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God’s Shape (upon holy week)

If you are a man with roots than run South (or Southwest, as in my case), then chances are that cornbread claims a sacred place, alongside other relics like grits, football and music with a twang. My grandma made cornbread (straight, not sweet) in cast iron skillets, the kind with decades of grease massaged into every crevice. On special occasions, she would go more elaborate and pull out a cast iron sheet with small molds of corncobs cut into the pan. Dinner offered a basket overflowing with piping hot, individual sized loaves of cornbread. The bread looked cute, all sitting there dressed up like corn freshly shucked; but we knew what it really was – and we were eager to dive in.

When we hear the word form, we often think of something like that. A form is the shape of something, but it may or may not have congruence with what's actually inside. However, the Bible's word for form means something more. In Scripture, a form is the outward visibility of something's true inner quality. In other words, St. Paul would say that the form of cornbread looks like cornbread. And oh how we could play with that image for a bit.

Imagine then what the Scriptures mean when they tell us that Jesus was "in the form of God." We read this little section of Philippians, electric with all its mystery and possibility, each year at the beginning of Holy Week, the week we find ourselves in, the week when Jesus does the absurd, the week when God dies. Apparently, God has a form. Only, for the first bulk of human history, humans had not been able to see that form. We didn't have the capacity for such a vision. 

Until Jesus. The scandal of Paul's words is not the assertion that Jesus is a good human presenting to us a model of God-like life or even that Jesus is a good human who also happens to be Divine in some impossibly mysterious way (though Jesus was human and was divine and it is mysterious). Rather, Paul announces that Jesus is what God looks like when God goes physical. Jesus acted as he did and lived as he did because this is the way God lives and acts. If God was to be humanly visible, then Jesus was the necessary expression. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

Jesus did not go to a cross and suffer humiliation to illustrate some other truth about God or to exert unthinkable energy to finally get our attention. Jesus certainly did not surrender his entire being as an act of appeasement to twist a begruding Father's arm toward mercy. This is the daring claim: Jesus is what God looks like when God takes human shape. When God goes visible, then God lays down his life for others. God does not exploit what is rightfully his to exploit. God surrenders himself for the sake of love. 

Stanley Hauerwas, resisting sentimentalized visions of Jesus' passion, warns of the "bathos [which] drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God." If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus, walking the via dolorosa, the way of grief and suffering. 

The shape God takes, the shape love takes, is cruciform. God's form is Jesus, suspended on a cross, crying out for the healing of the world.

7 thoughts on “God’s Shape (upon holy week)

  1. I never liked cornbread until my grandmother (from Shreveport) taught me how to eat it – with syrup. I still love grits. And is the any ahtletic conference outside the SEC?

    My “Southron-ness” aside, it’s a good post, Winn.

    1. Well, on the SEC: yes. absolutely, all evidence to the contrary. And syrup? I guess my Texas-ness trumps my Southern-ness.

  2. Winn, these thoughts were rich and worth a few more meditations.
    In light of this definition of “form,” I’m curious how you see other image/likeness/form references in the next few verses: “this equality with God,” “the form/guise of a servant,” “after He appeared in human form…” Are there subtle differences in meaning?

    1. Hey, Jay. Thanks for such thoughtful engagement.

      I think form keeps consistent meaning. In the same way that Jesus was the very visible substance of God, Jesus was also the very visible substance of a servant – and a human. This is the explosive mystery of Jesus, both fully God and fully human. However, I think it’s saying something even more explosive, the latter form expressing the former. In other words, Jesus’ true servanthood and true humanity was the necessary expression of the form of God. If Jesus was to be God visible, he would be a self-giving human, for the sake of love of others.

      Hauerwas asserted this at the very place where it might seem most absurd: “[The cross] is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been.” I agree.

  3. Powerful and beautiful words. You have always made the incarnation so gritty, so tangible — which I guess is the heart of the incarnation.

    1. On that note, a little word from C.S.:

      One has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. The thing is human nature; but associated with it, all nature, the new universe.

words have a way of making friends. drop a few here.