|5 Set your minds on what was also in Christ Jesus,
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, to want and to work for good will.
14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— 18 and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.
(The above is the NRSV translation with a few of my own modifications.)
The Christ Poem as the Template for Community Building
Regardless of what Paul’s purpose was when writing any of his letters, he always brought his arguments and focus to what was most important to him – namely, the upbuilding of the community. He stayed in touch with every church that he established, and the letters we possess are probably only a fraction of the correspondence that flowed between him and the churches where he had labored in person. The letter to the Philippians is no exception. At the heart of the letter is an exalted vision of what Christian community should be. But he does not resort to a social model or any marketing scheme. The vision for community he places fully and squarely in who Christ was and what Christ did.
Most scholars believe that Paul here quotes an early hymn of the church. Hence commentaries call this section of the letter the “Christ Hymn.” I prefer to disagree. I prefer to believe that these words are Paul’s own poetic expression of how he understood the person and activity of Jesus Christ. Hence I’m calling it “The Christ Poem.” It is one of the most remarkable passages in the entire New Testament and I cannot believe that something so profound already existed as a hymn which Paul then quoted here. Paul was the originator of the most concentrated and profound theological language in those first decades of Christian faith.
The poem is in five distinct sections:
So there is parallel and opposite movement:
What Paul seems to be saying is that though Christ existed as God [or equal to God], he was unknown. He became known only after his descent into the human realm and death, when God raised him again to divine glory. Paul here does not say anything about the cross being God’s saving instrument. The cross and death of Christ here serve the purpose of bringing about the exaltation of Christ and the worship by earthly and cosmic entities. This is the revelation of the “mystery from before all ages” that Paul refers to elsewhere in his letters. For example, Ephesians 3:8-11“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…”Note how in Ephesians too, the mystery hidden for ages is about Christ and it was hidden even to the heavenly powers. So in Philippians, the exaltation of Christ reveals the mystery to all earthly and heavenly beings who now bow in worship. Worship was impossible without the kenosis-incarnation-death-exaltation of Christ. A truly stunning message.
The Danish physicist Niels Bohr was asked how an electron could occupy several different states, assuming multiple positions or momentum or energy levels and still be considered a thing. How could it be both particle and wave? His answer: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” The same can be said about the mystery of the incarnation and exaltation of Christ, and so Paul resorts to poetic language.
In composing his Christ poem, Paul undoubtedly had the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah in mind, which represents the mysterious “servant” as both humiliated and exalted. Note also the appearance of the word “form” in the Isaiah passage as well.
Isaiah 52:13Behold, my servant shall prosper,
53:1 Who has believed what we have heard?
he was cut off out of the land of the living…
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
Paul now turns from the realm of Christ’s exaltation to the reality of Christian life on earth. The Christ Poem now becomes the template for Paul’s encouragement and exhortation of the Philippians.
Thomas makes a very strange request: He won’t believe unless he puts his hands in the print of the nails that crucified Christ. The strangeness of this request came to me when I returned a spoiled package of strawberries to Whole Foods yesterday. And right in front of me at the customer service was a lady who was returning two packages of the same Driscoll’s Organic Strawberries. We compared the clear visual signs on our strawberries of mold and spoilage. The lady at the customer service needed no visual proof. She promptly issued refunds to me and the lady. But Thomas needed visual and tangible proof.
It is a strange request because if you hear someone has risen from the dead, you’d be looking for a glorious apparition, some indication of divinity – you won’t be looking for a physical reminder, remnant, of the way the person died!
And yet there is something very profound in what Thomas wanted. He wasn’t looking for the transfigured Christ, who’d be shining with divine glory, who could walk through walls. No, he wanted to see the Christ who was familiar to him, the Christ who was his friend and teacher for a few years. For Thomas, the clearest proof of resurrection would be to see the familiar Christ with the marks of crucifixion still on his body – not erased by some divine transformation. And what if the marks of the nails were no longer on Christ’s body? What if they had been erased, healed, by divine power? Would Thomas still not believe when Christ appeared to him? Good question – and one that we can’t answer of course.
And of course this brings us smack into the heart of so much of the mystery of Christian faith. How can Jesus Christ be both God and man? How can God die? How can Christ be resurrected and still carry on his body the marks of the nails? Not only for Thomas’ sake, but perhaps for all eternity, even in the glory of the heavenly kingdom!
Mysteries, paradoxes – scientists and atheists like to accuse Christians of resorting to mystery talk when we can’t explain or can’t prove something. I don’t have an argument with atheists; I respect their choice. But I do have an argument with scientists. Scientists should remember their own penchant for paradox and mystery. The early decades of the 20th century saw the greatest revolutions in the history of science – the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity. The relativity theories of Einstein transformed our ideas of space and time and also, as a byproduct, gave us the equation that produced so much terror and beauty, E = mc2.
Quantum theory tells us that at the core of subatomic reality there is uncertainty. And quantum theory introduced the strange idea that the particles that make up everything can behave as particles and waves! Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, was asked how an electron could be both particle and wave. His answer: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Poetry is also the language the Bible uses to explain the inexplicable. And this is why scientists should be a little more careful about what they criticise and mock.
The physicist James Trefil tells us: Instead of thinking of electrons as microscopic spheres circling round the nucleus of an atom, we see them as probability waves sloshing around in their orbits like water in some kind of doughnut-shaped tidal pool governed by Schrödinger’s Equation.
Time-dependent Schrödinger equation (most general form of the equation)
This famous equation is at the heart of quantum theory and describes physical reality in terms of wave functions and probability. Together with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Schrödinger Equation reveals to us a world of paradox and uncertainty at the heart of all existence. Uncertainty, yet also a precision that is beyond anything humans an achieve: Stephen Hawking estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million million – catch that? – the universe would have re-collapsed and we wouldn’t be here today.
Poetry, paradox, at the heart of physics. If electrons can be both particles and waves, why can’t Jesus be both God and man? Why shouldn’t the marks of the nails be forever part of the resurrected, glorified Christ? The appearance of the risen Christ to Thomas is in a certain sense the Schrödinger Equation of the Christian faith.
The resurrection appearance to Thomas also tells us that God’s power is manifested not in spectacular demonstrations of divine power, but in weakness, in pain and in suffering – another paradox of faith, emphasised by Paul in his letters. In the resurrection appearance to Thomas, the reality of the resurrection is in the wounds that Christ bears. The divinity of Christ is demonstrated in the human wounds that he bears. He bears not only the wounds of the nails that crucified him, but he bears your wounds and my wounds, the wounds of all humanity.
Ανοίξω το στόμα μου και πληρωθήσεται πνεύματος, και λόγον ερεύξομαι…”I shall open my mouth and it will be filled with the spirit, and the word will flow forth”…says a well-known hymn of the Orthodox Church.
God asks every one of us to open our mouths to speak and let the Holy Spirit do the rest of the work. So I received an urgent call to speak this Holy Friday evening at the Epitaphios service (the Matins of Holy Saturday).
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” is how Proverbs 29:18 reads in the King James Version of the Bible. But modern translations are far less dramatic: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible) – more accurate perhaps but not as urgent, not as immediately meaningful.
This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the great Americans of the 20th century, a man who spoke of vision, who dreamed of liberation for his people. But on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, he has been domesticated. His radical message has been co-opted and softened by men who opposed him and the civil rights movement he led. He has been domesticated by statues and a national holiday. That is why Dorothy Day, another great American radical of the 20th century used to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
Χριστός ανέστη και ζωή πολιτεύεται is one of the acclamations in the homily of St. John Chrysostom that we will read tomorrow night at midnight at the Matins of Pascha. Christ is Risen, and Life reigns, Life governs!
Η ζωή εν τάφω, κατετέθης Χριστέ, καί Αγγέλων στρατιαί εξεπλήττοντο, συγκατάβασιν δοξάζουσαι τήν σήν. This was the first of the many verses that make up the so-called “Lamentations” which we sang tonight. The translation we sang is very poor: “In a grave they laid You, O my Life and my Christ, and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of Your submissive love.” It sings well, it fits very well the Greek melody, but the translation is poor.
Η ζωή εν τάφω – “The life in the grave.” There is no “my” in the Greek. It is an absolute, apocalyptic truth that is proclaimed. There is Life in the grave! There is life in the midst of a death culture. And we are surrounded by a culture of death: Death by guns, by drugs, by abortions, by terrorism and wars, by poverty. Politicians and economic systems celebrate the death of the environment and our home planet. Death dominates our movies, music, TV shows, social media. Even our everyday talk.
We are to be the life in this death culture! That is the message tonight. That is the message now! A vision of life that transcends the petty concerns and hatreds that this culture of death instills in us every day, every minute! The vision here tonight is life in the grave. Do not be deceived. The powers of this worldly system have already been defeated by Christ on the Cross – not at the Second Coming, but at the Cross! Saint Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Colossians: And you, who were dead in trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
On the Cross, Christ defeated the powers and principalities. But we are still under their spell, because we refuse to surrender to the message of life that comes from the grave of Christ. From the grave! It is from the grave that Christ communicates life to us. By sharing in our own deaths he communicates life. By descending into the death ruled by the powers and principalities, he shows us how to transcend and how to overcome the spiral of death that seeks to envelop us; not just physical death, but mental and spiritual and relational death! Life is the message tonight. Life and life only – as only a Jew could proclaim. So Jesus the Jew greets you tonight with life. L’chaim! Why not turn to someone near you, different from anyone you came with, and greet him or her with l’chaim.
Yesterday a funeral took place in Cambridge, England – the funeral of a great man, a man who was bound to almost complete immobility in a wheelchair and completely reliant on a voice synthesiser to communicate with the world. Yet, this man’s mind and spirit soared to the infinite reaches of the universe and filled our lives with wonder. You know I’m speaking of Stephen Hawking. His ashes will be buried in Westminster Abbey, near the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, two other men who transformed our vision of reality and the universe. Hawking’s ashes will be interred at Westminster Abbey later this year in a thanksgiving service.
A “thanksgiving service” – not a memorial, but a thanksgiving service. There is no greater memorial to a man or woman than to give thanks to God for his or her life. Perhaps we need to add thanksgiving to our own funeral and memorial services! Thanksgiving was also what was in the hearts and minds of the thousands of people who lined the streets outside the church in Cambridge and who broke into spontaneous applause when his coffin arrived and was carried into the church.
Applause, gratitude, thanksgiving. Essential qualities of life. It was the way Jesus was greeted when he entered Jerusalem seated on a donkey. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Stephen Hawking did not come in the name of the Lord – not in so many words, anyway. Yet, I believe he perhaps did more to make the Lord real in many people’s lives than most evangelists ever will. He certainly had that impact on me. Anyone who expands the horizons of our minds, who stretches our imagination and creativity is certainly someone who comes in the name of the Lord – regardless of whether he or she believes in Christ. That may sound controversial to some ears, but I can vouch from my own years in scientific research before studying theology. Anyone who takes us out of our petty, limited view of life is someone who comes in the name of the Lord.
Listen to Paul in today’s Epistle reading:
Brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… [make your every] prayer and supplication known to God with thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)
Thanksgiving should be part of our every prayer. Thanksgiving is the key to peace with God and with each other. It is at the heart of the Christian life. It eliminates conflict, pettiness, and all the little things that keep us apart. I know some people in our community whose every thought and every action is filled with thanksgiving. It should be true of all of us. Sincere, genuine thanksgiving, gratitude to God for everything and in everything, even in suffering. Are you confused sometimes? Are you depressed, prone to discouragement or unbelief? Pause to give thanks. Pause to give thanks for anything that comes into your mind. Give thanks for your parents. Give thanks for growing up during the depression or the second world war. Give thanks for your first TV set. Give thanks for your cat. Give thanks that you can still drive. If you are young, give thanks for your cell phone or your Facebook account, or for the new CD by the Japanese heavy-metal group Matenrou Opera!
Don’t try to give thanks for what you think God wants to hear. Don’t think too much. Just give thanks for anything that comes to your mind. Be spontaneous. This kind of thanksgiving is the most genuine. God already knows what you enjoy most about your life. But God wants to know, are you grateful for those things?
Finally, sisters and brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Ingratitude is one of the greatest sins and it blinds us to the goodness that is around us and in us. Even the “failing” New York Times had a wonderful editorial about gratitude on Friday – which was Good Friday for most Christians. Here is what the author wrote at one point: My guess is that if you think about people you know whose lives are characterised by gratitude, you’ll find them to be outward- rather than inward-looking, quick to be kind. They approach the world with delight, a certain enchantment and a light touch. They are not blind or indifferent to the hardships and pain surrounding them, but they are still able to find joy in the journey.
Can you find joy in the journey? Can you be grateful for whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, for anything that is excellent? Then you are on your way to living the life that God intends for you. You have found the key to happiness and the surest protection against bitterness and small-mindedness.
Blessed is he/she who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed are YOU who come in the name of the Lord today!
Yesterday, March 24th, the nation saw hundreds of thousands of young people rally against gun violence. The largest rally was in the nation’s capital, where perhaps as many as 800,000 turned out. I started watching just as Ryan Deitsch was addressing the rally in Washington. As I watched this young man, I said, I need to DVR this, this is sermon material. And it was sermon material. And it is my sermon today. I rewound the DVR several times to transcribe part of his statement: “I know a lot of people out there are saying we need to make America safe again, and I know that we can. We cannot make America safe again until we arm our teachers”- and here there was a brief moment of confused reaction from the crowd, which then turned to growing cheers as Ryan Deitsch continued – “We need to arm our teachers! We need to arm them with pencils, pen, paper, and the money they need to support their families and themselves before they can support the future in those classrooms, to support the future that sits down in those desks waiting to learn. And we need to arm our students too, we need to arm them with the facts and the knowledge and the education that they need to live in the real world, not just some fantasy.”
He raised his cell phone as if to tell the world, watch out, we are connected to each other and truth. Teenagers are masters of social media, and if social media can elect a president in 2016, social media can create a revolution. And teenagers can do it.
He concluded like this: “Thank you. And hello Uncle Miron.” Leave it to teenagers to be real, and they were all real. A young woman worked up so much emotion that she threw up! After she recovered and returned to the microphone, she laughed as she shouted, “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!” As I said, these young people were very real. She then led the huge crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to a young man who had been senselessly murdered in front of her at the Parkland high school. And she still had marks on her face from shrapnel at the high school shooting.
I admire every single young man and woman who spoke yesterday. Their eloquence and passion were beyond anything adults are capable of. And we had a large rally here in Portland, and in 800 other cities and towns. I hope some of these young people will go to Washington some day and really drain the swamp!
I watched a young man from Chicago, a survivor of violence in that great city. And he spoke with the fervor of a black preacher:
Violence cannot drive out violence. Only peace can do that.
Poverty cannot drive out poverty. Only resources can do that.
Death cannot drive out death. Only proactive life can do that.
Wow! And he went on to quote Ephesians and 1 Peter and called for loud responses from his listeners. For a moment those 800,000 youths were in church! A black church, to be sure.
The silence that Emma Gonzalez led in remembrance of the 6:20 time span during which the shooting rampage lasted at the Parkland high school was powerful, emotional and intense, prompting occasional outbursts from some of the young people present, probably to release the pent-up anger and grief. Moments like that are rare on television.
Speaking of television, two news channels covered the speeches by the young people without commercials. One other news channel preferred to show adults talking about the march. Perhaps they were concerned that the young speakers would say something that would offend the sensitive ears of their viewers. Most adults prefer to listen to adults instead of the young.
Many of us wonder why young people are leaving our church – our churches! Because churches also do not listen to youth. Yes, we enjoy their Sunday School and Greek School presentations. But then what? And I’m not asking what programs we have for them. The kids are a program to themselves! They’re not interested in what dances and entertainments we can organize for them. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Delaney Tarr put it, “We are not here for breadcrumbs, we are here to lead.”. That’s their message to the churches as well. Are we listening?
The Archdiocese organizes the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival every year – a well-meaning event and some of our young people have participated. But the topics are handed out from which young people are to choose – instead of letting them speak whatever they want to speak about. So the results are the same – young people parroting what old men speak and want to hear back. And I too am an old man now.
As the rally drew toward its close, Jennifer Hudson sang the great Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. Dylan wrote the song 55 years ago, but it is just as relevant today. Listen.
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
My generation, the 1960s generation, rebelled, but the rebellion quickly turned to drugs and abortions. Even Bob Dylan threw in the towel, and turned into something else…and something else again… and something else again…and something else again. See, my generation liked to reinvent itself every few years. It’s part of the self-realization nonsense that so many Baby Boomers bought into. Find your bliss, and all that. I hope and pray that the young people I watched yesterday will not need to reinvent themselves any time soon. They are already fully mature and they don’t need any adult to tell them how to make their message more effective, more balanced, more acceptable to the adults, to those 60s rebels, my age group, who are now the swamp. I have great hope for these young people as they become politicized. They could bring the change the world needs – if they resist the pull of the swamp. Because as David Hogg, one of the leaders of the rally, put it yesterday near the end, everyone can be corrupted. I pray that these kids will not be corrupted.
They are the generation that knows how to use technology and social media. This generation make up 25% of the population at present and will make up one third of US population in 2020. Washington better start paying attention to them. Will the church pay attention, or will we close our doors when our populations die out? Will the church be a place where young people can find spiritual support? Not advice, support! And if not, then the church should do what Bob Dylan sang:
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
27 Only, be worthy citizens of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or while absent I hear of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, as with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents, for to them it is a clear sign of their destruction, but of your salvation, and this from God. 29 For to you has been granted for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 as you experience the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
2:1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort of love, any fellowship in [community of] the Spirit, any heartfelt compassion and kindness, 2 make my joy complete in that you think the same, having the same love, being one in soul and thought. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves, 4 each of you not looking to your own interests, but [also] to the interests of others.
(The above is my own “literal” – but still readable – translation, made with reference to the most commonly used English translations. The commentary that follows below is my own, except for aid from my lexicon resources.)
The Phronema of Gospel Citizenship
It is perhaps the curse of Christianity that from the very beginning it was subject to divisions and conflicts. We live with those divisions today. Even the Philippian community, so unified, so free of the divisions that Paul encountered in Corinth and elsewhere, nevertheless had to deal with “opponents” who are not identified or named by Paul, though there are hints in chapter 3.
- Paul understood very well that he was writing to Greeks, and Greeks were always and still are very political. So he uses political language as he begins this paragraph. The paragraph in question (verses 27-30) is one sentence in the Greek; and the main verb in this sentence is πολιτεύεσθε. This verb comes from the noun πολίτης, citizen.
- The opening phrase is impressive, but it is inadequately translated in most English versions: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” in the NRSV is typical; or the NIV’s “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” English translations miss the political echo that is at the heart of this statement.
- The verb πολιτεύομαι is brilliantly defined in the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains: to conduct oneself with proper reference to one’s obligations in relationship to others, as part of some community — ‘to live, to conduct one’s life, to live in relation to others.’ By ignoring the political connotations of the verb, most English translations simply fall into the individualistic mindset of contemporary Christianity. Yes, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (NRSV), “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NIV); but always in relation to others in a community. Politics for the ancient Greeks was not a matter of political parties – though political parties come very easily to Greeks – it was a matter of civic responsibility and accountability. The King James Version is interesting: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” I assume the word “conversation” meant more in 1610 than it does today, but at least it captures a little of the Greek mindset, since Greeks like to talk – especially politics! (Even the Bible tells me so! Consider Acts 17:21. Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.)
- The translation adopted here is mainly due to my friend Mike in Scotland, who was the first to alert me to the possibility of using the word “citizen” in this passage. A “citizen of the gospel”: what a marvelous thing to be – although Mike’s version is more striking: “Only be good citizens of Messiah’s Joyful News.” And it means quite simply to inhabit the gospel (the Good News) fully, assuming all responsibilities – just as a citizen of a country assumes all the responsibilities of belonging to that nation. And of course citizenship always implies civic responsibility.
- If the Philippians are facing opponents, their unity in the πολίτευμα, politeuma, is their greatest strength – just as citizenship entails the protection of the nation. Paul returns to the theme of citizenship later in this epistle, in 3:20, where he writes “our citizenship (πολίτευμα) is in heaven.”
- Every year at the Easter midnight Liturgy we read the extraordinary Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. And I have always had trouble translating one phrase in that homily: Ἀνέστη Χριστός, καὶ ζωὴ πολιτεύεται. The usual translation, and the one that I also have adopted over the years, is: “Christ is Risen, and life reigns.” But Chrysostom uses the same verb πολιτεύομαι that Paul uses here in Philippians with very similar or identical meaning I would presume. The usual translation is okay, but what would be a better translation? The English language is very inadequate when it comes to translating the Greek genius of turning nouns into verbs – as here, where πολίτης → πολιτεύομαι.
- The Philippians’ citizenship in the gospel gives them the strength to strive for the gospel – just as the citizens of a nation fight to defend their country against enemies. But the Philippians don’t strive as soldiers; rather they strive as if they were one soul, μιᾷ ψυχῇ. And their striving will most likely result in suffering, just as Paul himself suffered. Will this suffering come from their “opponents” or from the Roman authorities? It really doesn’t matter, as long as the suffering comes from faith in Christ and “for the sake of Christ.” Again here we see Paul’s total identification not only with the gospel (the good news), but with Christ himself and his passion. And “passion” is a word that applies to Paul in all its meanings.
Paul smoothly transitions into preparing his readers for what is coming, the great Christ Hymn of verses 6-11. He piles on words and phrases that can only inspire and are the direct result of being “citizens of the Joyful News”. Shouldn’t this section describe the church in all its manifestations? Isn’t the church the community that is inhabited by “citizens” of the gospel (the good news, Joyful News)?
- He begins with what could easily be described as a catalogue of Christian virtues – and virtues that directly refer to Christ’s own “conversation” in life (to use the KJV word): παράκλησις (encouragement) ἐν Χριστῷ, παραμύθιον (comfort) ἀγάπης, κοινωνία (fellowship, communion) πνεύματος, σπλάγχνα (compassion), οἰκτιρμοί (kindness).
- Παράκλησις – paraklesis, encouragement – only has meaning for Paul when it is “in Christ”, ἐν Χριστῷ en Christō. It doesn’t come only from Christ himself; it comes from the mutuality of a community that is “in Christ”! Paul is not writing to individuals; he is writing to a community that are one spirit, one mind, one heart. That unity is the source of encouragement.
- Παραμύθιον ἀγάπης – the comfort of love, agape. Agape love for Paul was, of course, the height of the Christian lifestyle and attitude to life. See 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Reading this passage one can understand how Paul here in Philippians connects comfort, paramythion, with love, agape – the comfort is the comfort that love provides. But agape is not only the love between humans; it is also human love for God; and it is the love of God for human beings. And it is the love that binds the Trinity. How often in the Gospels – especially at the Baptism and Transfiguration – God the Father proclaims “this is my beloved son” – ἀγαπητός, agapetos.
- In one particularly arresting passage, Paul writes: ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ (Colossians 1:13 – which leads to another Christ Hymn similar to the one here in Philippians 2:6-11). So here in Colossians Christ is not the more conventional “beloved son” but “the son of his love”! Only Paul could write such a phrase. It is also important to note that in the Colossians passage, it is again the idea of a citizenship that is clearly implied: God has taken us from citizenship in the powers of darkness to citizenship in the kingdom of the son of his love! Again here most English translations take the easy way out by translating “his beloved Son” instead of the literal “the son of his love”; the KJV says “the kingdom of his dear Son” – Ugh! The NIV’s “the Son he loves” is not better. There is something more organic, more from the guts of God, to call Jesus “the son of his love”. Just as a human child is the result of the love of two people, so also the eternal Son of God is the eternal result of God’s love. Paul brings us much closer to the inner life of the Trinity with such a phrase than all the fancy words of the Nicene Creed ever could. This is the problem with our theology: it took biblical language and imagery and turned it into Greek philosophical terminology, a development which itself contributed hugely to the breakdown of Christian unity!
- Κοινωνία – communion/fellowship, koinonia – is the unique gift of the Spirit, πνεύματος. As in 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul wrote: Thegrace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
- Σπλάγχνα, splaghna, is coupled with οἰκτιρμοί, oiktirmoi, by the conjunction καὶ. The conjunction καὶ does not bring a list to an end. It joins σπλάγχνα and οἰκτιρμοί as a couplet that conveys deepfelt compassion. Note how Paul combines the same words in Colossians 3:12, ἐνδύσασθαι σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ – “put on heartfelt compassion.” This is compassion that is moved from the depths of one’s being, from the σπλάγχνα. Paul does not stay at the level of nice talk, he goes for maximum impact.
- The catalogue of virtues in verse 1 leads Paul to begin the transition to the Christ hymn, primarily through use of the verb φρονέω, phroneō. Encouragement, comfort, fellowship and compassion – yes, all these, but Paul’s joy will only be complete if on top of these they share the same love and vision.
- Paul uses the verb φρονέω twice in verse 2 and then climactically in verse 5 where it enables him to lead straight into the Christ hymn. φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220) By the time Paul was writing, the verb usually carried the meaning of setting one’s mind on something and developing an attitude, a disposition, after careful thought.
- Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.
- So in Romans 8, that simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. When we come to Philippians 2:5 – Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ – Paul is basically saying, be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls short, as translations usually do. But to be fair to the various translations, they do try to express the Greek without resorting to long, convoluted sentences. Every translation makes compromises in order to be readable. It’s usually a trade-off. And I’ve done my own trade-offs in my translations here.
- Paul uses the verb φρονέω ten times in this letter to the Philippians, which is more than he uses it even in the much longer epistle to the Romans (9 times in that letter)! In all the remaining epistles of Paul, the verb occurs only 4 times in all. Clearly, Philippians and Romans were very much epistles of phronema! (Don’t ask me to explain what I meant by that last statement.)
- Verses 3 and 4 build on the phronema and lead directly to the Christ hymn. In the first part of this letter (what we call chapter 1) Paul acknowledged and thanked the Philippians for their support and their work with him in upholding and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, in what we call chapter 2, he is addressing their personal and communal life principles, and he uses the verb φρονέω in order to emphasise that citizenship in the gospel of Christ is not just about promoting a message of salvation, but about living in that message of salvation, living in accordance with how Christ lived. He will explicitly make that point in the next, all-important section of this wonderful letter to a wonderful community of Christ followers.
“I believe; help my unbelief!” – those memorable words of the father in today’s Gospel reading. Every single one of us here today is a believer and an unbeliever at the same time. We believe, we are drawn to this amazing person Jesus Christ, we have a vague idea of God, some sense of how we are to live in the world – but we can’t put it together and keep it together. So when tragedy strikes, when we find ourselves in a mess either of our own making or someone else’s, we fall apart.
I found a tremendous quote the other day:
Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ. ~ Sheldon Vanauken
That’s where much of our unbelief comes from – our keeping God at a distance, now and then coming to him when it’s convenient, when we have nothing else to do, or when hard times hit. We, like Sheldon Vanauken, want holidays (that’s British talk for what Americans call vacation) from the school of Christ – for many of us, LONG holidays! But I like the way Vanauken puts it – “the school of Christ.” It is indeed a school. Jesus Christ teaches us how to live – how to live fully, how to live in touch with our inner selves and with the people and the natural world around us.
In the walk to Emmaus, Jesus taught the two disciples in the way that only he could. He opened their minds while they walked and he opened their eyes and hearts when he broke bread with them. And that’s how he teaches us too.
He teaches us while we are walking. There’s not much Jesus can do if we refuse to budge, if we refuse to walk with him. Walking is the best way to experience and enjoy nature, the world around us. Can you drive through the Old Port for years and think you know it. Then one day you decide to park the car at a distance and walk. And you see the Old Port like you never saw it before; you discover it for the first time. Walking is also the way to grow with Christ.
The disciples talked while they walked, before and after Jesus joined them. Talk – we’re forgetting how to talk. This past week we lost one of the great human beings of our time – or of any time, a man who inspired many and who taught us to look with awe at the immensity of the universe. Stephen Hawking did not believe in God, he was an atheist. Can I blame him, the way God has been represented by Christians?
Stephen Hawking was confined to a wheelchair and lost most of his motor abilities, including his ability to speak. He had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
The greatest genius since Einstein urged us to talk, to keep talking, not to forget how to talk, and to communicate without resorting to our prejudices and narrow-mindedness. We talk in order to learn and to grow in our faith. We talk in order to work through our confusion, just like the disciples did on the road with Jesus. And every time we are honestly working through difficulties of thought and faith, Jesus will be there. But if you think you have it all worked out, he has other people to attend to.
Finally, we must not stop breaking bread with each other. These are the three main messages from this story of the walk to Emmaus, the three essentials to grow in the faith: walking, talking and breaking bread. The fellowship we experience here at Liturgy when we share communion with each other should inspire us to sit down more often – not just with family, but with friends and strangers. Outreach and Fellowship are at the heart of the Christian message – and the Christian lifestyle. At Easter midnight we leave the Liturgy – well, most leave before Liturgy – and carry the paschal light to our homes. Our candles illumine the dark of night as we drive or walk home. But far more important, our lives should illumine the darkness that’s growing in the world; not add to the spiritual, environmental and political darkness that threaten our lives and the lives of our children. We are to be lights in the world, not contribute to the darkness.
Let’s walk and talk our way to a better world, a more Jesus-centered world. And let’s encourage our children and teenagers to spend less time texting and more time talking, face to face. It’s good practice for when we see God face to face, and we sit down and break bread with Jesus in the Kingdom!