Victory and Vulnerability
Key Passage: Philippians 2:5-6
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: cross, victory, vulnerability, kenosis
Perhaps this makes me a bit odd, but I have long loved the story of the Israelites skirting the land of Edom. It was one of those tales that captivated my attention way back in Sunday School days. The first lesson it taught seemed to be that if you complained about the food in God’s restaurant, the dessert would be a lot worse.
But even more fascinating to a young boy attentive to the balance between provocation and punishment was the God’s way of dealing with these obstreperous people. The serpents aren’t just a feature of the landscape in the scenic route around Edom; an exasperated God sends them in response to the reviews the Israelites are writing on Yelp.
And then Moses prays, and just as quickly as God sent the serpents, God sends the solution to the serpents. It is—here’s the really interesting part—another serpent. More specifically, the solution is this: You make a copy of the thing that is assailing you, preferably out of bronze, and then you hoist it up on a pole so that you and everyone else can look at it when it is tormenting you, and—hey, presto—problem solved.
What a fabulous thing to be able to do! Before I was even in the car on the way home from church, I began to wonder: Could I make a bronze model of Mrs. O’Meara? Mrs. O’Meara was my fourth-grade math teacher. How hard is it to make something out of bronze? That sent me to the “B” volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica. I had a pleasant daydream about reveling in the accolades of my classmates for coming up with a way of protecting us all from the terrors of long division.
Wouldn’t it be great if it really worked that way? What particular torment of yours would you cast in bronze and hoist on a pole, if you could? Maybe I should ask: Whom would you make an image of in bronze and hoist on a pole, if you could? Someone from your parish, perhaps? A head of state with curious blond hair, perhaps? For all I know, I might well be on the list of things some of you might want to cast in bronze for a hoisting. And that’s okay; some of you might be on my list, too.
I suppose the wisdom of those who have crafted the lectionary of the Church of England in appointing this text for today is to connect the image of the serpent raised to alleviate the pain of serpents to the image of the Christ raised on the cross to alleviate the venom of sin and death.
There is a danger in that parallel, of course, because of course the man raised on the cross is without sin. But he surely does die, or else the resurrection would be a sham and our faith would be misplaced. That he is raised is the truth we know, and the hope we live.
I am still very new in this ministry, and new in this culture. I have been struck by how greatly more secular is European culture than the culture of the United States, which at least remains generally sympathetic to the idea of faith and the work of faith communities. It is not too much of a stretch to say that in some parts of Europe the depth of secularization results in a perspective that is by no means neutral, but hostile, to both the claims of the faith and the work of the church.
To say it in the terms of the focus of this day, the work accomplished by the cross once for all humanity—this treasure we have received of an intervention on our behalf to offer us the possibility of justification before God despite our waywardness, to assure us of the possibility of eternal life in the eternity of God—that work seems of questionable, even laughable relevance to much of the world around us. The cross offers an antidote to the bite of a serpent people no longer feel inhabits their lives or their world.
We know better than this, of course. We know that the human condition of sinfulness does not change simply because the culture beguiles us into thinking otherwise. If the serpent’s bite has in our day taken the form of a pervasive spiritual acedia, it is our task as disciples to ask how best to cut through that indifference and apathy with a message of urgency and possibility.
But this is where our point of contact in the second chapter of Philippians, the great kenotic hymn, comes and stands confronting us. If that is our task—and I believe with all my heart that it is—then are we fit for purpose?
In an earlier day the great numbers of the faithful people of God felt overwhelmed by their powerlessness in the face of war, and disease, and poverty, and the violence that attends state power. And what we did, and did very well, in reaching out to them was to build great institutions, and glorious buildings, and elaborated structures of power, all of which did an excellent job in giving our people a sense that their souls, at least, were safe and secure within the fortress of God’s church.
Today, the great numbers of people still feel overwhelmed by their powerlessness.
They feel powerless in the face of the pace of technological advancement, a kind of “progress” that opens fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
They feel powerless in the face of faceless, complex institutions, so much so that they are desperate to tear them down if only to feel empowered in their capacity for destruction.
They feel powerless in the face of a culture relentlessly measuring them in terms of wealth, or influence, or celebrity, and eagerly willing to take advantage of their vulnerability or weakness.
And what do we have to offer to those people, people so overwhelmed by powerlessness that they have lost track of their souls?
Right now we are offering them great institutions, and glorious castles, and elaborated structures of power. All of the things toward which those good people have developed a reflexive suspicion, or an even an active hatred. And not surprisingly, we are not getting very far doing the thing God has called us to do—which is, and always has been, more about people than about the privileges of institutions.
My old thesis adviser, Sarah Coakley, has written critically and constructively about the tradition of the church in interpreting the hymn to the kenosis of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians.(1) In her own synthesis, the idea of kenosis sets before all of us who claim the name Christian, and all of the institutions we build, a rigorous test.
It proceeds from the claim that the power given to Christ to make real the victory over sin and death arises not from a God so many of the collects teach us to address as “almighty,” but rather from the profound vulnerability of Jesus—a vulnerability made devastatingly real in the brutal fact of the cross, that place where the blind power of this world is met and transcended by the power-in-vulnerability of God’s love.
This God is not a God of coercion. This God is not a God who will demand of a lost and frightened people that they come to our churches to pay him homage. This God is a god who comes to us and enters fully into our vulnerability, in order to transform our fear into faith.
The cross we proclaim today, that subversion of an instrument of shame into a sign of victory, is the place where that is made real. For centuries we have built buildings for ourselves following this pattern, in the fabric of our cruciform churches. But how shall we now be cross-shaped disciples?
I am nearly the newest of all of you, and it seems presumptuous of me to include any exhortation section in this sermon.
But for my own part I am persuaded that for us to answer God’s call to us to reach out into this world, and this culture, at this moment—that thing that the incarnational emphasis so distinctive of Anglican theology calls us to do—we are going to have to lay down our longing to proclaim the victory of the cross only, and instead enter much more fully into its vulnerability.
Once, we reached out to the needs of our people by building grand structures of concrete and canon law to give them a sense of safety and security. But now, just maybe, we are being called to enter fully into their sense of vulnerability and precarity.
This is, after all, what Christ does for us in the incarnation. And for the centuries that we were creating grand devices and indulging haughty desires, whether as a church enjoying the protections of being established, or as a church enjoying the benefits of being the home of the establishment, we tended to forget that the God we proclaim is a God who willingly and consistently enters our lives vulnerable and undefended.
Perhaps it has been in forgetting this simple and unsettling reality that we have caused the cock to crow at the dawn of this age.
We might as well admit that the prospect of giving up all of the comforts and assurances of our privileges—our institutions, our castles, our few bits of remaining social deference, our place in society, our costumes and collars—all of that fills us with no small amount of fear, and a deep sense of loss. We are afraid, in some way, that we will lose not just our place, but ourselves.
But wasn’t that what Jesus said we would end up doing anyway?
What if that is what it takes to move from cross-shaped churches into which the people around us are uninterested or unwilling to venture, to cross-shaped disciples able and willing to enter into the vulnerability and fear of the people around us—who are, after all, just as much the people for whom the work of the cross was done?
The late American theologian William Placher offers us this thought to pray on today:
“The God who loves in freedom is not afraid and therefore can risk vulnerability, absorb the full horror of another’s pain without self-destruction. God has the power to be compassionate without fear; human beings now as in the time of Jesus tend to think of power as refusal to risk compassion. But God’s power looks not like imperious Caesar, but like Jesus on the cross.” (2)
May the God who calls us to follow in the way of the cross give us the courage to risk the same vulnerability willingly accepted by Jesus, so that we might share with others the victory won through the cross for us.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.
1. Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion,” in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender (Oxford, U.K. and Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
2. William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 18.