All people across the world are invited to bend the knee at the name of Christ.
Conversation with God can be portrayed as an “argy-bargy”. God can get quite upset if unjustly accused of injustice! He must point the accusing finger back at us. God respects the repentance of the sinner. Yet we do not understand this – we continue to point the finger at the wrongdoer. We must seek the transformation of those who dialogue with God.
Then comes Paul’s great insight about that transformation as he writes to the Philippians. He characterises dialogue as a life lived in Christ and begs them to act out its lesson – put others’ interests above your own: ‘In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus.’ What does that mean? This is Paul’s cue to produce one of the most thrilling and beautiful descriptions of the significance of his experience of Christ. It has grown familiar with use. We can try to recapture its first impact.
Paul has already been very eloquent in searching for the right words to plead with the Philippians for unity based on self-effacing love (this was outrageous and revolutionary then; and it is still demanding today). But then he comes to the reason for his eloquence and pleas. In words unheard of before, he is able to say: ‘His state was divine (really!), yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are… even to accepting death, death on a cross.’ This is the revolution at the centre of our transformation. Here is the reason for our being: God so loves humanity that he ceases to be God and empties his Divine ‘being-ness’ to become the ‘being’ we are – and then as one of us, dies a shameful death on a cross out of love for all humanity.
Now since Paul produced these words and language, we can repeat them. Without his words, it may not ever have been possible to encapsulate or encompass the meaning of the life and death of Christ. Therefore, some regard Paul as a freak or inventor of Christianity and others regard him as one of the greatest mystics who have ever lived. He speaks out of an utter conviction that in Christ we find God literally divested of his divinity in the ultimate illustration of what love might mean – not only in sharing our human condition, but by then laying that human life at our service unto death on a cross. This is the essence of the Christian message and it must not be captured or domesticated by any church or group – it is meant to be for all humanity’s rescue and authentication, validation and glory.
It may be useful to read the use made of this Pauline passage by the Bishops of England and Wales in their teaching document on inter-religious relations: ‘Meeting God in Friend and Stranger’ (2010)
‘The Christian approach to dialogue is, at its heart, an entering into the costly love of Christ for humanity.’ (See MGFS paras 96 – 98) The document then quotes Philippians 2 to reinforce its conviction that the spirituality of dialogue is ‘putting on Christ’, taking on the love demonstrated by Christ’s passage from life to death to resurrection so that ‘all beings should bend the knee at the name of Jesus.’ We acknowledge as Christians, the unique nature of the love of God made manifest in Christ but equally that we have no exclusive right to its benefits. These are meant to be for all humanity – all beings are invited to bend the knee.
Paul certainly believed that Christ emptied himself of God not for some, or this or that group, but for all and every person. Any sort of exclusive emptying would define God as not God! God surrenders the whole of God for the whole of humanity. This emptying defines what we mean as we stumble towards any definition of God – secure in the appreciation that ‘God’ lies beyond any of our imaginings, formulae and creeds.
Matthew has Jesus teaching the religious leaders of his community – and by extension all religious leaders, at any time! He leads them to the edge of admitting their complicity in self-imposed spiritual blindness. The lessons are clear for all those who take admission to the dialogue with God as a sure sign of election. The only sign of favour is when we begin to bear the fruits of dialogue – a self-emptying as after the pattern lain down by Christ – in other words, as Jesus tells the story – the ‘kingdom of God’ is entered or produced in anyone who is humble enough (like the prostitutes and tax collectors) to heed the transformative power of God. Transformation, if engaged in, leads into, constitutes the kingdom. The lessons or revelations of dialogue ignored (no matter your status or sense of election) and its transformative power neglected – results in the only self-imposed exclusion even God cannot handle. Or maybe He/She can! We do not know.