“Regard Others As Better Than Yourselves,” Says Paul

A sermon based on Philippians 2:1-13
given at Mount Vernon, OH on October 1, 2017 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A pastor asked in a children’s sermon if the kid’s families had a Bible at home. One little girl enthusiastically raised her hand and said they did. The pastor replied “That’s great! Do you know what is in the Bible?” The child proudly exclaimed “Yes! I think I know everything that is in it!” The minister smiled and said “Wow! Tell us what is in it.” The girl said “Okay. There’s a dried flower, a wedding invitation, a recipe for Christmas cookies and a Little Mermaid bookmark.”1.

Lots people claim to know what’s in the Bible. At least the little girl’s list was accurate with respect to the kinds of things she thought she was being asked about. But a lot of folks who appear confident they know all that’s in the Bible and what the texts mean, don’t. You can tell because they tend to not refer to much of it, or deal with the core themes– especially loving all.

I’ve studied the Bible pretty intently for a number of years and I doubt it will surprise anyone that I am willing to admit I do not know or understand all that is in there. It’s not that I haven’t read it or spent a lot of time with it, it’s that the Bible is a long complicated collection of books, written in very different cultures and times long, long ago, and copied and re-copied and translated and re-translated so it requires more than just my seeing the words to know what is in it. While passages in the Bible certainly can be given surface meanings to get deep rich meaning requires study and help and care and prayer. I can’t claim I know and understand the entire contents of the Bible, and you shouldn’t either. In fact, most scholars who spend decades with Scriptures would not claim to know or understand all that is in it.

One of the mysteries and mystical qualities of the Bible is that it has layers and layers of meaning. The more you properly study and interpret and discuss it –and experience life– the more it’s content seems to expand and its meanings multiply. It is my experience that people who are certain about what is in the Bible – and that it only means what they say it means– are usually people who focus on the parts that fit their needs or beliefs and then spout their selected parts to the exclusion of much of the rest.

You can see and hear this tactic with folks who like to tell us this or that is forbidden conduct, or this or that person is a sinner or this or that type of person is going to hell, in essence calling others profane or unclean. I am sure we have all encountered such Bible thumbing folks. I have yet to run into one who does not violate a myriad of Biblical prohibitions that they fail to mention . . . or try to find some way around. One example is Acts 10:28 where Christians are told that God has declared we are to call no one profane or unclean.

And I’m not against people relying on literalism or even just picking out what they like in the Bible if that helps them better experience God and their lives. What’s troubling is using the Bible to disrespect, denigrate or neglect others – especially in light of today’s scripture reading!

Many of the Christian voices in the media are quick to point out passages that aim at what they want to be considered sins by others, but rarely point out passages that require taking care of others, something they actually quite often take a stand against or remain silent on, and so they can be understood to greatly sin themselves.

Paul’s writings are among the Biblical sources used by these type of Christian voices, but again they are selective and ironically skip stuff he writes that conflicts with their views. A good example is today’s reading, it is usually not “remembered” by many Christians dialogues about what we need to do as church and as Christians.

Listen carefully again to what Paul writes in today’s Lectionary text from Philippians:

be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Paul is not telling a story, or a parable, there is no metaphor in his meaning. He literally means what’s written so it ironic when any Christian ignores it. ALL Christians are “in humility [to] regard others as better than ourselves.” By “others” Paul means everybody, not just those who agree with you; and not just Christians for that matter.

If we follow Paul’s instruction to the letter Christians are to consider as better than themselves those of other faiths or with no faith and with a form of Christianity we don’t agree with. And if should be obvious that this includes everyone else whether LGBTQ, rich, poor, disabled, young old, male, female, red, yellow, black or white they must all be precious in OUR sight. So precious, that according to the Bible, we in humility are to regard them as better than ourselves.

Paul does not mean we are to lack self esteem, he means we are to honor others. This includes, as Paul puts it, that we “look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.” The meaning is clear and concise and literal. We are in humility to regard others as better than us, and to look to their interests first. That may make us squirm, but that’s the Lectionary text’s meaning.

The squirmy part may be why we hear an awful lot of Christian rhetoric that contradicts the plain meaning of Paul’s clear instruction in the lesson today with Christians looking down their noses at non-Christians or Christians they disagree with, and many others that the culture makes “others” — all people that Paul plainly claims our interests are to come second to. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

As a Christian leader Paul ran into a lot of opposition. Indeed at the time he writes the letter to the Philippians he is in jail, imprisoned for his work on behalf of what we now call the early church. The people who opposed Paul in and outside the church took a position of being better than he. These are by the way, the same tactics used to oppose Jesus’ Way before, Paul, with Paul and continuing up to today.

Paul’s theological response to secular and religious opponents was basically the same Gandhi and Martin Luther King used; and the same taught earlier by Jesus. Paul, instead of proclaiming his betterment and his interests above others, puts everyone, including those who might be enemies above himself. And Paul– like Jesus– also calls us to do the same.

Paul points out in first known hymn of the church how Jesus and God did this. The hymn starts out:

[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.

Christ, God, in Jesus was incarnate on earth in a humble form. And while Jesus certainly challenged and argued with religious hypocrites and other elite oppressors he did not hold himself or his interests above them and others. Tellingly God –and Jesus– never acted revengeful toward them, but forgave them and we are told sacrificed life for a love that encompassed them and everyone else. That, my friends, is what God looks like in human form. The Christ in Jesus didn’t exploit God-ness, but is understood by Paul and the early church to have emptied self of all the powers in the universe except humility and love. And Jesus came in the form which earthly powers find the least powerful; at first as a baby in the Christmas story and later as a lowly homeless peasant man advocating love and non-violence; and finally as a convicted criminal sentenced to death and crucified for advocating love and non-violence.

I say love and non-violence because Jesus and God did not use destructive power of the universe in ministry nor to stop the crucifixion; but instead relied on love and humility. Paul wants to make it clear that Jesus held to the Heavenly Way even in the face of human power’s way. And holding to Heaven’s Way has a victory beyond human ways. Heaven’s way, Jesus’ Way is about providing that which is due (that’s the definition of justice) and what is due is well being for all (that’s the definition of peace) and we have to love to provide it because the definition of love is desiring the well being of others.

The hymn in our reading states the victorious consequences of Jesus’ Way of justice, peace and love . . . of Jesus’ humbleness and obedience. The consequences are that:

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.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Paul note that this early hymn claims that:

What we see in Jesus –Christ crucified and raised as “Jesus Christ the Lord”–is the way, the path. This[,] Paul says in the text[,] is the mind that the followers of Jesus are to have. What we see in Jesus is the way, the path, of personal transformation. And it is the way, the path, of advocacy of a way of life very different from and in opposition to normalcy of “this world.” 2

People have trouble believing that with all of the power in the universe backing him, that God incarnate as Christ in Jesus did not rely on that power to bring earthquakes, or storms or legions of angels or something violence down upon those who opposed God. People wanted, longed for a Messiah who would overwhelm evil with violent might. But that’s not what they got. And it is decidedly not what we’ve got– we have instead a Jesus of love and non-violence. Yet there are those who today claim Jesus is coming back to reign violent terror on those who don’t get on his side and that God brings violence in the form of earthquakes and hurricanes and such to hurt us because we don’t do what some religious folkl decide others must do.

And violence by God is one of the types of threats some Christians use to urge conversion right? Better believe as I do or God will expose you to the violence of torture in hell, you will be violently punished for the sin of not believing how I interpret the Bible.

While humans may want violence on their side, that’s not how God works, ever. Crossan has another book on Paul he wrote with Jonathan Reed. The book is called In Search of Paul and in it they observe that the hymn Paul puts it in the reading:

subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman empire took it for granted that somebody with the “form of God” should act. It probably does the same actually for most Christians today. 3

Our lesson from Paul is that God incarnate in Christ did not cause Jesus to hold himself above others, and we certainly cannot either. We hear in the New Testament again and again that we need to empty ourselves of “hierarchal distinctions.” 4 If Christians alone did this the world would be a different place. Instead of church voices in the media judging whether others are worthy of God’s and their love there would be church voices like Paul’s – and Jesus’ and God’s– calling out for honoring and respect of one another and others . . . ALL OTHERS.

And Imagine if the whole world heeded Paul’s advice in the reading. We’d have a world where all are honored, and respected, where well being for all is the aim. Why we’d have heaven on earth. There’s be justice and love. There’d be peace on earth good will to all. That’s Paul’s point. It’s Jesus’ Way. It’s God’s way. It’s what the Gospel is about. Imagine that.

In the words of Paul, may we all one day “in humility regard others as better than ourselves. [And] [l]et each of [of us] look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.”

AMEN

ENDNOTES
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2011
1. Modified version of joke taken from World’s Greatest Collection of Church Jokes, page 211.
2. Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The First Paul, p. 212-213
3. In Search of Paul, 289.
4 Ibid.
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