Vulnerable Mercy: Sharing the Mind of Christ

paulAt times I’ve wondered what it would have been like to be on the receiving end of one of Paul’s epistles.  I imagine a variety of responses:  the flurry of excitement and anticipation over what he would say; some gnawing anxiety about what he’s heard about my community in his absence; trying to figure out which newbie tattled about that party where we ate the food offered to idols; vindication when my side in a dispute is affirmed; resentment because he just doesn’t understand what’s really happening and hasn’t heard the whole story.

I hope that one of the emotions I would feel is the joy of “hearing” his voice again, even if only in written form.  Writers and speakers tend to have certain styles—go-to phrases, metaphors, and themes—that characterize and define their voice.   Looking for Paul’s style in his letters helps us to hear his voice, which often echoes with the good news of Jesus Christ and resonates with God’s mercy.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses God’s mercy in a particular way.  Perhaps the best known part of the epistle is the Christ hymn, so called because Paul, like many teachers, knew that one good way to reach his students was to weave contemporary music into the lesson plan.  Just before he quotes the hymn, Paul urges the Philippians to unity, and exhorts, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . .” (Phil. 2:5).

What is the mind of Christ?  The Christ-hymn offers an extended description:

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.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In Greek, the word for “emptied” in verse seven is “kenosis.”  Michael J. Gorman, a United Methodist biblical scholar, argues that rather than reading Christ’s kenosis as an act of self-deprivation in which Christ surrenders his divinity in order to become human, we ought instead read it as “a robust metaphor for total self-abandonment and self-giving.”[1]  Gorman’s interpretation is rooted in a pattern found elsewhere in Paul’s writing:

“although [x] not [y] but [z].”[2]

In the hymn, the pattern takes the following form:

although [in the form of God] did not [exploit equality with God] but [emptied himself . . . humbled himself].[3]

In Paul’s signature style, this pattern is a cue that a lesson about true identity and status is coming.  Gorman writes:  “the ‘[x]’ in the pattern represents a status that is already possessed and that can be either exploited for selfish gain or not.  Moreover, the evidence of truly possessing such a status is in the refusal to exploit it selfishly and thus to use it in such a selfless way that its use seems to be a renunciation of status but is in fact a different-from-normal manner of incarnating this status.”[4]

Bernard Buffet - LA PASSION DU CHRIST, 1951 oil on canvas RESIZED
Bernard Buffet, The Passion of Christ, 1951

If Gorman’s thesis is correct, then Christ’s kenosis in the incarnation is not contrary to his divine identity, but is rather the essence of divinity.  It’s just that we may not expect God to act this way.  We may think that God’s divine status means God stands aloof from human beings’ suffering and sinfulness; instead, God transforms our limited notions of divinity by becoming a human being.  In the merciful act of entering our chaos, Christ becomes vulnerable to that chaos.[5]  Christ is faithful to his divine identity because his union with humanity is so complete that he does not balk at vulnerability, but rather embraces it—even “to the point of death, death on a cross” (v. 8).  If vulnerable mercy characterizes divinity, then through kenosis we may come to share the mind of Christ.

Of course, in some ways, I don’t have to wonder so much about what it’s like to receive one of Paul’s missives; after all, through scripture I’ve received this message, though it’s one that I’d frequently rather ignore because of the sheer, radical nature of it.  It’s all well and good to believe in a God who chooses vulnerable mercy.  That works out pretty nicely for me as one who needs mercy.  It’s rather different to be told I must make the choice of vulnerable mercy and allow that choice to reshape my notions of identity—even “to the point of death, death on a cross.”  How am I a vulnerably merciful professor? theologian? daughter? sister? aunt? friend? creature? colleague? white person? neighbor? citizen? consumer? woman? child of God?

There’s a degree of comfort in knowing that it’s not just me, but rather the whole Christian community that Paul calls to share in Christ’s vulnerable mercy.  In that case, vulnerable mercy isn’t just a choice made individually by church members; rather, it should unite us with Christ and each other, and be our shared identity.  Vulnerable mercy would then be an essential way the church is Christian, it would inspire relationships within the church, and teach us the ways the church should grow.

Yet to truly share Christ’s vulnerable mercy, we also have to see it as the opposite of the “spiritual worldliness” Pope Francis warns against.[6]  Vulnerable mercy means the church must be “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than . . . unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”[7]  To share in Christ’s mind is to share in Christ’s mission of solidarity to those who suffer, and so as the church must also ask:  with whom are we vulnerable in our mercy?

Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015:  Mercy Edition.  

[1] Michael J. Gorman, “‘Although/Because He Was in the Form of God’:  The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6-11),” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1.2 (2007): 157.

[2] Gorman,” 157.  “ . . . in Thess 2:6-8 Paul depicts his behavior as “although [x] not [y] but [z]” when he says that “although we might have thrown our weight around as apostles, we did not seek honor from humans, but we were gentle among you, and were pleased to share with you, not only the gospel, but our own selves.”  Gorman 158.  “We see, then, that Paul believes that in his decisions not to use of exploit his apostolic power and rights, he does not renounce his apostleship or divest himself of his apostleship but in fact exercises true apostleship because he thereby acts in ways that are in conformity to Christ.” Gorman 159.

[3] Gorman 153.

[4] Gorman, 159.  Italics in original.

[5] James Keenan, Moral Wisdom (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010) 118.

[6] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 93.

[7] Francis, Evangelii Gaudieum, 49.