“…He emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7)

            St. Paul uses the verb “ekenosen” to describe the mystery of the incarnation. The Greek root verb is “kenoó,” which is best translated “I empty.” So “ekenosen” is an aorist indicative active verb in the 3rd person singular. An aorist verb denotes continuing action. Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God, continued to empty Himself by becoming the Servant of all even unto death on the cross.

The early Church had to continue to work out the meaning of that phrase in the light of differing interpretations by those who came after the first generation of apostles. This passage is no less important to a right understanding of God than the phrase in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (1:14).

The Gnostics (from the Greek word “gnosis” translated “knowledge”) may well have been hellenized Jews (as were many Jews of the Diaspora after Alexander conquered much of the Mediterranean world and Near East and made all things Greek the dominant culture). Paul, and John as bishop of Ephesus (1 Jn 4), contended against these precisely because the gnostics did not believe in the incarnation: that God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Gnostic theology is among us still wherever you find folks denying the goodness of God’s creation (ascetics) as well as those who reduce Jesus to a spiritual teacher or merely a prophet.

The common thread among gnostics is the valuing of spirit over earthly stuff. In the New Testament era, you had those who, because they valued spirit over created matter, denied themselves by living an ascetic lifestyle and, at the same time, those who lived with little or no restraints on the flesh. Paul’s hymn, which he may be quoting in Phil. 2:5-11, makes clear that matter matters to its Creator. God cares so much about our mortal bodies that He takes on a human body in order to destroy sin, death, and evil. Jesus’ kenosis (His emptying) is both His great love for His Father and the Father’s good and gracious will and His great love for us who are born in bondage to sin, death, and evil. He continues to empty Himself to serve us by dying in order to destroy the ultimate power of sin, death, and evil.

The Arians, who at one time outnumbered the orthodox (“rightly worshiping”) Christians denied that Jesus was, in fact, also God. Without fully grasping the implications of what such a denial would mean for the story of salvation, the Arians, like the Gnostics, denied that Jesus could be both truly God and truly human. The new Arians today claim to be Christians, as did the Arians of old, but they do not recognize Jesus is truly God and truly human. And, in fact, they do not believe God is one God in three persons (a community within Himself). False beliefs do not make people bad people. False beliefs destroy faith in Christ.

All of this may seem rather esoteric or arcane especially if you read or are taught by unbelievers or false teachers. They all have marvelous and sometimes quite erudite defenses for their departure from the Christian faith. In fact, one of the most prominent and quoted teachers of alternate stories grew up a fundamentalist Christian. As I have often said, this person is no longer a fundamentalist believer; now he is a fundamentalist unbeliever. The dynamic of extreme rigidity never changed, just the content of his beliefs or lack thereof.

Because Christianity began as a minority religion, even as an outlawed religion, those coming to Holy Baptism, which is the only way one becomes a Christian, took off all their clothes before entering into the water. They were dying and rising, being joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so they had to empty themselves of their old lives. The new birth from above took place not in the privacy of their own homes by prayer or while praying in a large gathering, as some protestants clearly misunderstand even today. Holy Baptism was and still is the birth from above by water and the Holy Spirit. They were born again through no effort, merit, reason, or understanding of their own! Christianity is not a do-it-yourself religion.

Both Jews and Gentiles had to empty themselves of old lives, which meant separating themselves from [in the case of our Lord’s fellow Jews, this meant some interpretations of] the beliefs, ideas, and practices of the cultures into which they had been born. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, he (and they) were crucified with Christ (2:20). Coming up out of the water, they were, then, clothed in new white robes. Now they were covered with Christ’s righteousness (His right relationship with the Father, including His perfect obedience even unto His innocent death for us sinners). Martin Luther later described this as the happy exchange (“der fröhliche Wechsel”). Christ takes my sin and my death to His cross in Holy Baptism and gives me His eternal life and righteousness as a free gift. God does all the work of saving us!

Emptying oneself is the on-going, daily practice of one’s Baptism. It is never easy, especially when one is rather attached to his or her old life. Orthodox (“rightly worshiping”) Christianity is not like those strange cults that force their adherents to have little or nothing to do with their families of origin. Rather the practice of Holy Baptism, the daily emptying of one’s old life, often results in a type of shunning by family members and old friends whose devotion to the ideas, beliefs, and practices of the old culture is greatly at odds with orthodox (“rightly worshiping”) Christianity. Why this repetition of “rightly worshiping?” It is derived directly from the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.”

Martin Luther’s simple explanation of that first commandment exposes wrong worship. Luther writes, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all else.” Which God? The One who has revealed Himself as one God in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The same God who spoke creation into being in Genesis 1. The same God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3 and rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt (Ex. 14). The same God who became flesh in Mary’s womb (Luke 1). The same God who leads believers not into some new reimagined “truth” (Jn 16:13) but the One who creates trust in the Incarnate Son of God’s saving work and the Father’s promise, where there was none before, through the Word of God spoken, written, and enacted in the Visible Word of Baptism and Eucharist (Romans 10 among others).

Today, when you make the sign of the cross in remembrance of your Baptism (or in the desire for Baptism), remember to empty yourself of damnable pride in your intellect, accomplishments, looks, talents, or whatever. Your new birth means continuous emptying with Jesus. For some (and probably all) of us, it means letting go of some favorite ideas which are damnably wrong! For all of us, it means emptying ourselves in order to give our lives away in humble service even unto death, there being no Hall of Fame for living Christians.

And, for those most damaged by bad preachers and teachers of theology especially in the service of personal ambition, I still recommend the late Thomas Oden’s “A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.”

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt


The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.