Subversive, non-conformists

Pentecost 15 – 2011

Philippians 2

Marian Free 

In the name of God who calls us to hold fast to the values of the kingdom and not to be seduced by the values of the world. Amen.

Most of us have seen such BBC dramas as Pride and Prejudice or comedies like To the Manor Born. Both illustrate the way in which the landed gentry of their time felt that it was their right to determine not only the behaviour of the clergy, but also the content of their sermons. In other words, they saw the church and the faith it imparted as something under their authority. This attitude relates in part to the fact that the Church of England is the established or state church. Since the time of Henry VIII church and state have been intimately entwined such that those who felt that they represented the state felt that they also represented the church.

One of the consequences of this relationship between church and state was the belief that the church and its members conformed to and upheld the establishment. Societal norms were assumed to be indistinguishable from Christian norms. Members of the Church of England were good, pious citizens who supported the status quo. The role of the church was in part to produce good upstanding citizens who did not rock the boat. Many would say that this was still the case today – that the role of the church (and of church goers) is to be responsible citizens who conform to societal values.

It would probably come as a surprise then, to discover that even the most conventional of we church-goers are in fact, non-conformists. We live in a world that values material possessions as a sign of success and a successful career as a means of distinguishing oneself. We inhabit a world in which ambition leads to competition with each other for recognition and in which there are many are who are judgmental, hard and unforgiving.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that for most of us, even though we are comfortable, we do not let our possessions define us, that while we might strive to succeed we try not to do so at the expense of others and that by and large we understand our own frailty enough to be forgiving of the frailties of others – that means, believe it or not, that we are all counter-cultural. We represent a subversive element in a materialistic, competitive and unforgiving world! (Try telling that to your children or grandchildren!)

It is this counter-cultural attitude that Paul is trying to encourage when he writes to the community in Philippi. The church at Philippi have been particularly supportive of Paul, and the letter is primarily one of thanksgiving. At the same time, Paul takes the opportunity to reinforce behaviours and attitudes that he thinks are essential for the Christian life.  He reminds the community that as a result of their faith in Jesus their citizenship is in heaven (3:21).  This means that their values and ideals are to be measured by heavenly and not earthly standards.

Paul himself now regards everything that he formerly held to be important to be nothing more than rubbish compared with the benefits of knowing Christ. His status by birth, his position compared to other members of the Jewish faith, his blamelessness under the law – all the measures that he once considered essential, he now considers a loss.

The basis of, and example for, this radical, counter cultural attitude is none other than Jesus. According to Paul, Jesus overturns the standards and expectations of his day, Jesus not only refuses to conform by seeking recognition, power and wealth, but he encourages his disciples to follow his example by rejecting them. Jesus exemplifies the behaviour of a Christian. As Paul says: “though he was in the form of God, he 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.”

The idea that someone could be God and yet not exploit the situation is beyond comprehension to those who hold fast to the values of the world. That that same person (despite being God) would choose to be obedient to the point of death is a radically shocking idea – especially in a first century world that was populated with a multitude of gods who completed for the attention of the community and in the context of the Roman Empire in which power and might were all important. It would have been inconceivable to most of the residents of Philippi that someone one would have both power and might in their reach and would surrender them of their own volition.

Paul understands that Jesus, through his teaching and by example, confronts and overturns the values of the world and he urges the Philippians to have the same mind as Christ Jesus – to regard others as better than themselves (2:3-4), to do nothing from selfish ambition (2:3), or from rivalry or conceit, not to look to their own interests but to the interests of others (2:4), not to place value in appearances or in worldly distinction (3:7f) and to believe that God will supply everything that they need (4:19).

Paul understands the ultimate goal of such reversal. He knows – again through the example of Jesus, that it is by surrendering everything that Jesus gains everything: ‘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”, This reversal of expectations is Paul’s experience and the experience of all who follow Christ. For example, instead of limiting Paul’s missionary activity, his being in prison, has actually helped to spread the gospel! In the same way the suffering of the Philippians is not a sign that things are going badly, but rather that they have the privilege of sharing in Christ’s suffering and that as they share in Christ’s suffering, so they will share in his resurrection.

Jesus was a radical, counter-cultural, revolutionary and subversive figure. In his battle to change society, his weapons of choice were love, vulnerability, humility and compassion. He demonstrated that acceptance and understanding were more potent agents of change than exclusion and censure.

If we are to follow in his footsteps and make the world a better place, we too must choose weakness over strength, compassion over condemnation, co-operation over rivalry. If we choose heavenly values over earthly values, we will shine as a light in this troubled world and, contrary to all expectation, not only will we discover that we lose nothing but gain everything, but we can be sure that with Christ, we will inherit life eternal.

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