The Messy, Confusing, Humbling Love of Jesus
This post was originally posted on SheLovesmagazine.com.
“There is power in the name of Jesus,” we sang full force. “There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain,” we repeated with arms out-stretched.
“There’s an army rising up,” the refrain assured those gathered in a synagogue-turned-church.
I stopped singing.
That very day a youth militia was rising up across Burundi, armed and ready to suppress opposition with guns, grenades and machetes. Every text and tweet confirmed what war looked like. The metaphor got caught in my throat. I dropped into my chair and stopped pretending that strong armies best represented God’s power in the world.
The early church sang in praise and doxology, too. In Colossians a remnant of one such chorus is preserved, extolling the supremacy of the Lord as the first of creation, the head of the church, and the host to God’s fullness. Scholars call this hymn The Cosmic Christ and some of the highest Christology in the New Testament.
You can envision the small church in Colossae singing, full throat, about the strong Christ who holds the world together. This is the Lord who has the power to reconcile all things, even enemies. This subversive song exalts the Crucified One, the one the empire could not crush. It is the Lord Jesus who rules the world, not Lord Caesar.
I’ve always loved this passage, resting secure with the image of Christ as the glue that holds the universe together like a force greater than nature. The dominance of Christ comforted me.
There’s another hymn sung about thirty years earlier by the community in Philippi. Paul weaves a shard of the song into his own description of Jesus, the one “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …” Jesus, so they sang, emptied himself of all the privileges of divinity in order to be fully human, irrevocably like us.
This church understood Jesus as the Lord who reigned over heaven, but refused to exploit that power. As a matter of fact, Jesus relinquished it. This Lord they worshipped was in stark contrast to Lord Caesar, who held power tightly and used it as a weapon of intimidation throughout the empire.
Voices sang of a savior who abdicated the ultimate throne, something no one could ever imagine Caesar doing. Jesus let go of power and all the privilege associated with it to come close to us. He wanted tongue and groove solidarity with humanity, and knew it would not come by any coercive means. So he let go.
The song continued with verses about Jesus taking the form of a slave, being humbled, obedient to the point of death. Jesus continued shedding power and stripping away privileges until he was the embodiment of a curse–a man hung on a tree.
Only after singing of Jesus traveling from highest heaven to the lowest lot on earth, did the crescendo come announcing God’s exaltation of Christ. The Philippians hummed of humility, of Jesus never lording his power over the world but incessantly emptying himself for the sake of the world in sacrificial love.
This ancient chorus always chastened my own hubris. If Jesus could let go of power and all its privileges then certainly I’m called to nothing less. Down I go, letting go of what little power I imagine is mine.
When I think of these songs together I find myself considering the progression–from Jesus who divests power from birth to death, to Jesus who is completely sovereign over the universe, to a God whose power is likened to a marching army. Maybe we like the notion of a powerful God able to dominate the world and manage it with militaristic force. Maybe it comforts us–or maybe it’s all we know.
But what I learned in seminary hermeneutics still instructs me: the earlier version is to be preferred because it’s closer to the original. Less time has elapsed and less human preference has eroded the earlier and more radical meaning of the text. And so, for me, the earliest song holds sway. I sing of Jesus who let go of power.
I sing of the Jesus who bucked patriarchy as he sat at a well and conversed with a woman, transforming her into the first evangelist.
I sing of the Jesus who dined with those never invited into gated communities or supper clubs, unconcerned with his tarnished reputation.
I sing of the Jesus who could imagine being snubbed by society’s elite and still throw the party–hosting the unseemly and shunned, despite all appearances.
I sing of the Jesus who engaged in dangerous conversations with lawyers, tax collectors and women without ever lording his theological bone fides over them.
I sing of the Jesus who never overlooked children, but gathered them and laughed; never too cool for school.
I sing of the Jesus who did not brandish a sword when cornered in a dark garden by enemies, but offered a healing hand instead.
I sing of the Jesus who suffered death rather than inflicting it on anyone else, though as Lord he had every right to raise an army in his own defense.
I sing of the Jesus who could have dominated the world with awesome power, but opted for amazing love instead.
Yes, I believe there is power in the name of Jesus. But that power looks nothing like military might, suffocating sovereignty or strong-arming dominance. It looks like emptying at every turn, letting go of power and privilege for the chance of human connection.
Jesus holds the world together with the great power of love–messy, confusing, humbling love. Any other kind of power, he lets go …
I sing of Jesus who let go of power. I hope I can do the same.