I will always remember that phone conversation. My dad told me he had terminal pancreatic cancer. I knew he had been tired and low on energy; we now understood this was a bigger issue. As we faced his death together I simply told him, "you know I love you and I believe when you die you will be with God." Harsh Reality makes us see what we believe. I think this is what makes Paul's letter to the Philippians so interesting and significant. Paul is imprisoned, probably knowing his future is bleak by human standards. Facing that threat on his life, he is now sharing his beliefs-- not the empty posturing of a safe and secure person nattering about his nominal faith, but the actual confession of a man who is going into the depths of his being to share what is there.
Paul holds back none his raw human emotion. His passion for God and the people of God in that church in Phillipi pour out. It is tempting to think that Christian love is an emotionless business--like simply doing good, but Paul shares with us that there are strong human connections here. However, the aim is not mutual love alone, it is a love which turns the beloved to Christ. Paul desires that they become more and more knowledgeable and loving of Christ. Paul's other concern is that Jesus be glorified. He writes about that desire--admitting that he would prefer to die to be with Jesus, but duty bound to remain alive to serve the church. Some people say that God does not need us---Paul seems to think that we have an important part to play in salvation. In this real creation, God needs human servants to do the work. Selfless love seeks to serve.
Chapter 2 contains an early hymn about Jesus. It is easy to forget that those middle eastern people living in the first century were just as real as we are. They sang songs. Their hymns were an expression of their faith, and Paul says the hymn is also a measure by which to live one's life. "Be like Jesus..." he says. Selflessness (expressed in a variety of descriptors) is Christological! The ancient Jews had concepts (from Scripture) which anticipate the belief in the Incarnation. The "word" comes to prophets, "Wisdom" is personalized, "Torah" is too. The "shekinah/glory" of God the "Name" of God also seem to have a personalized existence. In each case, these participate in God--they are manifestations of God (His word. His glory, etc) which share in His identity. The belief that Jesus (the Man) participated in God's inner life (the Divine) prior to becoming a human is expressed in the hymn as emptying (Greek word is kenosis). The concept of the self emptying God is vital for understanding all of His relationships with us (including creation, providence, redemption). God cannot come to us (recall the recent posts on a sacramental worldview) in His Fullness. It must always be limited by our capacity for reception. "God become Man" means God emptying Himself of His full divinity (whatever that means) through some inner "function" of Himself (Word, Glory, Son; whatever that means) and entering time and space with all its limitations (whatever that means). Love is self-gift. Love is an "I am here for you whatever the cost to me." Love is of God. He shows us first what that means. The limits of human language and human concepts cannot contain or convey this mystery---they can only point in its direction. In seeing the "Divine" empty and embrace the lowliness of human nature, and then empty more into sacrificial death on the cross; Paul implies that we see the template of true human (i.e. Christian life) existence. It is basically what Jesus says ("the one who loses His life for Me and the Gospel will find it" or "pick up your cross and follow me" or "forsake everything and follow me"--all of these are symbolic/literal death). However, the cross is not the last word; resurrection, ascension and enthronement in heaven (God highly exalted Him) are the Ultimate Goal of all God's redemptive work. Jesus is Lord and that gives glory to God the Father. Our connection to Jesus is our pathway to God. There is "no place" where God is without Jesus. They are one...
Paul then turns back to the life of faith--"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"--in language which reminds us that dying to self is a challenging and painful process. Our environment (the "world" in the fallen sense) is dark and corrupt, but we are to "shine like stars." Once again we hear the words of Jesus ("you are the light of the world" "Let your deeds shine before men so that they give glory to God"). If He lives in us then He is manifest in us and we are christopheros phospheros-- Christ bearer and Light bearer. The chapter ends with a touching tribute to Timothy and Epaphroditu; these two men are dear companions of Paul, Timothy is like a son to him. Another reminder that passionate human relationships are part and parcel of the divine economy and the community of faith!
In chapter 3 Paul strongly condemns the practice (a good case can be made it is against Gentile Christians who seek to make Jews of the Gentile converts to Christ). Perhaps these people said circumcision is needed to be a real Christian. Paul lays out his credentials as "a real Jew" but also makes clear that Jesus fulfills the righteousness found in Torah. As I recently read, Torah points to Jesus, the job of Torah is to prepare for Jesus--now that Jesus is here, He is the one who matters. Jesus is the center, not the Torah (and not the Bible, church and sacraments in our time!). All is well if things are in proper places and correct relationship!
So lets go, Paul seems to be saying. Stay the course! Press on to Jesus! Daily life is mundane and repetitive. It is hard to see and feel the sublime overarching purposes of God as we dally with our daily toils. The earthly life can seduce us and we can limit the scope of our imagination to only what is here and now; lacking depth of insight into the deeper and higher meaning of things. God is hidden by the veil of creation, and sometimes we fall in love with the veil. Creation is a window of God but sometimes we do not look past the glass to what is beyond.
Chapter 4 has a rapid fire character. "I love you so stand firm!" ( a chilling reminder that firmness and standing take effort; the world, flesh and devil are aligned against us!). A prayer for two women who have had a rift? Each is faithful and treasured by Paul, but they have problems with each other... Church people have conflicts, even in Bible days! Jesus does not reign yet so we still struggle.
Then a "favorite verse" candidate for many of us: "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!" Remember, he is in prison. Remember, this is not happy clappy emotions, this is the fruit of trust and hope and love! Joy is a theological gift. Loving God more than loving myself (self emptying) means the freedom from circumstances and the openness to that Joy! Circumstances cannot dictate joy (though they affect happiness and moods). Paul says--focus on the most important things. Paul says--the secret is to accept where you are, whether it is in abundance or lack--because where ever you are it is in Jesus' Heart! He concludes with some prayers, one is vital: God provides all our needs. (not our wants but needs). Providence. God cares. Providence. We can trust. Providence. A declaration of faith by a man in prison facing death. A man whose outward circumstances are most unpleasant. A man whose inner life, in Jesus, experiences life a joy-giving grace.