Lenticular Printing, Kenosis, Leo Tolstoy, and Other Pretentious Sounding Stuff

Philippians 2:1-11

Jeremy Richards

There are some passages that are so rich, so foundational to our faith, that to preach on them seems to be an exercise in futility. One simply can’t say all there is to say. This passage is just such a passage. We could spend weeks on vv. 6-11 alone, which is called the “Christ hymn” because scholars believe it was actually a hymn that was sung by the early church before Paul wrote this letter. Which is cool, it shows the connection between art and worship, art and theology. It teaches us that sometimes the best way to know something is to sing it.

This passage from Philippians was really important to the early church, as they debated who Jesus was. Was he human or was he God? Was he 70% one and 30% the other?

In this passage we see, in v. 6, that Jesus was “in the form of God” and was “equal with God.” At the same time, we learn in v. 7 that he became “like human beings,” and “found himself in the form of a human.” So he was in the form of God in v. 6 and in the form of humans in v. 7, which seemed very relevant to those early church mothers and fathers who were trying to figure out how Jesus’ divinity and humanity worked together. Ultimately, Church came to the conclusion that Jesus was (and is) somehow both fully God and fully human – not 50% one and 50% the other, but 100% God and 100% human.

But, while this passage says a lot about who Christ was and is, it also tells us a great deal about who we are to be. We are to be united in Christ by adopting the same attitude or mind that Christ had. In this passage the unity that Paul has been hinting at takes center stage, and Paul tells us how to achieve this unity: by modeling ourselves after Jesus, who didn’t seek his own glory but humbled himself.

Early in this passage, Paul tells the Philippians (and us), “complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” Paul says this is the key to unity: living for others, looking out of the good of others, instead of our own good.

In other words, we are to “empty” ourselves, just as v. 7 says Christ “emptied himself.” There is a Greek word here that refers to this emptying. Here’s your Greek word for the day: kenosis. Christ’s willingness to leave his place of equality with God and the form of God which he was previously in, in order to become human and experience death on a cross, was a kenotic act, a self-emptying act. According to Paul, the Philippians’ lives (and our lives, as well) should also be characterized by kenosis – by self-emptying. That’s what discipleship is: becoming more and more like Christ, so if Christ emptied himself, we should empty ourselves.

A great example of kenosis, self-emptying, is the famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Some of you know I love Tolstoy. Tolstoy is most known for his brilliant and lengthy novels, like Anna Karenina and War and Peace, but what many people don’t know is that Tolstoy also wrote extensively on the Christian spirituality in the latter of half of his life.

Tolstoy was born into the affluence and privilege of Russian aristocracy, but, as he entered adulthood, was confounded by the meaninglessness of life. In fact, in his Confession, he explains that he had to have his guns and ropes hidden from himself for fear that he might use them to commit suicide.

His quest for meaning led him to the Christian faith, and upon placing his faith in Christ, his life changed completely. He gave up the rights to most of his published works, became a pacifist, frequently gave large sums of money away, and gave his land away to his immediate family members. He dressed like a peasant and fraternize with common people in a way that was thought undignified of a Russian aristocrat. All this drove his wife, literally, to panic attacks. She was constantly afraid he would give away everything and leave his family destitute.

Tolstoy grew up with wealth, privilege, and security. But he came to realize that all these benefits were built on the backs of the working class poor who lived a stone’s throw from his elaborate home. He saw that life lived for the self was meaningless and empty, but that life lived for others was the fullest kind of life.

Olenine, a character in his short story The Cossacks is also searching for the key to happiness and finally finds it. He says, “Happiness! Happiness consists in living for others, that is clear.” He goes on to say that the only way to happiness is through “love and self-sacrifice.”[1] This seems to be what Tolstoy really believed.

The transformation of Leo Tolstoy is a beautiful, real life picture of Philippians 2:1-11. In Tolstoy we see someone who was so changed by the Gospel, that his life became committed to the poor and marginalized in a society that was built on classism. He gave up respect and wealth, and used the privileges he had to draw attention to injustice and to do what he could to improve the lives of the oppressed, all at great personal cost to himself. But he didn’t see it as a great cost, instead, he saw it as a the key to life!


But it’s important to recognize that Tolstoy had things to give away. Tolstoy had privilege, wealth, respect, and influence. He had a career and was a renowned novelist.

What about those who have little or nothing? What about those who never chose a life of self-sacrifice, but it was, instead, thrust upon them? What about those whose life has been characterized by forced servitude? Some of us here today may feel that you’re already living a life of self-sacrifice, and it doesn’t feel all that rewarding. It feels like you’ve been taken advantage of, that your underappreciated. And now you hear this passage and this sermon and you’re thinking, “Man, instead of being comforted, I feel like I’m being asked to give more. Or I’m being told I should be happy, but I’m not. I’m tired of sacrificing.”

Do y’all know what lenticular printing is?

Yes. You do. You just don’t know you do. Lenticular printing is when something is printed in such a way that when you hold it one way it displays one picture and when you hold is another way it displays a different picture. Like maybe it shows a face smiling and then you turn it another way and the same face is crying. Or maybe it shows an action, like a tiger crouched, leaping, and landing. You know what I’m talking about?

The Bible is like lenticular printing. So much depends on who’s holding it, how they’re turning it, and who’s looking – specifically, what is the vantage point of the person who’s looking at it? Are they looking from below? Or above? Are they looking directly at it? Or are they seeing it from far away? Are they in the center or are they in the margins?

This passage that Kim read for us, Philippians 2:1-11, is a prime example of a “lenticular Scripture” if you will.

It is, when read one way, the very heart of the Gospel. It is a summary of who Jesus was and is and will be, and who we are to be. It directs us in how to “adopt the same attitude” that Jesus had, or, in another translation, how to have the “same mind” as that which was in Christ Jesus. Think back to Tolstoy, what would it be like if everyone in our society also believed the key to happiness was a life lived for others? How much better would our world be?

But, at the same time, this Scripture can be twisted and turned, and if seen from the just the right way (or more accurately, the wrong way) it can say something altogether different. It can be very harmful. It is – at the risk of being too dramatic – the key to life – life with God and life with others – and yet it can be used for death. Literally. People have died as a result of wrong interpretations of Scripture.

An increasing number of pastors and theologians from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives have rightly pointed out the dangers in glorifying and romanticizing self-sacrifice, and kenosis. Passages like this one have been used to tell those who are oppressed and marginalized that they should stay in their place. Jesus was humble, he didn’t look out for himself, so why should they complain and demand fair treatment? Jesus was killed, and he didn’t raise a fist! Who do they think they are to make demands? Are they more important than God?!

You see how that logic works? You see how Scripture is lenticular? You see how it can be twisted?

How is this passage good news for those who have been denied their hopes and dreams by an oppressive reading of this Scripture and others like it?

What about a young girl who wants to be a doctor or an engineer, but is told her place is in the home? What about the gay man who wants to take on leadership in his local church but is told he needs to “sacrifice” his sexual identity if he’s going to be a leader? What about the person who’s too poor to go to college, or have health care, or live in an adequate home, but is told by those who have education and wealth and medical care that they should be happy with what they have? What about Native Americans who have been siloed into reservations, and whose rights and lands are respected only so long as there isn’t money to be made, in which case those rights are expendable?

The list goes on. The point is, this passage about self-sacrifice, humility, and seeking the good of the other over our own good can be understood in very different ways depending on who you are, and where you stand in relation to the text, like a lenticular printing.

So what are we to do? How does this passage apply to all of us? How can we be united if we all hear or read Scripture so differently based on our vantage point? This passage is supposed to unite us. The goal of this whole passage is found in v. 2 when Paul says, “complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other,” and yet it seems impossible to be united. Our experiences are so different from others.

There are some who completely reject Paul’s appeal to kenosis (remember, self-emptying) because of the harm it’s done, and I can understand the temptation. But, I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t think we can adequately be disciples of Jesus without self-sacrifice. It’s everywhere in Scripture. As this Christ Hymn from Philippians says so beautifully, humility, self-sacrifice, and looking out for the good of others is the model Jesus gave us. It’s the only way unity is possible.

I think the key is in the phrase “self-emptying”. So let’s take our last few minutes to actually look at “self-emptying.”

Self-emptying implies that only the individual can do the emptying. It comes from the “self.” No one else can force someone to give of themselves, it’s a matter of one’s own agency. Humility is not humiliation. Humility is a personal choice. Humiliation is forced upon an individual or a group from outside that person or group. Humility is central to the Gospel. Humiliation is contrary to the Gospel.

Now for the second part of the phrase “self-emptying”: emptying. Emptying assumes having. You can’t be emptied of something you don’t have. Before we can expect someone to give of themselves they have to have something to give. They have to have dignity, respect, resources, security. So, if we are to be a community that is defined by self-emptying we need to make sure everyone in our community has a deep well from which to draw from.

Lastly, I think we need to ask the question: what is the point of this emptying anyway? Is it simply to be empty? No! It’s emptying ourselves for the sake of filling up others.

The kenotic kind of love we are called to unites us because it calls us to empty ourselves in order that we might fill and, in turn, be filled by others.

And what are we being emptied of and filled with?

Love. Specifically, the love of Christ, who first emptied himself that he might fill us. This is the love we refuse to exploit and horde. Just as Jesus did not horde or exploit his equality with God, so we do not horde or exploit the love that has been lavished on us, but instead we pass it on to others. And others, in turn, fill us. It’s a constant emptying and filling, emptying and filling.

Like a tiered fountain, where the various pools are filled from above and overflow simultaneously, let the love of Christ fill us and flow out of us, fill us and flow out of us.

In the words of Leo Tolstoy, “As one candle kindles another, and thousands are lighted from that one, so also one heart inflames another and thousands are set a-glowing.”

May it be so, Leo Tolstoy. May it be so. Amen.


[1] Leo Tolstoy, Spiritual Writings. 25