Hymn of Praise; Form of Service

Steed V. Davidson—May 21, 2010
Baccalaureate 2010

Philippians 2:5–8

One general charge leveled against Methodists reads “they sing their theology” rather than use ordinary prose as statements of faith. That is to say, theologically Methodists remain consistently poetic. However, this accusation works equally for several other Christian churches both ancient and modern. As far back as Arius, should he be seen as Christian after a course in Early Church History, music, poetry and verse serve as vehicles for theological expression. Paul offers a similar example in this so–called “Christ Hymn.” Either his own invention or that of a Church group, the hymn conveys what has come to be viewed as orthodox Christology. Whether a hymn sung to a chant or a creedal statement, the verses provide listeners and initiates with a memorable form of faith. Like Arius, like Charles Wesley, Paul understands that simply singing faith impels belief that in turn determines Christian service and the nature of that service. This text selection may offer you an ode to Christ, a paean of joy to a Savior, a theologically orthodox restatement of a Seminary level Christology course. More importantly this text selection provides for you a charge, encouragement, models, and if I understand Paul as well as an Old Testament Professor can understand Paul, this text provides a directive on the conduct of Christian ministry.

This hymn to Christ, also known as the source for the notion of kenosis, focuses on the form that Jesus takes as a human being as part of his act of salvation. The process of self–emptying represents the definition of the essence of Christ’s identity and here for Paul, the essence of Christian identity. The real issue here, though, lies not so much with a theological defense of the two natures of Christ or even the notion of the humanity of Christ. The real issue in this passage for Paul remains a prescription of Christian conduct. This conduct though derives from a Christological statement. That is to say one cannot start to determine how to act, how to serve, how to minister, how to practice ministry before considering and clarifying theologically one’s identity. But this text portion, though, serves not so much as Paul’s theological course but more so as his regulation of Christian conduct and informing of ministry practice. That two issues, theology and practice, remain tied together stands certain, that they proceed in an order appears even more sure, and that they remain in constant dialogue with each other emerges as a vital revelation in reading this text portion. That means that theological learning and it impact and determination of ministry practice exist in continuous contact with each other. The conclusions about one will continually upset, disrupt and re–evaluate the other. When you think that a fix in one area settles and fixes the other, this fix or movement to certainty just unsettles and undermine the other. The more you sing that hymn of praise, the more you find that the form of service changes. The more your form of service changes the more it impacts that hymn of praise. The words may remain the same, the phrases may not be amended, the poetry will never be improved upon but the hymn, its singing, its intonation, its relevance, its interpretation, its impact and place constantly shifts.

Two words or concepts in this hymn bear out what I mean here. The words, “form” and “likeness,” surface as critical descriptors in Christology. The text contrasts the divine form with human form in the words morphe theos and morphe doulous. Then it sets alongside of each other human likeness and human appearance or outward form in the terms homoiomati anthropon and skemati anthropon. The terminology of the hymn, reads as technical theological language and rightly so since poetry or creative expression are not immune from sound theological formulation. This language represents an attempt to get it right. But the language, even as it beckons to the philosophical and theological debates of Church Councils, reveals how partial, provisional and difficult capturing the essence of the faith in words about Jesus can be. The concept of morphe theos is a moveable one and would grow and shift as anyone who believes in God can attest. But exactly what does morphe theos look and feel like? How does the nature of God move from a theological concept to an actual reality not only poses a challenge for us but constantly forces us to examine this and other questions not merely in abstraction but in concrete contexts. And it is precisely because this hymn with its technical terminology celebrates the concretizing of abstraction that no term here, no concept, no Christological formulation stands as a fixed, resolved and finished entity.

As this hymn calls us to celebrate the kenosis it invites us to participate with it in a similar kenosis (emptying) but one that leads to a filling. The filling that we are called to provide operates on at least two levels. The first level involves our participation at the theoretical level of filling the concepts here with meaning. We sing the hymn and follow it in the movement from the abstract to the concrete through language. For instance we need to make a determination of the notion morphe doulous. One semester of Greek would indicate that slippery nature of the term doulous. The lexicons, grammars, encyclopedias, and theological dictionaries can take you only so far on the semantic range of the word before you have to apply a decision to go with either “slave” or “servant.” Your selection of whether Jesus’ humanity reflects that of a slave or servant reveals your thinking about slavery in the Greco–Roman world as well as conversations about slavery in your social contexts. No one who has grown up, been educated, or lives in 21st century US and needs to translate, read or interpret the Greek word doulous remain unaffected from the history and legacy of the practice of slavery in the United States that persisted until the 19th century. You may wish to think that your decision is pure and unaffected; you may be convinced that you are an impartial applicant of theological resources, you may be carried away with the myth that these are merely words. But at the end of the day you situate yourself somewhere in the social, economic, political, cultural and philosophical limits of your context. And in concretizing the Jesus of this hymn you have both emptied him of his Greco–Roman context and filled him in with yours. You have presented a perspective of the humanity of Jesus to be either a comfort or a disruption in your socio–theological space. You have theologized Jesus either in solidarity with human suffering or ambivalence about it. You have incarnated Jesus in history as either a transformer of history a mere observer of history.

The singing of the hymn of faith involves theoretical processes that will shape not merely who we think Jesus is and can be but who we as servants of Jesus are and should be. To sing the hymn sets in motion a series of educational processes acquired in a more conscious way through theological education that represents not merely that our theology will pass muster with guardians of orthodoxy but that the ministry we practice will be shaped by our theoretical thought.

Know that the hymn asks us to do precisely this. The abstract concepts become real embodied, enfleshed, incarnated; emptied and filled. The question remains though how does your filling out the colors of the blank page that is Jesus affect your ministry practice? What does it say about you and your invitation to participate in the art of ministry with others? Paul asks those who read this to transform their practice in community in order to be on the same page. To sing the hymn positions us to adjust our thinking theologically.

On the second level, we find here a challenge to participate at the point of our bodies and in concert with bodies. The transition from morphe theos to morphe doulous may appear imperceptible in the text but this stands here as the foundation of the text portion. Precisely because Jesus becomes a body speaks to the necessity of ministry. Precisely because Jesus adopts the limits, weaknesses, contexts and challenges of humanity he faces the experiences and meets the realities of obedience, humility and humiliation, burdens and death. This is the fate and experiences of the human body. This text portion celebrates this messiness in a note of praise. For not only the body of Jesus comes into focus but that of the whole world. When the name of Jesus sounds, the world with bodies—knees, tongues acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. This lordship seems reliant upon the fickleness of the human tongue for its praise. This lordship appears dependent upon the weakness and brittleness of human knees for its acclaim. Even more curious this embodied Jesus emerges in human likeness as in Genesis when God makes human beings in God’s likeness. This lordship comes from an embodiment that reverses divine creation and the so–called lord’s body is fashioned like that of a human and not like that of a god. On the basis of this emptying on all these levels this hymn calls us to fill out ministry practice in relation to our bodies and bodies in community.

To sing the praise of Jesus inescapably places us in contact with real human bodies in all their fleshiness. Our ministry practice will occur in the context of real bodies and not imagined souls or distant concepts. This means learning the experiences of bodies in this world. It means understanding their pain, their loss and anxieties. But importantly it means coming to terms with humanity in all its varieties and knowing how to speak to humanity in all its languages. No hymn to Jesus can be divorced from the reality of humanity in its concrete experiences. To sing this hymn requires us to fill out our contact with bodies so that we may see bodies as they stand and lay before us. Far too often, eyes that do not recognize bodies and their needs distort ministry. Far too often ministry practices reduce body diversity to a single entity and that, tragically so, of the viewer and the person offering ministry. Far too often, ministry practice restricts its view to bodies in a particular locale and finds itself ill equipped to speak to or even recognize bodies that lie outside of that scope. That Jesus takes on morphe doulous and participates in this type of lordship requires that our vision of bodies start at the lowest levels of our society. We start there not so much as to take on the role of charity and pity but rather that we leave no body untouched, no body unattended, no body neglected, no body left out of participation in this hymn of praise.

Paul uses the hymn to deal with divisions in the community. And in doing so he calls readers to reposition themselves, to empty themselves, sing the hymn and change their practice. We too face this challenge of repositioning ourselves to sing the hymn and change our practice. But this hymn shows us that no distinction lies between theology and practice because theology lies exactly in the ability to make the abstract concrete, to fill thought with bodies. If there ever is an orthodox theology it rests not so much in getting the words right but in lining up those words with the reality of humanity and human need. If you ever feel the need to take on the role of the guardian of orthodoxy that role requires not so much robust defense of statements as vigorous applications of belief to the lives and experiences of human bodies. Sing the song. Perform the practice. Do the ministry and sing the song. And you will realize that you not only sing the faith, but you practice the faith of the song.