The Shape of the Jesus Story and the Jesus-Shaped Life
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
• 1 Corinthians 11:1
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Less widely recognized is the evidence that this text permeates all his letters, and so much so that 2:6-11 should be called not merely the centerpiece of Philippians but Paul’s master story. (p. 12)
Gorman argues that this passage is comprehensive in scope, relating the story of Jesus to Israel’s story, from Adam to the eschatological kingdom. It is also forms a creedal statement that is explicitly anti-imperial, proclaiming that Jesus (and not Caesar) is Lord. Furthermore, this text contains several important narrative patterns that appear constantly throughout the Pauline writings. As Gorman notes: “He regularly adopts and adapts the text’s narrative patterns to display his (a) Christology/soteriology (and, as we will see, his theology proper), but also both is (b) apostolic self-understanding and his (c) ethic or spirituality…” (p. 13)
Here is the first part of this text, Philippians 2:6-8, which embodies the main point of our post today.
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.
The narrative pattern of 2:6-8 is described as “Although [x], not [y] but [z].
The basic sense of the text, then, is that Christ existed as someone with a certain status (2:6a) who did not do one thing (indicated by the main verb in 2:6b) but did do something else — specifically two things, acts of self-humbling and self-emptying, denoted by the two main verbs of 2:7-8 (“emptied himself … humbled himself”). (p. 16)
Michael Gorman cites Joseph Hellerman, who observes that this “downward-bound succession of ignominies [is] constructed in contrast to Rome’s cursus honorum, the elite’s upward-bound race for honors, imitated in various ways throughout the province and colonies.” (p. 16)
For Paul as a Christ-following apostle and for all Christians invited to “take up their cross and follow Jesus,” this is the pattern of life to which we are called. This was the shape of Jesus’ story, the pattern Paul sought to imitate in his apostolic ministry, and the pattern of life he called believers to imitate in him as he followed the Messiah.
Two texts from autobiographical texts in Paul may be highlighted. The first is 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8 —
…nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
Although we were apostles who could have demanded certain things, Paul says, we did not seek to enhance our status and impress others, but we gave our very own selves to serve you gently, with tender, motherly love.
The second passage is from 1 Corinthians 9:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
This is my defence to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
… Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
… But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.
Although we are apostles (with certain legitimate rights), Paul writes, we did not make use of our apostolic rights, but we voluntarily determined not to exercise those rights, instead becoming slaves to others so that we might win them with the good news.
It is in texts like these that Michael Gorman finds “the core meaning of conformity to Christ.” It involves having a certain status and identity but refusing to exploit that for personal gain, instead humbling oneself to love and serve others.
One surprising insight arising from this is that in giving up the self-aggrandizing use of our identity and status, we actually confirm the true nature of our identity and status!
Thus, by humbling himself, taking on humanity, serving as a slave, and going to the cross, Jesus actually exhibited the true character of God! It is not just that “ALTHOUGH Jesus was in the form of God,” he humbled himself, but on a deeper level it is “BECAUSE Jesus was in the form of God” that he went to the cross. The true nature of God is cruciform. The God who hides himself in the crucifixion is most fully revealed in that act of self-giving love.
In the same way, Paul actually proved himself a genuine apostle by setting aside the rights and privileges of his position and deigning to serve.
And likewise, we shall show ourselves to be disciples when we take up the basin and towel and humbly love one another.
This is the Jesus-shaped life.
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Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology
By Michael J. Gorman
Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co.
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Photo by Jeremy Brooks at Flickr. Creative Commons License