Kenosis: Holding Nothing Back
The Rev. Sara Warfield
Scripture: Philippians 2:1-13
I’m not sure we’re always aware of how powerfully translation can affect our theology, or how we believe, how we understand our faith. For example, in today’s epistle to the Philippians, we find what is commonly called the Kenosis Hymn. Paul didn’t write that part of the reading that is indented. Rather, he did what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry often does: he quoted from a song they sang in the church to illustrate his point.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul says, and then moves into the hymn:
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.
Now this was of course originally composed in Greek, the lingua franca, the common language, of Paul’s—and Jesus’—time. And I’m interested in the Greek verb here: kenoō, meaning to empty. The noun is kenosis, which is now a pretty well known theological term. The Greek phrase is kenoō—empty—heautou—oneself. The literal translation is what we heard from the lectern today. God emptied Godself.
But that’s not how the New International Version translates it. The NIV says, “he made himself nothing.” And the King James version translates it as, “he made himself of no reputation.” Those are not translations, those are interpretations. They carry very different meanings. Emptying oneself may simply mean, pouring oneself out into something different. But the NIV and the King James add a bit of a value judgment about being human. To empty oneself, in those translations, means to become nothing, to become of no reputation.
And I kind of get it. After all, the next verse says, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The Greek word there is doulos which, yes, can be translated as “slave,” but can also mean, “one who gives themself up to another’s will,” as it is used in the gospel of John, or “devoted to another to the disregard of one's own interests,” as it is used in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
In fact, the word doula, or a person who supports parents in preparing for birth, derives from doulos.
Do you see how it gets complicated? We don’t know how those early Christ-followers used those words in their day-to-day life. We don’t know what “emptying oneself” meant to them or how the word “slave” would have impacted them. It certainly wouldn’t have the specific connotation we now have of inhumane forced labor based on race.
So I’m admittedly a little mistrustful when translations get away from the original Greek to make their own meaning, especially when those translations become so widespread, so set in stone in so many minds.
Because when translations become interpretations, they can limit the meaning of our scripture. They can limit the power of the Spirit to move our hearts and minds in different ways through time as our lives and our world shift and change.
After all, do you hear Psalm 23 or the Beatitudes in the same way you heard them five or ten or 20 years ago? I certainly don’t. The way we think about our faith, the way we believe, evolves.
That is also true of the concept of kenosis, of self-emptying, Kenosis is a major theological idea in religious academic circles. We learn about it in seminary. German theologians have a different take on it than English theologians. The Greek Orthodox Church understands it very differently than the Roman Catholic Church.
So often kenosis is framed as a brave act of self-denial, as the courage to sacrifice.
And being found in human form,
Jesus humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Those ideas of self-denial and sacrifice are part of kenosis, definitely, but sometimes I prefer to look at it from a different angle. Rather than think of Jesus denying something in himself, rather than describing it as “making himself nothing,” I think Jesus held nothing back. I think Jesus poured himself out to give love and grace to us. It was not a repressive force inside him holding back but a creative force bursting forth.
A force of love and grace so powerful that not even the threat of death would stop him from pouring it out.
Looking at it from that perspective, the first act of kenosis in our scriptures is when God created the world. Taking that which God could have kept to God’s self, that unfathomable love, that imagination that is wider than the universe, and pouring it out into this limited container that is the Earth. Flowers, lizards, the ocean. Humans.
“For God so loved the world,” one of our better known scriptures begins. Can love exist if there’s nothing outside ourselves to love? Can love exist without emptying ourselves, without kenosis?
“For God so loved the world, God gave God’s only son.” Another act of creation! It’s no coincidence that both Genesis 1, which describes the creation of the earth, and John 1, which describes the coming of Jesus into the world, both open with, “In the beginning.” They are both creation stories, both kenosis stories, first God emptying Godself into creation and then, even more radically, God pouring Godself into a human being, taking a limited form, a form that could be loved, ridiculed, admired, hurt, crucified.
Kenosis is risky business. It is the act of taking what is unfathomable and unlimited inside us and emptying it out into the world. You know how risky it is. If you’re a parent, you can remember what it was like to leave your child, that piece of you, with someone else for the first time, to entrust them to the world.
If you’re an artist, you know what it’s like to empty yourself into a painting or a poem or a song and then risk showing it to someone.
Being in close, vulnerable relationship with another person is also an act of kenosis. Two people pouring themselves out into a shared space, creating a new thing, a marriage, a friendship.
It’s all risky business. What if my child gets hurt? What if my art is rejected? What if my relationship ends?
That’s the risk God took with Jesus for us. God emptied Godself into human form, taking a body that can experience pain, that can die. But in doing so, God made it possible for that which is unfathomable and unlimited to be known, to be experienced in this limited world. Jesus was walking love, living grace. Through his life and death, he showed us what was possible in this life, through this limited body.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Paul writes. Let’s remember that, through creation, God emptied Godself into the world, pouring unfathomable beauty and unlimited love and incredible creativity into each of us. And so we are called to empty ourselves, to bring that beauty and love and creativity into the world.
So hold nothing back. Take the risk. Let our self-emptying, our pouring out of God in us, be an act of faith and a gift of hope to the world.