Exodus 17 : 1 – 6, Psalm 78, Phil. 2 : 1 – 13

September 29, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

Paul was in a Roman prison writing the last letter of his life to the Philippians. He knew that his death was imminent. He was probably beheaded soon after he sent that letter. Despite the circumstances, the letter was filled with joy. He used words like "happy", "joy" or "rejoice" more than 20 times in a short letter, and asked the Philippians to join him in his happiness. How could Paul be happy in such a situation? Or was he just trying to be brave? I have no definite answer why anyone could be happy in a prison. But in this circumstance, he wrote the famous verses extolling the self-emptying love of Jesus. "Though Jesus Christ was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born as a human." But I think that in his belief in the self-emptying love of Jesus, there is a clue to know why Paul could be happy despite his imminent demise.

Paul was a well educated man of high society. Now he was sitting in a prison in Rome because of his faith in Jesus Christ. If he had any doubt about the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, he would have been screaming at a prison wall out of total frustration. On the surface, it appeared that Paul wasted his life completely. He was born of a successful, affluent, and industrious family. He grew up in a foreign country and was fluent in the universal language of the day, Greek. Because of the prominent position they held, the entire family was accorded the rare privilege of Roman citizenship, though they were Jews.

He also belonged to the Pharisees – the elite class of lawyers and scholars in the Jewish society. He was educated in the highest educational institution in Jerusalem. Therefore, his promotion in the ruling class was remarkably quick. Even when he was a law student, he had already supervised at least one trial and execution of a heretic. A few years later, he was given authority over the entire region of Syria to arrest and imprison the followers of the heretical teaching known as Christianity. When he became a Christian he threw all those privileges away. I am sure that his past in the Jewish establishment must have made many Christians suspicious of him. Not only that, he had a hard time convincing other Christians about the legitimacy of his ministry, because of his more liberal understanding of the Gospel, which stemmed from his education and overseas experiences.

We have a bad habit of discrediting good people, when we find a few blemishes in them. We somehow feel familiarity gives us a license to discredit virtues. When you hear the praises of someone you know well, you feel that you have a right to diminish their apparent virtues by adding the inside story. I know this, because I do it myself. For example, I have had the privilege to get to know many saintly people in my life. On more than one occasion, I got angry at or spoke ill of such godly persons as Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu, because I had seen first hand their idiosyncrasies and got impatient with them. Shame on me! Knowing this particular human tendency, Jesus said that prophets were rarely accepted in their own home towns. As people got to know the Prophets well, they always found faults in them. We must find ways to keep the respect for people with whom we have become familiar.

I suspect that the same psychology is at work when we think of Jesus Christ today. We might crucify him again, if he lived among us and if we knew him well. But because we have not lived close to Jesus in the flesh and do not know him as someone who is like us, it is easy for us to respect and praise him. We have no problem to say, "He is God." For us, he is someone like Superman, who came from outer space and could perform wonders. Therefore it is impossible for us to feel responsible for his death, because we respect him too much. We can not think of ourselves killing the son of God. "It was those bad people, not us, who crucified Jesus." We don”t realize that our presumed innocence is based on our unfamiliarity with the person of Jesus Christ. This is why, for many centuries, the Christians persecuted Jewish people as the nation responsible for the death of our Lord. That was, of course, totally unjust.

We have a real problem comprehending one of the important articles of faith. It is the humanity of Christ, because that makes him like us. If Jesus remained God, and stayed far away from the likes of us, there would not have been such a problem. We would not see him. We would not see anything we didn”t like in him. We would be able to continue to worship him, if he stayed away from us and remained God. But is this the real Jesus? What do we do with the verses like, "He emptied himself to become like us and lived among us."

Ralph Milton once did something very interesting, when he led a Bible study of the same passage we read today. He drew a long horizontal line, and marked one end as "100% undiluted God" and the other end as a "kinda nice person". In the middle of the line was "a saintly person". First he asked people to position Jesus on this continuum. The most of the people put Jesus on "100% undiluted God" or somewhere pretty close. Then he mentioned a few names of people they who were well respected and they knew personally. He also mentioned some godly people they respected but never met, people like Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Albert Schweitzer, etc. None of the people who they were familiar with made it to "saintly persons". They were mostly "Kinda nice people" including their own ministers. Only a few famous people, whom they did not know personally, made it close to the status of "saintly persons".

It is difficult to understand the notion of Jesus Christ being a 100% undiluted God and a 100% undiluted man at the same time, in the same person. Many Christians do not understand how Jesus could be human while being completely God. The people of Jewish and Muslim faiths do not accept that either; no human could be God, no way, no how. This is because we do not see God in people. Consequently, we are too quick to find faults in good people and reject them, as soon as we get to know them well. We must learn to see a bit of God in every person. Remember the creation story? God created humans, according to the likeness of God. We are not perfect, of course. But a bit of godliness is in every one of us. But often, because we know some people, we overlook their godliness. Disrespect increases rapidly, once someone you see in flesh does something you don”t like or something which goes against your interest. This is why the people in Jerusalem cried out for Jesus” death. They got to know him in flesh, and did not like what they saw in him, even though many of them thought that he was Messiah in the beginning.

Jesus was a human being. He was tempted to abuse divine power, when he was hungry. He was attracted by political power, and was even dazzled by worldly riches. He wept over the death of his friend. He cried and sweated all night, begging God to let him avoid the agony on the cross; he could not stand the thought of such extreme pain. On the cross, he even fell into the depth of despair and accused God of abandoning him. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!" One neglected clause in the Apostle”s Creed is, after Jesus was crucified and died, "He descended into hell." Jesus went to hell? We thought it was the place only bad people went. No matter how it should be interpreted, it is quite clear that Jesus saw everything any human person would experience, including that of hell.

Jesus Christ was a 100% undiluted human being. And people could hear, see and touch him. It was easy to hate him, because he was close to them and visible. Likewise, we can dislike people who are close and do something against our interest, even though they are doing the right thing. Yes, we can crucify Jesus all over again, unless we learn to see God in every human being. Unless you know how to see godliness in every human being, you will not be able to see this 100% undiluted human being called Jesus Christ, who was at the same time 100% undiluted God. Let us go back to Paul”s prison cell in Rome. I could see him saying something like: "My humanity – all the failures, wrong directions, thwarted projects, and warts – is what Jesus become when he emptied himself. And in doing so Jesus showed me the godliness in my humanity."


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