9/16/2018 - Letting Go of Privilege - Philippians 2:1-10

Philippians 2:1-10

Letting Go of Privilege

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

September 16, 2018

Paul was connected to a number of congregations as the good news of Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.  He was connected to many, but based on the letters which survive, I suspect he was particularly close to the church in Philippi. It was to this church that he wrote, “I thank God every time I remember you”  and “I long for all of you.”  It is only this church that he calls “my joy and my crown.”  Good pastors should probably never admit to having a favorite church, but I think Philippi was Paul’s favorite.  

In chapter one, the focus is mostly on the struggle between Christians and external enemies, but by chapter two, Paul is concerned with  possible divisions inside the community.  I called this a congregation, but of course, we know that there was not a Methodist church and a Baptist Church and a Catholic church in Philippi. There was just one group of Christians, who were probably a small minority of the 15,000 people who lived in Philippi, and Paul was writing to all of them.  Some form of the Greek word for “all” occurs 6 times in the first 9 verses. 

Paul frequently addresses his letters to “holy ones” or “saints.”  So this letter is “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi”.  He does not call them saints to put them on a spiritual or moral pedestal.  He calls them that in reference to their commitment to Jesus, to remind them of their calling as the people of God, all of them, together.

If this is Paul’s favorite church, I suspect that it is because they live out his best sense of what it means to be the people of God.  They come the closest to getting it right and that is a source of great joy for him.  But even as wonderful as they seem to be, they have issues.  And one of the issues seems to be internal conflict.  If we read through to chapter four, we would see that Paul is concerned about two women in leadership.  Euodia and Syntyche disagree about something.  Paul doesn’t say what their argument is about, but it must be serious if word has reached him from a distance. 

These women are the real deal, from all we can tell.  Paul says “they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”   The word translated struggling can refer to the battlefield or the athletic arena.  They have worked hard.

They are not false teachers trying to lead people astray.  They are committed to Jesus, but  now they are in a fight with each other.

The idea that Christians could disagree, even angrily, does not come as a surprise to us, does it?   From our place two thousand years after Paul, we know that Christians disagreed enough to form factions and the factions solidified into tribes called Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.

But let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves why.  If our goal is to follow Jesus, and Jesus said that the most important thing is to love God with all your being and the next most important thing is to love your neighbor as yourself, then why are there fights among the people of God? 

I guess the most obvious reason is that we don’t follow Jesus perfectly.  Despite our best intentions, we are still sinful, broken human beings and sometimes we fall short of our goals. 

Another way to analyze this might be to return to that idea of external and internal pressures.  I said that in the first part of this letter, Paul is concerned with external enemies of the faith.  Roman culture was highly stratified.  There was a pecking order and you climbed the social status ladder by making sure you paid all due respect to those above you.  Philippi was a developing Roman city and those who lived there would have felt strongly compelled to proclaim the honors they had received and their social location.  Christians would have felt that same pressure.[1] 

Paul appeals to them, to imagine themselves as the people of God, to adopt not the mindset of the culture around them, but to adopt the mind of Christ.  The people of God are to be counter-cultural. Our goal is not achieving social status; our goal is serving each other in love.  When we lose sight of that, we become prone to the internal fights that can ultimately destroy a community.

Privilege is kind of a buzz word in many circles right now.  There are conversations about white privilege and male privilege and the privilege of education and health care. 

Equality with God was Jesus’ privilege.  If you are equal with God, you’re pretty high up on the ladder, but Jesus let go of that privilege.  He came down the ladder as a demonstration of love and it is Jesus’ attitude and action which Paul is holding up as a model for us.

Philippians 2:5-11 contains one of the most succinct and important descriptions of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  We think this is an early hymn:  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, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

These are very important words.  Like all significant theology, they have also been subject to abuse and misuse.  Sometimes they have been used to hold up Jesus’ suffering as something to be imitated by those who are currently suffering.  They were used to keep slaves under the thumb of their masters, to tell abused spouses to submit to their abusers, to maintain the status quo of injustice.  What we need to notice is that this hymn does not start with the suffering Jesus.  It starts with the Christ who is equal to God.  The poor who are told to suffer like Christ rather than to struggle for freedom are not in the position to copy the Christ of this hymn.  The challenge of this hymn is addressed to those who have privilege, who have some status or power, just as Christ had the status of God.[2]

Maybe, just now, we relaxed a little bit and thought, “O good, I’m off the hook.  I don’t have status or power.   This is not talking to me.” 

That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it?  It is very hard for us to recognize our own privilege.  The Rev. Peter Storey was a Methodist pastor and bishop in South Africa for many years.  He was one of the white church leaders who fought vigorously against apartheid and rejoiced when it was finally dismantled. One time he was invited to the United States with a group of church leaders.  Arriving at the airport, they were surprised to learn that they were booked in business class. He had never travelled business class before.  In fact, the thought of a Christian minister travelling any way other than economy went against his principles, but their American hosts had booked the tickets and who were they to argue?  Travelling to Amsterdam in business class, he discovered that the seats were wide and could be leaned back and the cabin crew kept bringing all sorts of nice things.  He found it very pleasant and by the time they arrived in the Netherlands, he was getting used to being pampered. 

Before they boarded their plane to New York, an airline staff member pulled them aside to say that the original aircraft had engine trouble.  The replacement plane had a smaller business class section and so these four ministers were being moved back to economy. The airline apologized and gave each of them two seats in economy to make up for it.  Reflecting on that experience, Rev. Storey said “I should have been grateful to revert to my more appropriate and humble image, but I wasn’t.  Truth be told, I was fed up!  I found myself wondering why I had to be one of the unfortunate four.  Didn’t I look like business class material?  And what was so special about the others who hadn’t been bumped down to economy?  Ten hours of business class travel had weaned me quite effectively from my humility.” [3]

The effects of privilege are subtle.  We feel entitled -- to the rightness of our opinions, to the appropriateness of our needs,  to support for our decisions.  We can assert this privilege without having much awareness that we’re doing so.  If we are not careful, we may deceive others into believing we don’t have power or privilege when we do.

Of course, there is also danger in the opposite direction.   We could ignore the idea that we bear the image of God and act as though our opinions and needs don’t matter because we are worthless.  Then we need to remember that Jesus came to our level.  He came to our level to elevate us, not to push us down further.  We do not need to view ourselves as lower than Jesus views us. 

This is how the people of God are to relate to each other.  We recognize that we are the beloved children of God, that we have worth because Jesus says we do, and at the same time, we honor the worth of all the other children of God around us.  

The people of God trust that we are God’s beloved.  We abide together as partners in that love, not competing for it, not earning it, not setting up winners and losers, but reveling in it, growing in it, expanding with it, together.

In 1974, Adrienne Rich received the National Book Award in poetry.  Other poets in contention for the award were Audre Lord and Alice Walker.  As Rich accepted the prize she said, “We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world. . .”[4]  The three women had written that statement together in advance and no matter who officially won the prize, this would have been their statement.  They said that  they believed that by supporting and giving to each other, they could accomplish more than by  competing against each other.

What a demonstration of cooperation instead of competition, a way of asserting one’s own worth while looking toward the interests of others.

I appreciate how Walter Brueggemann describes this.  He says, “The world in which we live, . . . is premised on a rat-race of competition, on the turmoil of ruthless individualism, and the collection of commodities, of rude social interaction and crude survival shows and toxic public life.  And Paul says to the church do not be so mindless.  Do not be like sheep that imitate the world. Do not act like fearful citizens of the Roman empire or of the American empire.  Paul does not do that so that the church can be the snug, comfortable, happy place in town.  Rather Paul intends that the church should be an exhibit to the world how our common life can be ordered differently. . . . The community gathered around Jesus is called to be as odd in the world as he himself was such an odd Messiah.”[5]

Paul writes his most joyful letter to this church and he says, “Make my joy complete.  Have the same mind, the same love, found in Jesus.”

Sisters and brothers may we imagine ourselves as the people of God, letting go of our privilege, not even grasping our status as God’s beloved, but imitating Jesus our Lord.  Amen. 


[1] Todd D. Still, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: Philippians and Philemon, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2011) p. 45

[2] Pheme Perkins, from “Philippians” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol Newsome and Sharon H. Ringer (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), pp. 434-35.

[3] Peter Storey With God in the Crucible:  Preaching Costly Discipleship (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), pp 161-162.

[4]  http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_arich_74.html#.W5wgS6ZKiUk

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “On Changing Our Minds” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), pp. 103-104.