Running on Empty

Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.1
The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a beautiful and deeply meaningful passage of scripture, but I think its opening might be a little bit misleading to people in our day and age. That’s because it sounds downright pleasant. These days, we’re told that if we only look for the positive in any situation, we’ll be happy. And that seems to be what Paul is saying.

If there’s any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.2

In other words, look for the positive aspects of belonging to Christ, and agree to agree on those things. It’s similar to something Jesus himself said in Matthew’s gospel: If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven [Matt. 18:19].3

Name It Claim It
Both of these passages can be (and I’m sure they have been) used by name-it-claim-it preachers who teach that true faith means never having to suffer or go without; that the more we believe, the more blessed we’ll be with health and wealth.

But if we look at those two scriptures in context we’ll see that in Matthew, Jesus was talking about church discipline and the decision to forgive or not to forgive. And Paul was talking about something similar: how to overcome pride. Paul’s not talking here about how a denial of the negative brings blessing, but how a deeper experience of God’s grace enables Christians to avoid selfishness.

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.4

Far from being some sort of divine insurance policy against worldly pain or poverty, Paul’s solution might well lead Christians into the very things we would normally want to avoid. That’s because his antidote to selfishness is the example of Christ. And that example is one of humility and self-emptying.

So beautiful is Paul’s proposed solution to pride, that it’s considered a canticle in its own right, and has been memorized and repeated and prayed and set to music and sung countless times throughout the last two thousand years:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the Name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.5

No passage of scripture tells us more about God. God’s glory is found in complete humility. True wisdom is found in the foolishness of the cross. And human fullness runs on Christ’s emptiness.

And it’s that emptiness that we remember today when we gather round the table. In receiving the bread and the wine, we are reminded that God’s economy is not our economy, and that spiritual riches aren’t the same as worldly wealth. We won’t leave the sanctuary today with full bellies, but God has promised us instead abundant life. And we won’t do much networking here, but we will experience true communion. That’s because the menu we’ve been given isn’t engraved on parchment, but has been handed down by word of mouth among every people in every time and in every place. And it comes directly from the one who has invited us.

For I received from the Lord what I now hand on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he’d given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.6 

Jackson Browne
No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. This certainly isn’t my table. It doesn’t even belong to this church. It is the Lord’s, and it is his choice that those who wish to know him meet him here. In the United Church, we don’t believe that Christ emptied himself on the cross so that we could fill up books with rules about who may and who may not commune. If you believe, there’s a seat for you here, even if you’re not a member of this church.

When I was in college, I remember listening a lot to Jackson Browne’s song Running on Empty. I wish that song were in our hymnal, because it reminds me today that there is enough nourishment in this supper to meet our needs. It can have us up and running, not on our own strength or stored-up resources, but on Christ’s emptiness. For out of his sacrifice, we are given faith in God, and out of that faith, we are empowered to serve others…

—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. Philippians 2:6-7a
  2. Philippians 2:1-2
  3. Matthew 18:19
  4. Philippians 2:3-4
  5. Philippians 2:5-11
  6. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26