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Jesus is the self-emptying Lord
All authority is given to Jesus
In The Great Commission Jesus describes himself as being given all authority and power. The way Jesus uses this power and authority is so unique, and so unlike how we see leaders around us using it that I wanted to pause and reflect on it.
The Bible writers call Jesus “Lord” or “kyrios” (κύριος) in Greek. This is the same term that the writers of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) use to describe God. Lord means “master” or “leader,” and it’s not a totally common word to use today, but it is a title of power. In a liberal democracy, especially one that fought a revolution to escape a land full of royal titles like Lord, calling Jesus "Lord" may be especially difficult. We don’t want to be lorded over. In fact, we collect property so that we are not (land) lorded over!
But the Bible writers continually use a title with a lot of authority to describe Jesus (King, for example, is another one). And I don’t want to run away from it even if it feels like it has a negative connotation. We have had plenty of terrible lords that make such a feeling normal, but despite the horrible leaders that make us feel bad about using the term “Lord,” I can’t let go of calling Jesus Lord. The reason I insist on calling Jesus Lord is that I don’t want to be lorded over by other political rulers.
Calling Jesus Lord is a political statement
The Gospel has a major political consequence. Calling Jesus Lord is a political statement. “Jesus is Lord” is not a statement that is about personal beliefs. It’s one about political allegiance. The temptation to make “Jesus is Lord” into a statement primarily designed for your personal comfort and salvation is something that people do who are eager to submit to other lords or make themselves their own lords. I understand the impulse to turn Jesus into your personal accessory and not the Lord of your life.
The powers that be are jealous to be lords of our lives, and I think we also seek that same power over ourselves. But if we’re serious about Jesus being the one who is given all authority and power, we would do well not to just take it for ourselves or offer it to another leader.
However, the political consequence and power of Jesus is unlike any other. We know this intellectually, but it’s hard to grasp in our circumstance practically. It’s easy to talk in abstractions about the uniqueness of Jesus’ power, but it’s much harder to apply them personally.
God uses power in a way unlike anyone else
The Hebrew God is often referred to as “almighty,” and even though terms like “omnipotent” are more Greek than they are Christian, it’s clear to me that the Bible writers ascribe God a lot of power. God is the creator and the liberator; God is redeemer and provider. God has power. But God wields it in unusual ways. For example, God makes Godself known to the world by liberating slaves in Egypt, and God calls a tiny weak nation (that can’t seem to maintain its own sovereignty for very long) God’s people. And when Israel allies with evil powers, God resolutely punishes them for trying to use power in a way that was ungodly.
In the New Testament, we see God’s unique power in even more unusual ways. God condescends to humanity by becoming human, even a baby. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, the devil in the desert tempts him with economic, political, and religious power and Jesus rejects it. He insists that he is the one to get baptized and not do the baptizing. And then Jesus in his public ministry keeps his miracles private. He addresses the recipients of his Sermon on the Mount as lowly and humble, just as he is. And in that same sermon, he teaches us about loving our enemies. He calls us to care for the least among us. He tells us that the wealthy can’t make it into the Kingdom of God, and he honors the poor and the meek (like children). The last shall be first is the new way of doing things. And finally allows himself to get dominated by other leaders, and ends up dying on the cross. And in Resurrection, he releases his power and gives it to all of us, so that we can follow in his upside-down lordship. We follow Jesus by taking up our own cross as a church. We follow in this same cruciform witness.
The self-emptying savior
Here’s how Paul describes the power of Jesus to the Philippians. He’s probably using a well-known hymn at the time, and scholars have gone on to call it the “kenosis (κένωσις) hymn,” or the hymn of self-emptying:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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. – Philippians 2:5-8
Paul tells us plainly that Jesus is God (Jesus is Lord), but did not exploit that power or claim equality with God. He self-emptied, became a slave, become a human, and humbled himself to the point of death. Because of that radical humility, God exalts Jesus. This is how the last become first.
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. – Philippians 2:9-10
We need to self-empty the same way that Jesus did. That’s how Jesus is leading us to lead. If we claim Jesus is Lord, we must exhibit the same humility that he did. We must rid ourselves of our worldly power—the power we collect because of our bodies (race and gender and sexuality), but also our positions in society (upbringing, socioeconomic status, and family system) even. Calling Jesus Lord compels us to act like him and lead like him and Jesus leads by self-emptying.
Jesus’ “taking on the form of a slave” allies him with the oppressed in the world. Which is why he says he is in the least of these. It’s why James Cone calls God “ontologically black.” He’s aligned with the oppressed because God self-empties.
Jesus’ “self-emptying” also allows him, as a man, to be a savior for women. That is the argument of Rosemary Radford Ruether, who says Jesus exhibits the “kenosis” of patriarchy, the self-emptying of patriarchy.
Our self-emptying doesn't leave us devoid of a self, but rather unites us with our true self. I think that those of us who are oppressed by society are fundamentally closer to our true selves than those who aren't; oppressed people exhibit a proximity to Christ that causes us to reframe how they might "self-empty." But if all we're doing is telling oppressed people to self-empty, as in not advocate for themselves, I think we miss the power of kenosis and simply use it to reiterate oppressive patterns and behavior. Put more plainly, it can simply reinforce white patriarchy.
Good leaders empower others
Christian leaders must be humble and self-emptying. We must insist on not dominating. We must empower others. Good leaders are the ones who create other leaders, and don’t just insist on having followers. A mark of a good leader are the empowered ones that they help create, not obedience or submission or dominance. Jesus leads us in the same way, and we have to model that leadership. Doing so will actually help more people call Jesus Lord because they know that Jesus’ lordship is so different than the world’s.
But Christian leaders need to follow their leader because we will continually be tempted, just as Jesus was, to collect earthly power (be it religious, political, or economic), and we must reject that. The worst among us might think of ourselves as “justified” in our domination because we associate with Jesus. But calling Jesus Lord doesn’t allow us to lead however we want, nor does it exonerate us of our alliance with worldly powers.
The sins of sexism and racism cover the United States, and Christian leaders are not immune to how those sins have colonized our society. I need to repent of my complicity in both regularly. My work is not done, but Jesus empowers me to keep going, to keep self-emptying, and somehow, in a backward way, participate in freeing and redeeming the world.