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Terminal Velocity

March 24, 2002

Philippians 2:5-11


Tony Grant


U.S. Air Force Capt. Joe W. Kittinger wore a pressurized suit when he successfully jumped 102,000 feet from a balloon in 1960. Kittinger did not break the sound barrier, but Rodd Millner might.

Rodd Millner is an Australian ex-commando. Sometime within the next few weeks, he will perform a stunt that will either stretch the frontiers of science or the boundaries of insanity. He is going to sky-dive from space.

Millner intends to put on a spacesuit and ride a balloon to a height of 130,000 feet, up to the very edge of the atmosphere. That is an altitude higher than four Mount Everests stacked on top of one another. Once he gets there, he will jump. Plummeting toward earth, he will reach a speed of between 700 and 900 miles per hour within a minute of leaping from the balloon. If all goes well, he will be the first human to break the sound barrier without a vehicle.

He will slow down as he falls. He will reach what is called "terminal velocity." Terminal velocity is a steady speed created by the collision of air molecules with a falling body. At higher altitudes there are fewer air molecules to bump into, so a body can travel at velocities of 900 miles per hour. But as divers approach the earth they encounter thicker and thicker air, and their speeds are reduced to about 100 or 200 miles per hour, which is a bid advantage when you try to deploy a parachute.

A successful jump will set a number of records. In addition to breaking the sound barrier, Millner will set the record for falling farther and from the highest point of any previous balloonist--the previous record for a manned balloon flight is 121,390 feet. His support team claims that Millner's dive will advance knowledge and perhaps help to develop strategies for astronauts who need to escape from their spacecrafts.

Other effects, like the physiological outcome of accelerating from zero to possibly 900 miles an hour in less than a minute and exceeding the sound threshold (and then going back through it), are yet to be determined. "We're taking the human body where it's never been before," said Millner, "and ultimately, we don't know."

You may think Rodd Millner is crazy, but he's not alone. An American world-champion sky diver named Cheryl Stearns is also seeking to take this 24.6-mile leap of faith. Stearns is a commercial airline captain, and is no newcomer to doing new things in the air. Having completed over 13,050 sky dives, she has made the most jumps of any woman in the world, with some 30 world records. Like Millner, she'll wear a customized pressurized spacesuit, and she expects that her free-fall velocity will exceed the speed of sound.

Returning to Rodd Millner, if you ask where he will land, the official guess is within fifty kilometers of the launch site in central Australia. "But I'll be basically aiming for the planet Earth," Millner says, "and trying to hit it." He will certainly hit it. The only question is: how hard? Millner expects the thickening atmosphere to slow him down to a little over 120 miles per hour by the time he pulls the cord, allowing him to pop his chute at about 5,000 feet. "My decision to do this is based on the fact that I want to come back safe and alive," he explains.

Safe and alive. It's a wonderful wish. But it was not the outcome that Jesus experienced when he took his plunge to Earth almost 2,000 years ago.

When Jesus aimed for the Earth, he hit it. Hit it hard. Although he was in the form of God, preaches the apostle Paul to the Philippians, he "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" (2:6). He did not use his divine nature as an opportunity to make a safe and smooth landing on the rocky terrain of a hardhearted world. Instead, he "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross!" (v. 8 NIV).

The Descent of Christ

The elegant expression of Christ's great leap into human existence found in Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture. Because verses 6-11 are carefully constructed poetically and seem to include unusual vocabulary for Paul, it has often been suggested that this section of Paul's letter is a quotation of a well-known hymn composed by someone other than Paul. Paul cites the hymn because it so neatly summarizes his own doctrine of Christ.

Although there used to be discussion about whether Paul was actually the writer of Philippians, most scholars today view the letter as genuine. There still remains some question in the minds of scholars, however, about whether the letter we currently know as Philippians, and which is usually thought of as one Pauline letter, might actually contain several letters edited into one. According to Brendan Byrne ("The Letter to the Philippians," New Jerome Biblical Commentary, [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990], 791), speculation has existed concerning multiple letters to Philippi since the second century when the Church father Polycarp made reference to the (plural) "letters" of Paul to the Philippians.

Byrne finds as many as three letters in Philippians, and our passage today comes from what he call letter B--a letter urging joy and unity. Byrne also notes that if his "multiple letter" reconstruction is correct, then this letter B was written while Paul was in prison (Philippians 1:7, 13, 17).

The realization that Paul is writing from prison makes Philippians 2:5-11 much more powerful than it might otherwise have been. After using his own suffering as an example of patient dependence upon God, Paul uses this perfect opening to describe how Christ subjected himself to the constraints of human existence in order to become the Savior of humankind. The image of Christ portrayed in the hymn of verses 6-11 is one of willing submission to the will of God.

In verse 5, Paul urges the Philippians to also put on this "mind of Christ." If even Christ was willing to put aside his rightful equality with God in order to save us, how much more so, Paul argues, must we be willing to put aside our personal "rights" and become servants to one another.

The hymn's description of Christ's voluntary submission is referred to as "kenotic christology," from the Greek verb kenow, which occurs in 2:7, and means "to make empty," or "to deprive of content or possession." The Kenotic doctrine of Christology explains how the fully divine second Person of the Trinity became the historical Jesus of Nazareth, explaining that in order to be transformed from the Pre-existent One to the Incarnate One, Christ by his own decision emptied himself of divinity to take the form of a servant by becoming a human being.


So Christ gave up his godhood, and came down to earth. Bam! The cross marks the spot where Jesus hit the Earth. Hit it with arms outstretched, for us and for our salvation.

Jesus achieved a kind of terminal velocity as he plummeted to the Earth. The name for this self-emptying terminal velocity is humility. The very fact that Jesus would give up his godhood to become a human being illustrates to us what humility is--and shows us what we are supposed to be.

Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. He meant blessed are the humble. This poorness of spirit comes from the discovery that we are nothing in and of ourselves. The Theologia Germanica was written about 1350 by an anonymous author. It was one of Martin Luther's favorite books. The Theologia Germanica says, "From this knowledge it follows that man finds himself utterly unworthy of all that has or will come his way from God or God's creation and that he is a debtor to God and , as God's deputy, to all created beings. So he becomes both compassionate and active in practical service." (my edition p92). As we become spiritually aware, we become aware of our sinfulness and of our unworthiness before God. Thus we also become aware of how much we owe God because God accepts us anyway with his grace and love. This awareness makes us into more loving people and makes us more willing to serve God, as we find him in his creation.

Humility centers on God, not on me. Thomas a Kempis, the fifteenth century author of Of the Imitation of Christ, says, "Long shall he be little, and lie grovelling below, who esteems anything great but only the one, immense, eternal God. Whatever is not God is nothing and ought to be accounted as nothing." (my edition, p112).

Now I know that sometimes we think of the humble person as a person who just has low self-esteem. Not so. A person with low self-esteem has a psychological problem, not humility. Vince Lombardi was the famous head coach in the '60s of the great Green Bay Packers. A reporter once asked him about his team's greatest strength. Lombardi responded, "The greatest strength any champion can hold is humility." Now I realize that now many people would associate Vince Lombardi with humility--but he associated a championship attitude with humility.

And again, the biblical definition of humility is not just low self-esteem. The biblical definition of humility is that we esteem God so highly that in contrast we esteem ourselves as nothing.

But such is human sinfulness that humility of a difficult virtue for us to attain. First of all the Bible explicitly teaches that God is not interested in an outward show of humility. It is not that we are to strive to look oh so humble and to speak mealy-mouthy, and to talk about how oh I can't do this and I can't do that. This is the sin for which Jesus angrily denounced the Pharisees. It is an appearance of humility without the substance thereof.

Also even when we sincerely struggle to be humble, we fall into ego-traps. We may work for years at being God's humble servants, and we begin to think that we are doing a pretty good job of it--so we become proud of our humility. Thus, our humility becomes a source of stumbling and we become sinful in our pride about our humility.

This should not cause us to give up our struggle to become God's humble people, but it should make us aware of how difficult the struggle is. It is impossible without the help of God, but God will help us.

When we take the form of servants, humble ourselves and become obedient to God, we know that nothing in all creation -- neither death nor life, neither height nor depth -- will be able to separate us from the supremely supportive love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Humility keeps us moving at the proper speed -- at what we might call "Godspeed." It's our terminal velocity. Of course, it's not easy to take the plunge of dependence upon God. It involves a leap of faith from the heights of selfishness and egocentrism. But if we want to model the life of our Lord, it's a jump we need to make. If we desire the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, it's a dive we must perform -- a dive that involves leaping into service and plunging deeply into the needs of others. The quote I read from Theologia Germanica concluded, "So he becomes both compassionate and active in practical service." The humble person expresses humility by serving others.

Palm Sunday

Of course, on Palm Sunday, the citizens of Jerusalem could not know that this Jesus, riding bareback into the city on a young donkey, was actually entering the city to embrace his death only five days hence. They welcomed him as a conquering hero in the tradition of David. He would solve their problems. Every time they cried "Hosanna," they were basically thumbing their noses at the religious establishment who had tried unsuccessfully to rein in this exuberant young rabbi, and they were also defying the Roman Rulers, though at this point the Romans probably knew little of Jesus.

But the apostle Paul makes it clear: This is not what Jesus was about. He "humbled himself," he was concerned about the needs of others, rather than himself. He had a different mindset, and Paul says, it is a servanthood mentality we all should adopt. On Palm Sunday, we are reminded that lording it over others is not what it is about. Following Jesus to the cross means living in humble submission to God.

What Does Humility Look Like?

So just what does such a humble leap look like?

Columnist Philip Yancey recently made a list of the people who have most influenced him, whose qualities he wants to emulate. He reports that he stared at the list for some time before realizing that all have in common the surprising trait of humility.

Does this mean that they all have some kind of negative self-image? Not at all. The people on Yancey's list excelled in school, won awards and have absolutely no reason to doubt their gifts and abilities. Humility is, for them, an ongoing choice to credit God for their natural gifts and then to use those gifts in God's service. It is the terminal velocity that keeps them from spinning selfishly out of control.

"Humility has many dimensions," writes Yancey. "My first employer showed it in the kind and patient way he treated me, a writer still wet behind the ears... . He saw his mission as not just to improve articles but to improve writers.

"Other heroes of mine exercise humility by finding a group overlooked and undeserved. I think of Dr. Paul Brand, a promising young physician who volunteered in India as the first orthopedic surgeon to work with leprosy patients. Or of Henri Nouwen, professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, who ended up among people having a fraction of those students' IQs: the mentally handicapped at L'Arche homes in France and Toronto. Both of these men demonstrated to me that downward mobility can lead to the success that matters most."

For most of his life Albert Einstein had the portraits of two scientists, Newton and Maxwell, hanging on his wall as role models to inspire him. Toward the end of his life, however, he took them down and replaced them with portraits of Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi. He needed new role models, he said -- not of success, but of humble service. Those are the kinds of role models we need. True success belongs to those who have truly accepted the self-giving of Christ as the model for Christian behavior.

A well-known beauty product company asked the people in a large city to send pictures along with brief letters about the most beautiful women they knew. Within a few weeks thousands of letters were delivered to the company.

One letter in particular caught the attention of the employees, and soon it was handed to the company president. The letter was written by a young boy who was obviously from a broken home, living in a run-down neighborhood. With spelling corrections, an excerpt from his letter read: "A beautiful woman lives down the street from me. I visit her every day. She makes me feel like the most important kid in the world. We play checkers and she listens to my problems. She understands me, and when I leave she yells out the door that she's proud of me."

The boy ended his letter saying, "This picture shows you that she is the most beautiful woman. I hope I have a wife as pretty as her."

Intrigued by the letter, the president asked to see this woman's picture. His secretary handed him a photograph of a smiling, toothless woman, well-advanced in years, sitting in a wheelchair. Sparse gray hair was pulled back in a bun, and wrinkles that formed deep furrows on her face were somehow diminished by the twinkle in her eyes.

"We can't use this woman," explained the president, smiling. "She would show the world that our products aren't necessary to be beautiful."

In v5, Paul says, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." That is true success. That is true beauty. Amen.


Kenneally, Christine. "The man who fell to earth." FEED-Science. March 9, 2001,

Yancey, Philip. "Humility's many faces." Christianity Today, December 4, 2000.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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