Sunday, October 5, 2014
Text: Philippians 3: 4b-14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
If there had been a Religion Olympics back in his day, the Apostle Paul would have taken the gold. If there had been a show called Jerusalem’s Got Religion, the artist formerly known as Saul would have made it to the finals. If the Pharisees had hosted a banquet to honor the most pious of the pious, that crowd would have toasted the man we’ve come to know as “saint” Paul.
As he brags in his letter to the Philippians (verses 4-6), he can tick all the boxes in the religious score card of his day:
- Duly circumcised at the required age of 8 days? Check
- An Israelite? Check
- A descendant of the House of Benjamin? Check
- Both parents Hebrews? Check
- A Pharisee? Check
- A persecutor of the early church? Check
- A righteous keeper of all the religious laws? Check
Yet he is happy to lose those badges of honor for the cause of Christ. The very things he’d been proud of are the things he now considers “rubbish”—though “rubbish” is too inoffensive a translation of the Greek word skubala, a crude word for excrement (v. 8). Leave it to Paul to be blunt. He’s saying, in the strongest and most shocking language possible, “Everything that used to matter to me and that I thought mattered to God is a load of horse hockey. All those prestige points count for nothing. Because what really matters is “knowing Christ” (v.8). Paul’s hope is to “gain Christ” (v. 8) and be “found in [Christ]” (v. 9). Being “in Christ,” as we discussed last Sunday, may not have anything to do with believing certain things about Jesus. Being “in Christ” is a spiritual disposition that has nothing to do with following the Law but everything to do with having “the faith of Christ” (v. 9). And yes, many translate this significant phrase in verse 9 as the “faith of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ.” Consider what that shift in prepositions makes in Christian theology if Paul is saying that our righteousness comes from having the faith of Christ, by having a Jesus-like trust and hope in God so that one could give up everything to know this union.
Of course, it’s one thing for someone who has not attained social stature to say, “I don’t care about prestige.” It’s another for someone who benefits from a pecking order and who has spent his life attaining status to then give it up. That’s what Paul did. In fact, he was in prison while writing this letter. He had lost all status. But his losses require us to take him very seriously when he scorns the privileges that had accrued to him by accident of birth and by effort.
Paul had recognized his privilege. And that recognition paved the way for his personal transformation and the kind of transformation he was encouraging among faith communities in the highly stratified, patriarchal Roman Empire. He says in verse 10 that what he really wants is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” With a mission statement like that, it’s a wonder the church survived beyond the first generation. Paul, who took the Gospel to the despised Gentiles, understood that spiritual and social transformation required people to give up privilege and rub shoulders with those on the margin.
What does rejection of privilege have to do with us? We’re just average folks. Are there privileges today that we have to renounce in order to know Christ, to have the mindset of Christ, to share in his sufferings—which leads to resurrections?
Do you recognize any privileges that you, like Paul, either were born into or acquired through hard work?
The privilege most in the news since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, just over a month ago is white privilege. I recently listened to an audio tape of a community meeting that NPR journalist Michel Martin moderated on August 28 in Ferguson. Mayor James Knowles defended his leadership in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown to an audience largely unsympathetic to the mayor. One decision the Ferguson police officials made after an officer shot the unarmed 19-year-old African American was to leave the bloody body in the street for four hours while awaiting independent investigators who would make sure the crime scene was not compromised. Brown’s mother was nearby, unable to go near him, but probably unable to look away. I have no way of knowing if the police acted according to standard procedures. Those attending the Aug. 28th meeting had divergent understandings of that and other decisions made by city officials in the aftermath of Brown’s death. But what struck me as the most revealing comment in the entire 2-hour meeting occurred when Michel Martin asked the mayor this:
“Forgive me,” she interjected, “but have you ever apologized to Michael Brown’s family?”
Ferguson’s mayor said he had not.
Rumblings from those in attendance signaled their disapproval.
“Why not?” asked the moderator.
Mayor Knowles replied that he had invited the family to come and meet with him.
Michel Martin followed: “Did it not occur to you to go to them and apologize?”
Ferguson’s mayor repeated: “We have invited the family to meet with us.”
That reply reveals how the privileged take for granted their privilege, how the privileged assume the weak and wounded can be summoned to the powerful and will respond on the terms of the powerful. The privileged don’t realize how different their circumstances are.
I know I shouldn’t judge a man by a few words that might not represent what he meant to say. But “We have invited the family to meet with us” do not sound like words of someone trying to comfort a bereaved mother. “We have invited the family to meet with us” is a lawyerly statement that literally uses the imperial “we” to speak down to others. “We have invited the family to meet with us” does not say that one human being is hurting with a deeply aggrieved community for which he feels commonality and bears responsibility. In disbelief, I waited for the mayor to reconsider his response to Michel Martin’s question: “Didn’t it occur to you to go to them and apologize?”
No, it didn’t occur to him. Because those in privileged positions don’t have to think about moving toward those who are lower on the ladder of privilege.
That’s why Jesus was such a radical example of leadership. Instead of expecting the people go to the Temple, he went to the people. Instead of requiring his followers’ adoration, he washed their feet. Instead of courting the respect of the religious and political authorities, he sought out the tax collectors, the poor, the lepers. The Christian story says that Jesus gave up glory for a shameful cross. And once Saul was converted and became a follower of The Way, Paul recognized his own privilege was a spiritual stumbling block. Conversion/transformation often begins with such a realization. And then a rejection of that privileging.
The events in Ferguson and in our race-divided city reveal an ongoing need to renounce privilege, which is necessary for the salvation of Ferguson and Mobile and our world. We can’t know the union possible through the Cosmic Christ if we are guarding our status and defending our good names and pretending we have less privilege than we do.
Racism cannot be combated by asking people to treat others with respect and to interact without prejudice. That’s a start. But we must explore systemic racism. Because you might be a nice, kind person who doesn’t mistreat people of color and who doesn’t use the n-word and who has friends of other races—but you are still participating in (whether you know it or not) racist systems. Whether you’re hateful to people of color or not, if you’re white, you are benefiting from white privilege that you and I must work to end. To give up my privileged edge doesn’t mean I give up my rights; it means I lose my unfair advantages that I might think of as simply part of the given order of things.
Paul was willing to give up his privilege. Not because it was the nice thing to do. Not because he was politically correct in an Ancient Near East kind of way. Paul was willing to give up his privilege because he experienced in the Christ a different understanding of religion. It’s not about braggin’ rights and strengthening your religious resume. When you give up your braggin’ rights, you know Christ. You no longer aim to impress others with pious religiosity; instead, your aim is to adopt that same humble and compassionate spiritual disposition of Jesus. Forsaking a position of strength for vulnerability allowed Jesus—and Jesus’s followers—to learn the way of suffering. And fall in love with God. Jesus showed us how to give our entire selves trustingly to the God of love.
Although we usually celebrate communion by intinction, today we will bring the communion bread to you. The church has for too long summoned people to her. Today we bring the bread of salvation to you. God is going to you. Jesus traveled to the fringes. He reached out to those hurting on the margins. As should we.
PRAYER FOR THE CHURCH: Your church, O God, has been proud. But these are humbling times for Jesus followers. As the Church Universal loses some of its accustomed privilege, let our more marginal status reintroduce us to the humble Jesus—and reconnect us to one another. Amen