Reflection for Sunday – April 10, 2022

Readings: Isaiah 50: 4-7; Philippians  2: 6-11; Luke 22: 14-23:56 
Preacher: Susan K. Roll

Superheroes, fantasy figures, even children’s fairy tales love the idea that a person can change from one form into another.  It might be Spiderman, transforming from the handsome Peter Parker into a web-spinning champion of justice at the first whiff of evil detected through his spider-sense.  Or a plain girl might shape-shift from ugly to beautiful with the wave of a wand.  Or the carriage to take her to the ball would be magically changed from what had been a pumpkin drawn by mice.

This is wonderful fantasy story material, and it didn’t just gain traction in the 20th century.  Ancient Greeks and Romans told stories about their gods changing form at will, often when a male god tried to seduce a human female.  Zeus changed into a swan to seduce Leta (Why a swan?  Not sure.)  And once in awhile a human could appeal to a god to change her form to escape being molested—for example, to a tree.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Christian community at Philippi, he was addressing people who, for the most part, had grown up in this Greco-Roman world of religious imagination where gods could shape-shift at will.  Paul doesn’t claim that Jesus actually did that, but he uses it as an analogy to grapple with the theological difficulty of a crucified god-hero.  Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of criminals.  As we enter into Holy Week and walk again the way of the Cross with Jesus, the tragedy never goes away, but we might forget how utterly illogical, scandalous and terrifying this was.  If we grew up seeing a crucifix in church or at home, or on a school wall, the horror became part of the backdrop of our daily life.

Paul uses a pre-existing Christian hymn in Philippians 2: 6-11, adding a phrase of his own – “death on a cross,” to make the reality sharper and more specific: 

            Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God

            did not regard equality with God

            Something to be grasped.

            Rather he emptied himself,

            Taking the form of a slave,

            Coming in human likeness;

            And found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

            Becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The “form,” morphe in Greek (yes, the root of our expression “to morph” into something else) serves as the pivot between two ideas that could not make a sharper contrast—the “form of God” and the “form of a slave.”  The word translated “likeness,” homoimati, can mean just a similarity of appearance.  Here Paul is skating on thin ice, as it were:  before long, splinter groups within the Christian movement would claim that Christ was never really human, but only a god who looked human.  This of course made perfect sense to them from their own culture.  But it is not the Christian understanding of who Christ is, then or now.

The stunning mystery here is that God can enter fully in humanity, not superficially or temporarily.  Later theologians would say, what is not assumed (that is, full human nature) is not redeemed.  At this point, we ourselves can begin to enter into the mystery of an incarnate Christ who became subject to the worst atrocity imaginable in his time, or one of them.  And in this suffering God accompanies all those on earth who suffer injustice, or unbearable pain, or undeserved tragedy.  God walks with refugees driven from their homes and land by violently aggressive invaders.  God rests beside those who lie in intensive care units, and their loved ones who may be compelled to wait outside.

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion are not devoid of the expectation that Jesus will enact a miraculous shape-shift himself— a self-rescue.  Here in Luke’s account the mocking challenge is fairly straightforward:  “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”  And he doesn’t.  Resurrection to new life is not a quick fix, or a shape-shift, or a happy ending to an adventure story.

In the Spirit of Christ, incarnate in our flesh, we find the strength to enter into our own vulnerability, our fragility, because ultimately, by the grace of God, we are more than that.  This holy season, this fearful season in which we stand, hushed, before a story of outrageous injustice and terrible pain, leads us to an edge from which we will be brought to safety, to healing, and to new life.

Susan Roll
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