The great divine arch
Proper 21A 2014
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard
If you could go back in time and ask Ralph Adams Cram, the renowned architect of this church, what he meant by Gothic style, I’m sure you would get a very complex answer. I wish I were able to be at Adult Forum today to hear more about how Emmanuel’s building reflects Cram’s ideals. However, I think one part of his answer, and probably the major part of the answer you’d get from most of us amateurs if you asked us to describe Gothic style, would be this: It has arches.
Specifically, arches that soar up and come to a point at the top. Our arches here are in an earlier, less pointy style than some, but as you look around our building you’ll see arches everywhere. Even from the outside. And it’s quite lovely, I think, that the same day we feature Cram, we also have probably the most famous poetic arch in Scripture in our Epistle reading. ....
Except that it’s a reverse arch. It doesn’t start from the bottom and move to a point at the top and down again; it goes from unimaginable heights down to a tragically pointed depth and then back up.
The poetic arch that sits in the middle of today’s text from Philippians, scholars think, is probably a hymn that Paul is quoting, a familiar text everyone would already know. I wish it were printed as poetry in your insert today, but you can hear the reverse arcing movement, the down and then up, as it’s read.
[Christ Jesus], 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.
[There’s the bottom point of the arch; and now we move back up.]
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 bow,
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.
You can hear that arcing movement: From the ultimate height, equality with God, all the way down to the depths of human degradation, and back up into God’s life again.
There are so many things one could say about this extraordinary text, this great reverse arch. But the two that I want to focus on today are first, what it shows us about God himself, and then, what it shows us about how God does business with us.
Some of you know that I was brought up an atheist. I think the moment I first began to get into trouble as an unbeliever was discovering that the Christian conception of God was far more profound and philosophically subtle than the old man on a throne hurling thunderbolts I’d been led to believe Christians thought was out there somewhere. But the moment I really began to get into trouble was when I let Jesus get involved.
Because once you let Jesus get involved, you end up with a very different God than one who sits remote on high to be theorized about, or one who is merely a benign force to be used. Jesus reveals a God who takes the initiative to invade human experience -- and not just the inspiring, pleasant parts of it, but the worst. A God who volunteers for death by public torture, and even chooses that very moment as the lynchpin of redemption. That moment, the bottom point of this divine arch, is where everything we think we know about how “a deity” should behave is turned on its head.
How does God in Christ behave? He abandons his rights rather than exploit them. He pours out his power – empties himself, as the text says. He doesn’t demand his due in the courtyards of palaces or wow the glitterati at prestigious receptions, he goes straight to the dregs and the dirt, the places none of us wants to visit.
He travels all the way down to the bitter point of that reverse arch, where the greatest tragedies that have scarred history, and the worst betrayals that have scarred us, meet all the petty, ugly things we’ve done and want to avoid remembering. All the way down, in other words, to where it’s no longer possible to keep up appearances, to tell him that the human race is just fine, thanks; we don’t need any help. That’s where God in Christ goes.
So the first half of the arch descends into the slime, but then it begins to move back up. And this is where redemption happens. All that stuff, that trash, that tragic filthy gunk, Jesus’ strategy is to scoop it all up, if you will, and take it into God’s life transformed. All the wounds of history -- including your pain and your sin, if you don’t withhold it -- are absorbed and carried by him and with him and in him up to exaltation, up to the heart of God, up to a place where they can eventually reveal a meaning and weight and beauty we don’t see yet. In him, they become transformed, set like precious stones within a process of redemption before which every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth will one day bow the knee in awestruck admiration.
So that’s the whole arch: The unimaginable holiness of God becomes finite and sweeps down to the worst of the worst with the mission to sweep it all back up. That’s the whole process.
Now the kind and gracious thing that I’ve seen over and over is that God lets us get on the arch at any point in that process. He allows us to make our first steps into his redemptive movement in all kinds of ways. Some people do indeed get on at that awful point down in the depths. They hit bottom, as they say in the 12 step programs, and redemption meets them there.
But not everyone’s first contact point is at the bottom. Some people get on somewhere else – they’re motivated by gratitude or beauty, or by a restlessness they can’t satisfy, or by intellectual curiosity. They get on sort of at the middle and hang around there for a while.
And this is how gracious God is; he’ll work with us where we are. But the thing is that eventually, if you remain in a living relationship with Christ, what seems to happen is that he doesn’t let you just keep puttering contentedly around the middle and patting yourself on the back for it. He eventually starts to call you down, and up; he starts to bring all the points of that arch alive for you.
Me, I didn’t get on anywhere near the bottom. When I first became a Christian, I had bought hook line and sinker the idea that I was a basically good person. I got on because of a dawning sense of the presence of God in the world. I wanted more depth, I found Christianity compelling; and because God is so patient and desires us so much, he let me get on in the middle with all my pride and all my self-congratulatory assumptions intact.
I vaguely assumed I could probably be better, but in reality it took years of formation before I started to see how entrenched the preoccupation with self over God was in my life and how powerless I was to live fully in accordance with God’s will for even five minutes. And then it broke my heart, and because I finally let him call me to the depths I started to be able to see the heights too. The distance God came. The cost he paid. The extent of his promises. The boundless generosity.
When we see that, everything changes. When we stop fiddling around in the middle where we can avoid noticing our own ugliness or facing real pain, when we discover Jesus in the depths with us and just drop all our pretenses of competence and control, then we also begin to receive access to the heights in all their beauty. And that’s the real gift of this passage from Philippians. This whole process, this movement God made in Christ from his unspeakable glory down to unspeakable human misery and back, is not just some idea in the Bible. It’s laid open to us now.
And as we let him open it to us, we see that it’s true: his presence and action are with us from the depths to the heights, on a path that is all grace in a process that is all mercy. And his life and his love turn out to be far, far bigger than we thought, so big that everything is contained in them. And at last, it finally occurs to us that perhaps we should take a cue from every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Perhaps we should just say thank you, and bow the knee.