May 7th, 2018

Noblesse Oblige

There is no greater example of undeserved privilege than that of a Christian.

Philippians 1:27-30



“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” What does it mean to you that you are a citizen of the United States?

The website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says, “Citizenship is the common thread that connects all Americans. We are a nation bound not by race or religion, but by the shared values of freedom, liberty, and equality.” The page also includes a list of citizen rights (including the freedom to express yourself, to worship as you wish, to have a jury trial, to run for elected office) and responsibilities (defend the constitution, vote, obey the laws, respect others’ rights).

Rich and Dayna Carney are among many at Corinth who have served our country in the Armed Forces. By “they” I mean that Rich officially had the job in the Army, but the commitment was a full partnership. When we met last fall to get acquainted, Rich said Dayna “knocked it out of the ball park as a military wife.”

Their service to the country included extended stays in Germany and the Netherlands. I was curious what the Army tells its soldiers and their families about their identity as citizens while living and working in a foreign country. I was not surprised to learn that the Army requires “newcomer training” when personnel are deployed overseas. The training includes live instruction as well as access to extensive publications and web sites. Some of the information is practical – language, culture, housing, schooling, and so on – but a key emphasis is remembering that you convey to the people of that country an impression of the United States. Dayna said, “The last thing they tell you is to avoid getting stereotyped as the ‘ugly American.’”

The first century city of Philippi was a Roman colony, made up primarily of retired Roman soldiers, but it was located geographically in Greece. Citizenship in Greece and Rome had similarities, but also differences. The Greek idea of citizenship originated in Athens and it had more to do with the city where you lived. The Greek word for city is polis, from which we get politics, police, polite, policy, polity. Greek citizenship was about identity in the city where you live. I’m a “city-zen” of Athens, of Sparta, of Moscow, of New York, of Charlotte, of Hickory.

Roman citizenship had more to do with rights that traveled with you across the empire. Thus the Apostle Paul could demand his right not to be flogged because he was a citizen. Citizens could demand protection, buy and sell property, enter into legal contracts, and so on. The Romans definitely believed they had improved on the idea of citizenship from what they had inherited from the Greeks. The Philippians might say to each other, “Don’t think of your Philippian rights. Think of your Roman responsibilities.”

Typical of the Apostle Paul’s writing style, Philippians 1:27-30 form one long run-on sentence in the Greek language. The main verb in this sentence is a verb that has no parallel in English. It’s the verb form of the word “citizen.” Forty years ago, William Safire coined the term “fumblerules” to describe self-contradicting grammatical rules such as “Don’t use no double negatives” and “Never use a big word when a diminutive one will do.” One of his rules was, “Don’t verb nouns.” Since there is no verb for “citizen” in English, we’re going to have to verb the noun: “Citizen yourselves worthily.”

How does one “citizen worthily of the Gospel”? In order to grasp what Paul is saying, we have to verb two other nouns. We citizen worthily when we military strong and athlete together.

Military strong

If all we had were the first 26 verses, we would call Philippians a “friendship letter.” Paul introduces himself not as an apostle, but as a slave of Jesus Christ. In other words, instead of starting out higher than they, he starts lower.

He thanks God for them. He prays for them. He updates them on his personal situation. Yes, he’s in prison, but for the right reason – for preaching the gospel – and he’s okay. He’s not only surviving, but spiritually he’s thriving. The gospel is actually advancing because he’s in prison – not in spite of it. More people are preaching. Some do so out of love for him, and some out of envy. “So what?” he asks. “Christ is preached.”

That’s one cause for joy in prison. The other is that he is confident that Christ will be exalted whether his imprisonment ends in vindication by a Roman court (in which case he will be free to travel and preach again) or vindication by God (if he is tried and executed). “For me to be living, Christ; to die, gain.” The first 26 verses, then, are filled with first personal pronouns – I, we, my, mine. When Paul talks about the Philippians in the first 26 verses, it’s about his relationship to the Philippians.

In verse 27, having re-established his friendship with them, Philippians becomes an “exhortation letter.” “Now that I’ve told you about me, I will tell you what to do.” To be sure, it is still the exhortation of a friend, but he’s definitely instructing them.

“Whatever happens,”[1] he says, referring back to the possibility he might be freed or might be executed, “citizen worthily of the Gospel of Christ.”

Paul reminds them that what he’s about to say should be true “whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence” (27). They’re to think of him as an officer who may or may not inspect the barracks, or a teacher who slips out of the classroom during an examination, or a federal inspector who has the right to show up unannounced. Do the right thing whether or not you are under scrutiny.

And what are they to do whether or not he is with them? First, he wants them to be found “standing firm in one Spirit” (27). “Stand firm” is a military term. Hold your ground. Stand erect in the face of the enemy. Don’t turn, don’t run, don’t flinch. Persevere. Cowardly behavior is unworthy of a citizen of the Gospel kingdom.

Commentators differ whether “Spirit” should be capitalized.[2] Is this a preview of the unity theme, referring to common purpose? Or is he saying that the “One (Holy) Spirit” will help you remain steadfast? It’s not important enough to get hung up here. Most of the rest of the sentence explains what it means to military strong in the Spirit.

The Philippians are not to be “frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (28). We wish we knew more about this opposition than we do. We know this church had its start when Paul first came to Philippi and roused a mob by casting out an evil spirit from a fortune-telling slave girl who was mimicking and taunting him. When her owners realized they could no longer use this girl to make money, they had Paul and Silas dragged into the agora (marketplace), falsely accused, then stripped, flogged, and jailed. Paul and Silas were freed from jail by an earthquake (no accompanying volcano, as far as we know[3]), but promptly evicted from the city. The little community of believers left behind faced opposition from the start.

Next, Paul reminds his readers, “They (those who oppose you) will be destroyed, but you will be saved – and that by God.” Remember, he already set them up for this earlier in the letter by giving his own testimony of trusting God whether he lives or dies. Now he reminds the Philippians – you will be saved even if you die.

What Paul says in verse 29 is shocking. Believers know it is a privilege to be “in” because of Christ. When we believe, we know it’s by grace and we know that even our faith is something only God can work (Ephesians 2:9). We don’t usually think of our suffering as a gift of God’s grace. “You have been granted (or gifted) by Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (29).

This is such a consistent New Testament theme and so hard to remember. Early in his ministry, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:11). The night before his death, Jesus said to his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). In Acts 5:41, the apostles “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” James says it this way:  “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!” (James 1:2, Phillips). We military strong when we embrace our suffering as a gift from God.

Paul closes by connecting perseverance to the first part of the chapter:  “You are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have” (30). Paul’s comments about being in prison, about rejoicing even when people are deliberately trying to hurt him by preaching from selfish motives, about being torn between the desire to live or die because either one is a great choice, all his testimony was a setup for his exhortation to military strong.

Athlete together

The second way to live worthily of the Gospel is to athlete together. Once again, we have to read through the lines. We don’t know the details, but we know there was a problem. More accurately, we know there were problems. Paul loved the Christians in Philippi, but they didn’t all love each other.

You’ve had that experience, right? I love Mom and I love Dad, so why are they getting a divorce? I get along fabulously with my boss and my coworker, so why do they hate each other’s guts? When your children get into spats – often when they’re young but sometimes when they’re adults – you as a parent have a hard time understanding because you love them both, or all. Why do those I love not love each other?

Paul will later in this letter imply that the Philippians are acting out of selfish ambition and vain conceit (2:3). They look out only for their own interests and not those of their fellow believers (2:4). Grumbling and arguing are common in this church (2:14). Two women in particular can’t find common ground (4:2).

Unity is a theme he will develop thoroughly in next week’s passage, but for now he connects it to the citizenship theme in 1:27. You citizen worthily when you military strong and when you athlete together.

The root word of “striving together” in verse 27 is the Greek athleo, from which we get “athlete.” Most of us have not served in the military, but almost all of us have played a team sport.

This was another difference between Greek culture and Roman culture. For Greeks, athletic competition was entirely individual. There were no team sports in the ancient Olympic games. Greeks wanted to stand out individually. Think Hercules, Achilles, Aphrodite, and Venus. We think of individual heroes when we think of Greeks.

Romans invented team sports – relays and chariot races, even gladiator contests that required men to partner in the arena to survive against other men or against wild beasts. Paul draws on this analogy for Philippian Christians. When you buy into the Gospel, you don’t embrace a solo venture. It’s not about you being a stronger believer or better ambassador than other Christians. You form a team, and the team has to think together, honor the other members, work cooperatively.

I was a freshman at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia, in the fall of 1971. My brother Jim was a senior and remembers that year vividly. Wilson was poised to make a run at the 1971 state championship in football. In the semi-finals we met a team from northern Virginia named T. C. Williams. No one had heard of them, because they were a new school. Jim remembers laughing at Williams during the game warm-ups, because they kept fumbling the football. They didn’t even huddle properly on the first play from scrimmage.

What happened early in the game was a ploy designed to increase our false confidence. T. C. Williams almost ran the kickoff back for a touchdown. When the ball changed hands, they swapped out the entire team, while half our starters played both ways. They recovered four fumbles and knocked our star wide receiver, Robert “Baby” Powell, out of the game. T. C. Williams won 36-14, but it was actually worse than that. They dominated the entire game. Even so, we were the only team that even scored against them in the playoffs, which means we probably were the second best team in the state.[4]

You’ve probably heard of T. C. Williams, but may not remember the story until I tell you that their 1971 season was made famous by Denzel Washington in the 2000 motion picture, “Remember the Titans.”  The new school had been formed by a forced merger of black and white schools. Only 11th and 12th graders attended T. C. Williams, a total of 2000 students – more than our grades 9-12 combined. A number of pieces had to fall into place for them to be successful – a school district determined to move forward into a post-segregated world, two head coaches (one black and one white) who had to learn to lead together, a training camp held at Gettysburg, PA, and, most importantly, high school students who had to allow their world view to become unraveled and then reconstructed. They had to athlete together to beat Woodrow Wilson and twelve other teams to go undefeated. That’s what Paul is talking about.


Noblesse Oblige

The sermon title, noblesse oblige, is a French phrase that has made its way into English. Literally translated, “nobility obligates,” it means that those who are born into privilege or even attain it on their own then have obligations. They are role models, whether they asked to be or not. They have a moral duty to be generous, providing opportunity to those who do not share their advantage.

There is no greater example of privilege than that of a Christian. In spite of my undeserving, God has given me the great riches of Christ Jesus. I am not only nobility; I am family to the King of Kings, adopted into eternal sonship.

Noblesse oblige, Paul says. Citizen worthily. So what are the practical points to take home today?

First, know who your enemies are and aren’t. The Philippians were in danger of retreating before their true enemies, while fighting their allies. Our enemies are enemies of the Gospel, not other Christians who disagree about politics or worship style or denominations. Someone who visited Corinth last Sunday for the first time told me by email that his family is new to the area and will be visiting several churches. I responded, “Good, let me help you. Here’s a web site that lists 150 local churches. I know many of those pastors. If you let me know what kind of church you’re looking for I can suggest some options for you.”

Our allies are those who embrace and preach Christ, and he apparently allows a wide swath of believers to name him and spread his word. To be sure, there are spiritual enemies who only pretend to name Christ, and Paul will come to them in chapter 3 and even more strongly in his letter to the Galatians.

Finally, don’t be an ugly Christian. One of the main reasons non-Christians find our message not credible is our lack of consistency. We say we believe in loving God and loving each other, but when the world sees division and even hatred among us, condescension and judgmentalism, endless separation over whatever, and a lack of moral values and truth, they turn away from our God. No, we’re not perfect, and that’s also hard to convey. But we can never give up striving for greater holiness and unity.

Why? Noblesse oblige. Amen.


[1] Greek “only.”

[2] The argument in favor of “one spirit” (a common purpose) is the parallel with “one mind” (or “soul”) that follows.  However, Philippians 2:1, Ephesians 2:18; 4:14, and 1 Corinthians 2:13 show that Paul more often refers to the Holy Spirit when he speaks of “one Spirit.”

[3] The Big Island of Hawai’i experienced earthquakes accompanied by volcanic eruptions May 4-5, 2018.

[4] The story comes from my brother Jim’s memory and this web site.

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