often reciting all those names. And the worshipper responded, “Because, when we say their names here, in the House of the Lord, we are blessed with the power that comes from the name that is above every name.”
“And that’s helpful in your grief?” the reporter asked for clarification.
“Helpful? No, it’s not helpful. It’s hopeful. It’s the comfort of the Gospel— that we are victims only for a little while because Jesus Christ, who knows our suffering as his own, will one day vindicate us.”
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
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