Self-Giving God, Self-Giving Church: Letting Go of the Church into the Love of God

Each year as Holy Week comes upon us again, we have another opportunity to be formed by the stories and practices of death and resurrection. Our formation this year depends on what’s happening right now in our minds and hearts, church and world.

Several current conversations in my church are shaping the way I take in the Holy Week texts this year. First of all, there is the ongoing conversation about change, both in the congregation and in the larger church. One year ago this week, I began serving this congregation as three-quarters of a full-time pastoral team. My quarter-time ministry partner is the pastor who had lovingly served the congregation full-time for the previous 17 years. Many changes in the congregation simply result from this new reality in the church: from getting the new team ministry off the ground, as we get to know each other and discern God’s call to us in this new day. Then there are the changes in the larger church and in our local community—generational shifts, altered church-going patterns, etc. It’s not clear yet precisely how those changes are affecting our congregation or how we will respond, but they’re definitely in the air.

Knowing that the season of Lent would overlap with the one-year anniversary of our team’s beginning, my colleague and I decided to invite the congregation into a particular Lenten theme: relinquishment, letting go. We chose this theme because the new relationships that are developing (like all new relationships, perhaps) have called on all of us to relinquish plenty in our first year together . . . and we understand that we will be called to let go of even more as we respond to God’s calls for change in the future.

As the congregation is shaped by experiences of letting go, my colleague and I thought we should talk about that. First we preached on the theme together. And then, during the church’s midweek Lenten services, congregation members have preached about letting go in their own lives. Without exception, they have offered powerful reflections on the ways “letting go” shapes our individual and family narratives.

Kenosis enriches our understanding of “dying to self” not only as individuals, but also as church. When we are called to change, perhaps a “kenotic” mind can help us respond more gracefully and willingly.

Now that we are in Holy Week, Philippians 2:5-8 offers a natural culmination of the relinquishment theme:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
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.

In his self-emptying (kenosis, in Greek), Jesus practiced the ultimate letting-go: he relinquished his “equality with God” first in the humility of human life, and then in the humiliation of death on a cross. That’s the “mind” we are called to have. It’s akin to the “dying to self” to which Jesus calls his disciples . . . but kenosis enriches our understanding of “dying to self” not only as individuals, but also as church. When we are called to change, perhaps a “kenotic” mind can help us respond more gracefully and willingly.

I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I know it sounds risky. How much can we really let go of and still call ourselves—and be—Christian? And, particularly for those of us in historic denominations, how much of our tradition and theology can we relinquish while still remaining stewards of our particular inherited traditions? At what point do our stories and practices become unrecognizable to our fellow Christians and stewards? At what point might we fail to recognize ourselves?

20150403_RSL_Red_FireboxThe anxiety is understandable, and so is the tendency to respond by digging our heels into the slippery slope and defining the central, “non-negotiable” aspects of orthodoxy or orthopraxy. In my own tradition, Martin Luther’s oft-quoted “Here I stand” line provides a perfect example (even if he didn’t really say it). More subtly, he gave his heirs an interpretive tool for heel-digging with his concept of “adiaphora,” which means “matters of indifference”: that which God neither demands nor prohibits. For Luther and his descendants, adiaphora described traditions or practices that were open to interpretation in local settings. They could not be required of people, but they could be practiced as long as they did not detract from the central and non-negotiable elements of the gospel proclamation.

Of course, then one has to define what actually is non-negotiable. As one example, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton named the church’s uniqueness in her recent article in The Lutheran: “The best thing about the church, the thing that is uniquely the church, is not programs or people but Jesus. If we as a people, and as congregations, don’t get that right it doesn’t matter how many programs we come up with.”

The problem is, non-negotiables themselves are slippery. Yes, Jesus is non-negotiable. But which Jesus? As a seminarian taking a class on American Lutheranism, I remember trying to define non-negotiables rather clumsily. However I set limits around “our” identity, there always seemed to be an argument for a different understanding. It was frustrating, because what was the point of an American Lutheranism class, I wondered, if it didn’t teach me to recognize and name what was “Lutheran” and what wasn’t?

Now in light of Jesus’ self-emptying, I wonder if the bigger problem wasn’t the slipperiness of non-negotiables or my failure to find the right ones. Maybe the problem was looking for them in the first place. Doing so constituted an effort to dig in my heels on the slippery slope and hold on tight to what was most important. That reflex is understandable, very human, and maybe even laudable in an anything-goes culture. But it’s not the mind of Christ, as described by the early Christian hymn that Paul quoted to the Philippians.

Paul described Christ as letting go of everything that made him recognizably God—and then letting go of his very life. He didn’t dig in his heels to keep from sliding all the way into human life and death. He didn’t hold on to some remnant of his divinity, or some shred of life. He relinquished it all, emptied everything out.

That would be a lot to ask of a mere mortal, or of a congregation. Too much, probably. But Jesus’ example does offer us and our faith communities several questions that might prove useful when we are called upon to change. Typically, during times of transformation, we ask the most obvious question: “What will we need to let go of?” But that question is troubling, for two reasons. First, it focuses solely upon the loss. Second, it envisions the church as a possessor or container of things—traditions, stories, truth, good news, et cetera—when that’s probably not the most helpful image.

What collective energy and love could we pour out, if we declined to spend our energy defensively holding on to the “non-negotiables” of our identity?

Instead of asking “What will we need to let go of?” perhaps we should consider questions that move in a different direction, away from what we might be losing and toward other possibilities.

For example, we might ask, “For whose sake are we called to let go?” It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t empty himself because he just didn’t feel like being equal to God anymore, or because of some threat to his survival. He did it for the sake of love for the world.

In that light—in the light of loving each other and the world—what collective energy and love could we pour out, if we declined to spend our energy defensively holding on to the “non-negotiables” of our identity?

Finally, rather than seeing ourselves letting go of something precious, how might we envision ourselves letting go into the love of God?

Undoubtedly we will make mistakes in the change process and let go of things that might better be held onto; after all, blunders and miscalculations are inherent parts of the human experience. Given that we make mistakes all the time, maybe we should think a bit about the kinds of mistakes we would prefer to risk. We can choose to err on the side of holding on and digging in—a stance that makes it very difficult to receive new things, explore new territory, and experience resurrection. Or we can err on the side of relinquishing, opening our hands, and seeing what new life we are freed to receive.

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty

Rebecca Schlatter Liberty has served as lead pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Bangor, Maine, since early 2014. Previously she served Lutheran congregations in Hong Kong, northern California, and Nevada. Following her experience as Campus Minister of Vocation Discernment at Santa Clara University, she published a book on discerning vocation with young adults, The Treasure Hunt of Your Life: Seeking Your Calling, Encountering God, Finding Yourself (Redwood Visions Press, 2009). Her own treasure hunt has brought her to Maine, where she lives with her husband, son, and daughter. Connect with Rebecca on Facebook.

Photo credits:

Sage Advice,” by Randy Heinz, 2013. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 / desaturated from original.

Hooked on Red,” by David Goehring, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.