At one time, I was so excited about the title of John Wesley’s sermon that we are using as inspiration for our worship today. We’ve even used it as a sub title for our series – “The Great Privilege of Those Who Are Born of God.” I was moved by this idea that we have this great privilege of representing God and the values of Christ in the world. It is a privilege, which I defined as a blessing, an honor, an opportunity that is not forced but one in which we can freely engage. That’s the lens through which I defined “privilege.” Then I got some push back. It seems that others – especially some who are younger than me – hear this word through a very different lens. They hear the word “privilege” and think of entitlement, unfair advantage, benefit.
Here’s the first definition on Google: Privilege is “immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” So you might think of “white privilege,” or “male privilege.” The privileged are those who have power simply by virtue of their gender or race or wealth. And privileged people, in this sense, can spend a lot of energy protecting their place (and the status quo), while others have to fight and protest or go the extra mile in order for their voice to be heard or to be treated fairly or to have a place at the table.
I’m currently watching the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” in part because so many of our youth and their parents are talking about this series. The plot revolves around a teenage girl who commits suicide and the 13 reasons, or people, that lead to this. In this series, we certainly see that some of these youth think that they are “privileged” and thus immune to consequences because of their gender and wealth, and we see the great harm that can come for this privilege.
So we have two definitions of privilege – one that sees it as a blessing and honor and another that sees it as an entitlement or unfair advantage. I began to wonder what Wesley would have meant by this word. He would have defined it very differently from either of these options. He used this word in its literal sense. The word “privilege” has its origins in Latin. The first part “priv” means private or personal. For the second part “lege” we can think legal or legislate, law or rule. A privilege is a “personal rule of life.” A privilege is an “internal compass” or “guide,” to lead us through our lives. Our privilege as followers of Jesus is to have the values and virtues of God planted here (heart) and to let them guide us.
In our first lesson this morning, we heard of how Jesus was helping his disciples deal with his leaving this world. In the midst of his counsel, Jesus made a promise. He said, “I will not leave you as orphaned; I am coming to you.” God will send you an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will continue to teach you and guide you into life.”
Jesus is saying that disciples are privileged in the sense of being given a personal guide. The Holy Spirit here is called an “Advocate” or “Counselor,” depending on your translation. It is an important descriptive word. (The Greek word is “paraklete,” which literally means “called to walk alongside” -- para – alongside, klete – called). You’ve heard the term “Emmanuel.” We use it at Christmas a lot. It means “God with us.” With the term “Advocate” or “Counselor” we see another dimension of God’s love. The Advocate is “God FOR us.” God is not just with you; God is for you, working for your growth and salvation. The Holy Spirit is on your side – literally, standing at your side. That’s what the “advocate” or “counselor” does.
This advocate or counselor, the Holy Spirit, also brings expectations. The Holy Spirit – as advocate, as counselor, as coach – helps us envision the possibilities before us and encourages us along the way. The Holy Spirit sets before us the heights and depths of God’s love and invites us to grow in this love. As followers of Christ, the expectations upon us are high. We are expected, for example, to practice the virtues of compassion, respect, and hospitality. (That’s in our “Love Grows Here” statement). We are expected to bear the fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-Control. We are expected to live by the opposite of “privileged” in the negative sense of the word. The personal rule within us from Christ calls us to be among those who step back sometimes so that other voices can be heard, or to be those who make room for others at the table, and sometimes even give up our spot. That’s the privilege of those who know, deep within, that they are beloved children of God.
This is a big reason why we come together as the church. We come together to cultivate this personal rule, and to let this presence (in here) guide us into the heights and depth of God’s love. We come together to open our hearts to the work of this personal guide that God gives to each of us so that we might be able to see all that God calls us to be. We come together to encourage one another along this journey. This is the great privilege of those who are born of God, of all whose spiritual senses have been awakened to new life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (See below for more possibilities).
To our graduates, I hope that we have helped to cultivate this privilege within you. As you go into a new phase of your life, I invite you, and encourage you, to stay true to this great privilege of living and growing as a child of God. In this journey, wherever it might lead, know this -- God is there FOR you. You are not alone. And I might add, you have a church family who wants to continue to be there for you as well. Go forth with our love for you firmly planted in your heart, and may this love be a part of your personal rule for living. Amen.
Additional Notes: Being born from above, born into new life in Christ, implies that an inward change has taken place here (heart). We can compare it to a child being born. Before a child is born, the child has ears but hears little, eyes but sees nothing, surrounded by darkness. But as soon as the child is born into the world, everything changes. The child’s senses are awakened. And that’s an analogy of what happens to us spiritually. And as we grow in our relationship with God, our spiritual eyes and ears are opened. We sense God’s presence and know God’s love. We have the great privilege of living and growing as children of God.
And this is a privilege in the sense that it is not an external demand upon us. It is not forced in any way. God breathes inspiration and guidance and encouragement into us and we are invited to breathe back devotion and resolve and growth. That’s the way this relationship works. If we don’t respond, if our love grows cold, if we stray, what does God do? (And this is good news). God continues to respond according to God’s own privilege or personal rule. God responds with patient and steadfast love. Our great privilege is knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Even though God will let us stray and even let us fall back into darkness for a season, God will also always be there to gently lead us back home.