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.