From Zero to One, Part I: Kenosis and Metanoia
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
Januray 13, 2019
First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Christ
Psalm 29; Isaiah 43:1-2; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22
This has traditionally been an important Sunday, and for good reason. The Baptism of Christ represented the first recognition of the adult Jesus as Spirit-filled and particularly beloved of God. It marked Jesus as the heir to John the Baptist’s movement, and next in line as Public Enemy #1 of the oppressive kingdom of materialism and violence that God’s kingdom seeks to overturn.
Most importantly, the Jordan baptism gives us a symbol of what the way of Christ asks of us: death of our old self followed by resurrection as someone new; lowly self-emptying followed by filling with the Spirit’s higher power.
Jesus was not the only spiritual leader ever to take that path or preach it. Its roots were in his Hebrew tradition. The Psalms say, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Prophet Isaiah implied in today’s passage that the spiritual path would require metaphoric death by fire and water, but we need to let go of our fear, we need to trust that God will be with us and lead us through.
The same path can be found in Islam. The 11th century Sufi mystic Ansari of Herat said, “Know that when you learn to lose yourself, you will reach the Beloved. There is no other secret to be learned, and more than this is not known to me.”
Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, said “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”
In Taoism the Tao or Way is a flow of power and virtue that permeates the universe, it is the true, essential nature of all things, including us—it is the sacred way that we were created to follow and to be. One of the images for the Tao is a river. Water always seeks the lowest point. To be in the Tao is not just to be humble, it is to seek absolute humility. It is to empty oneself out, the way a river is constantly emptying, always going lower, yet always being refilled from above.
Paul wrote in the second chapter of Philippians, “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.”
For Jesus self-emptying was not just once on the cross, it was a continuous practice. “Take up your cross and follow me” means in every moment choose the death of your old self or false self or selfish self-will, attempt a complete emptying, and open to be filled anew.
The contemporary theologian Karen Armstrong wrote in her book The Case for God, “The truths of religion are accessible only when you are prepared to get rid of the selfishness, greed, and self-preoccupation that…are ingrained in our thoughts and behavior but are also the source of so much of our pain. The Greeks would call this process kenosis, self-emptying.” The Rev. Jim Antal commented on that quote in his book Climate Church, Climate World saying, “Faithfulness calls us to reduce our investment, not only in selfish behaviors but in self-centered fear as well.”
All these traditions and spiritual teachers point to the same path to God’s realm on earth: to crucify our self-will, die before we die, empty ourselves of self. We may not have the River Jordan to help us do this, but we can enter the dark waters of meditation or centering prayer where we practice emptying ourselves of thoughts and feelings, letting them go as they flow by. We can enter the waters of self-emptying by mindfulness or heartfulness or welcoming practice, being simply present without the usual agenda of our ego. We can enter the waters of humbly and lovingly serving the needs of others.
What does it look like when we reduce ourselves to zero through this self-emptying kenosis? It looks like the ethic of love that Jesus taught. Last Sunday during our discussion on Fulfilling Our Vision someone mentioned a scene in the movie Gandhi where he exemplified the Golden Rule, doing unto others what we would have them do unto us. He was coming to meet the Muslim leader who would end up being the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah lived in a grand mansion with extensive gardens and servants, and he owned over 200 tailored English suits. He sent a chauffeur and car to meet Gandhi at the train. Gandhi not only arrived third class wearing his simple loincloth and tunic, he refused to ride in the servant-driven car and walked to Jinnah’s house with the car creeping along behind him.
During the meeting, Gandhi took the tea tray from Jinnah’s servant and began serving everyone himself as a nonviolent protest against inequality. His goal was to create an entire society based on the principle of humble love and the Golden Rule, and he saw we all need to empty ourselves of self-interest and live it ourselves in order to change the culture.
An example of kenosis closer to home was offered at the gathering Sunday by someone who has been coming to the Heartfulness Circle to meditate on Thursday evenings. Partly thanks to her spiritual practice of self-emptying prayer, she has been able to shift her response to an upsetting situation. Someone treated her unfairly and her first impulse was to avoid them, and her second impulse was to attack them, but then she was able to empty herself of herself enough to realize that she wanted to come from a place of love and compassion and kindness, and that is what she did.
Another pair of people at our Fulfilling Our Vision meeting had the insight that over and over two things keep us from following the Golden Rule—selfishness and fear. Self-emptying frees us from both, as Karen Armstrong and Jim Antal and Gandhi all testify.
Reducing ourselves to zero frees us to take another all-important step on the spiritual path: metanoia. Metanoia comes from the Greek prefix meta- which means beyond, combined with the Greek word nous which means mind, heart and spirit. Metanoia is a change of consciousness that takes us beyond where we are now. Kenosis makes it possible.
Metanoia is a change in the way we see the world, a change in our whole structure of seeing, that changes our way of being. Next week I will talk much more about how we are changed by kenosis and metanoia. The simplest way to put it is that if kenosis leads us toward being zero, metanoia leads us toward being one—one with God, one with our neighbor or enemy, one with all creation.
We can see this in the story of the woman who responded to injustice by first wanting to withdraw and then wanting to attack, but finally wanting to be one with God, her true self and the other person and act from that place of oneness.
Kenosis, emptying ourselves of our selfish self, allows us to move past our fear and self-concern, and that release can change us so profoundly that we attain metanoia, an expanded consciousness that sees ourselves and the world differently. Out of that vision comes an enhanced power to act. As Gandhi said, when a person reduces herself to zero, her actions become irresistible and all-pervasive.
This path of kenosis and metanoia—emptying ourselves of selfishness and fear and evolving to an expanded level of consciousness —has been recognized as the key to individual and social well-being for thousands of years. Peace and joy and love are its fruits. The Golden Rule is made possible by this path, the love of neighbor as our self—all our ethical, moral and spiritual ideals are made possible by the path of self-emptying and entering a larger, Christ-like heart and mind, so of course it has always been important. Today the survival of human civilization and the survival of all living species depend on us following this path.
Every generation is pulled in two directions, to be a “me generation” or to be a “great generation.” Some generations or eras have been characterized by kenosis and metanoia, by self-sacrifice and evolved consciousness. The abolition of slavery or child labor, civil rights for people of all races or of all genders and sexual orientations, the enlightenment of rationalism over superstition, the rise of pluralism out of ethnocentrism—in all these the fearlessness and self-sacrifice of great generations have moved us closer to living God’s will and God’s love.
But “me generations” have dominated our society with only brief rises to greatness in between. The me generations are characterized by self-indulgence and the amassing of power and wealth and do not count the cost to the earth or the rest of society that they are running up.
If you look at the issue posters in the Parish Hall and ask yourself how the Golden Rule would apply to them and what would get in the way you will quickly see how far down the path of selfishness and fear we have gone as a society.
Our culture is addicted to being a me generation after almost fifty years of it. The people and institutions that benefit from our selfishness and fear are extremely powerful and will try to keep pushing and manipulating us down that path until the end. And that end will come very soon unless we change and become a great generation, made great by the humility of kenosis and metanoia, zero-ness and oneness. We need to become Generation Zero-One—zero, the end of me generations for all time; and one, the first generation of a Golden Rule civilization that at last fulfills the ancient dream and builds God’s realm on earth.
Throughout the gospels Jesus assures us that this sacred way is possible, and that it leads to abundant and joyous life. We gain life by losing life, those who humble themselves are exalted, the seed that dies bears fruit a hundredfold, so the Baptism of Christ with all its symbolic meaning of death and resurrection is a cause for celebration, even as Jesus turns from the Jordan toward the wilderness and confrontation with society and the cross. We would not have a church today, we would not be here if it were not true that the love and comfort, enthusiasm and miracles that come from the Spirit-filled life far outweigh life’s inevitable struggles and loss.
We do not have to see how to solve the world’s problems all at once. We do not have to be great by me-generation, self-aggrandizing standards. All we need to do is have the courage and commitment to step into the waters of kenosis and undergo the fire of metanoia and trust that the Holy Spirit will fill our emptiness and show us how to serve in this time.
Let us pray in silence…