Penitential Wisdom

Introduction
Perhaps the above title jars? In a way I hope that it does, as when we find something odd or ill-fitting it can be the start of learning something new. Of course, it might just be a fleeting move away from, and the, back towards the status quo of our understanding.

This short post arose from simultaneously questioning the very idea that biblical wisdom literature is a genuine genre and some extensive of the penitential psalms. So, where do we begin?

The Puzzle of the Penitential Psalms
The seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—are something of a puzzle to us today, when judged by modern genre definitions. Harry Nasuti has explored this collision of old categories with modern genres in his Defining the Sacred Songs, with helpful attention to the details of interpretative practice that span more than two millennia [1]. One insight he has is that the ancient seven psalms are more coherently defined by external factors than their content.

It is evident that the seven psalms are not of one genre in the modern sense. Two of them—Psalms 51 and 130—might be ‘penitential’ in the strictest sense if we consider a single-minded focus on asking for forgiveness from sin. In this manner Psalm 51, as is often recognised, becomes the penitential psalm par excellence [2]. Psalms 6, 38, 102 and 143 are understood today as individual laments, with other influences in some cases. Some might allow that they contain varying degrees of evidence that the psalmist is penitent. Uniquely, Psalm 32 arguably looks back on past penitence. The biggest problem for modern penitential genre is that in these psalms, the psalmist’s enemies often appear on the scene, muddying any singular concern with penitence.

This presence of enemies is just the most obvious challenge. A less stark issue, but a complexity none the less, is the difficulty in distinguishing between the psalmist’s spiritual and physical afflictions. This might be compounded by the potential for anachronism in wanting to differentiate angst from illness, based on modern distinctions. It is further obscured by what seems to be the deliberate attempt by the psalm collectors and editors to make the psalms malleable for later singers, readers, and poets to inhabit.

Luther is one interpreter who sees all afflictions, whether spiritual, health-related or enemies, as a reminder of the need for an attitude of penitence and as an opportunity for being trained in righteousness [3]. Luther’s acute interest in these psalms coheres with his profound fear of God, or anfechtungen, and a connection between Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the seven penitential psalms.

The connection between Romans and the seven psalms is essentially a reading of these psalms from the perspective of an aspect of Pauline theology. Romans has sometimes been noted as something of a locus maximus for God’s wrath in the Second Testament. Psalms 6, 38 and 102 all refer to God’s wrath explicitly:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
Psalm 6:1, NIV

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Psalm 38:1–2, NIV

For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NIV

The other four penitential psalms are all quoted or alluded to in Chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A case could be made that Saint Paul created the tradition that gave rise to the crystallisation of these seven psalms as penitential. This tradition that can be traced from Paul through possibly Augustine (mediated by his biographer, Possidius [4]), to Cassiodorus (c.490–c.583) who identified the seven psalms explicitly [5], through connections with penance, Lent, Indulgences, and praying for dead, in the medieval period, then finally jettisoned of much baggage by Luther to arrive at the present day.

Wisdom as Fear of the Lord
When the seven psalms are read through an Pauline/Augustinian lens, or simply from the expectation they are penitential which arises from the traditional designation, then all of the ills of the psalmist are rendered as an opportunity for chastisement. In this way every angst, ailment and experience of opposition can be an opportunity for growing in spiritual maturity. This is not only an intertextual reading but by its very nature it becomes a worldview. This is a specific example of the general problem facing us moderns as we read the Bible as Scripture. How much of a space do we have for providence over scientific cause-and-effect? Do we eclipse the authors of Scripture in unseemly haste with our supposedly sophisticated view of God? This post will not answer such questions, only pose them.

Those writings that are generally termed wisdom literature—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job—are often characterised with a call to fear Yahweh, as seen in an earlier post. Does this fear connect with the stance of the awareness of both our sinfulness and God’s wrath—in other words penitence? Our modern sensibilities cry no, as do the years of softening the ‘fear’ required to call faithfully to the Lord. The very notion jars like our title. Indeed, the title captures this notion. Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not make it right or true of course. But surely the stakes are high enough that it merits further meditation. Maybe, just maybe, our discomfort is a necessary first step in finding comfort in Jesus Christ, who now sits are the right hand of the God of holy love.

Bibliography
1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume 2—A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2018) p.304.
3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 14: Selected Psalms III, Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.) (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1958).
4. Clare Costley King’oo, Misere Mei: The Penitential Psalms in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012) p.4.
5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, Three Volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

Discipleship in an Age of Corona

One Situation
Many of us will have more time available to read the Bible and to pray in our present situation. I appreciate that this is not true of everyone, of course. We are also likely to need to make more effort to nurture our own souls due to the difficulty in having face-to-face fellowship at the current time. Even more soberingly, we all face an increased probability of someone we know falling seriously ill or dying. There is, in the midst of, a pandemic a mixture of need and opportunity. Seizing on the truth of Paul’s words to the Romans seems sensible: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). So, let’s put ourselves in God’s hands by doing something.

Where can we go for solid food? What parts of Scripture are well placed to sustain us? Where can we find comfort? Of course, all Scripture can do these things, but two parts in particular are the basic milk of our faith. Over two thousand years the testimony of Christians from many traditions has been that in times of challenge and when personal spiritual growth is a necessity then the Gospels and the Psalms are of special value.

Two Answers
The gospels bring us close to Jesus in that they tell us of his incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. How can you get closer to Jesus than this? So why the psalms too? The Psalms have been understood by some as the inner life of Jesus. Jesus would have prayed all of the Psalms countless times in his life. His teaching reflects time-and-again on the Psalms, directly and indirectly. It’s quite likely that he knew them all by heart—not because he was God but because he was a faithful man.

Three Psalms
Psalm 22 above all the psalms connects us with Jesus because of his articulation of the first part of the its first verse from the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here’s the whole of the first verse:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

The New Testament picks up on other verses that seem to prophecy the crucifixion of the Son of God. For example, all four Gospels refer to verse 18:

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

As Christians we can testify to living out the final verse of this psalm in the light of Jesus’ death on the cross and vindication in his resurrection:

They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

We not only have this, and other psalms of lament, to point to Jesus who took our sin, guilt, and pain to the cross. They also exist to provide words to express our own anguish so that we too can bring pain to God in difficult moments on our pilgrimage with him.

Most days, in God’s mercy, we don’t need such extreme words. Psalm 23 is ideal when things are relatively normal to express our abiding trust in God no matter what there is in store for us. I have found its calm attitude of trust a perfect prayer in all sorts of situations. Why not memorise this psalm in your favourite translation? You really can’t go wrong with this psalm, even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The next psalm, Psalm 24, is one of those psalms that captures the buzz and excitement of gathering together to be God’s people and worship him. Read it, and cherish the day when we gather once again. Not, of course, in the splendour of Jerusalem’s Temple but as the Body of Christ his church. On that day we will let the King of Glory in, just as we let him into our lives daily at this time of scattering.

Milk and Exotic Vegetable Curry
These three psalms are milk. Sometimes we look to the Bible and we look to God and we only want milk. We hope for the quick fix. And then we notice that 90% of the Bible is not milk, its an exotic vegetable curry, with fruit and spices we’ve never tasted before, and if we are honest, we don’t immediately like the taste or the texture.

Sometimes people have distilled the Bible into a shorter story or a list of ideas. Then it’s no longer God-breathed. If we don’t take it as it is, we are slighting the surest most dependable testimony that there is to Jesus. And let’s be clear it’s Jesus that’s the key, not the Bible. But nevertheless, the Bible is the way to know him better. The Bible helps us grown in him. The same Spirit that gave us life, the same Spirit that departed Jesus’ lips on the cross, the same Spirit that raised him to resurrection life, breathed the Scriptures.

The Old Testament strains forward testifying to him in the future. The New Testament looks back on him in the past. We read both to know him, and be nourished by him, in the fullness of his Incarnation, his Life, his death, his resurrection, and his second coming.

The Old Testament isn’t what it used to be. As Christians we can, and in fact, must read it through Christ. This helps us with the difficult psalms. The ones that require chewing and sometimes leaving until tomorrow for a second meal. Let’s turn to a more difficult psalm. This one seems made for the moment in some ways, but it also raises some serious questions.

Psalm 91 reads:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.

16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Taken at face value verses 3 to 7 in particular might seem to promise that in God we are immune to plague and pestilence. Unfortunately, we already know this is not true from bitter and tragic experience. So, is this psalm wrong? No, because it is not meant as a blanket promise for protection here and now. This is a Wisdom Psalm not so much promising the humanly best outcome but that we are wise to trust in God. It is also a Royal Psalm; its words once meant something closer to ‘God Save the King’ than being a get out of peril free card. It also speaks of Jesus. Most importantly of all, of course, in Christ we are safe eternally, for as Paul knew from the theology of the Psalms: in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Humility in the Time of Corona — Romans 12:1–3

What? — Defining Humility
God calls us to future perfection in Christ but for now we are to attempt to lead a good life. This is not about an attempt to earn salvation. Our future with Christ, and our loving Father, is established in Christ’s death and Christ’s resurrection. We will one day be made good, once and for all because Christ himself is wholly good. In the present we should live a good life because we follow a God who defines goodness. Goodness is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of God. His glory, his wisdom, his love, his grace, they are all intertwined with his fundamental goodness.

Of course, the very concept of goodness, as well as humility more specifically, is not a priority in the modern world. Humility is not typically a topic in self-help manuals—I am not commending self-help manuals but simply pointing out that humility is not a modern preoccupation, nor in many eyes a desirable trait. Humility is not generally a theme in secular management training. Humility is arguably not the best attribute for getting to the top in business, politics, law, performing arts, science, or anything else.

Pride, of course, is the opposite of humility. The self-confidence, the self-reliance, the self-belief that can lead to pride, they are more often celebrated as keys to success. In contrast to self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-belief, humility can be perceived as weakness. Even in Church circles it is questionable whether humility is anywhere on the list of attributes we normally look for in our ministers and leaders.

And yet the Bible celebrates and champions humility. We have the near-paradox of an almighty God being revealed best in a humble man who set aside power and glory. For Jesus Christ—the best of us, the only perfect human to have graced creation—was humble. As Paul put it in his letter to the Church in Philippi:

Let the same mind be in you that was in 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.
Philippians 2:5–8, NIV

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the place to start to define humility? What happens when we do this? We can note that his humility is not the one-dimensional passivity we sometimes equate with humility. The same Jesus who surrendered himself to death, even death on a cross, overturned traders’ tables. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, confronted, without fear, cold-hearted religious leaders and proud authorities. The same Jesus who did not raise a hand, or a voice, in the face of violence to his person rebuked his disciples in the boldest terms.

Romans 12:3 defines this sort of humility without even mentioning the word:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For Paul, our humility is a static underpinning reality. We should exhibit humility. We should see ourselves as creatures before God our creator. This requires sober judgement. As both creatures and broken humans we are brought down to size. In Christ we are mercifully made whole again. This is our dependence on God which leads to humility. But humility is also a dynamic thing. The nature of our humility will change. It is according to the measure of our faith. As our faith deepens so our humility changes. The greater our faith in what Jesus Christ has done for us the greater our dependence on him the more we can boast in him.

How? — A Renewed Mind
Our ability to show humility brings to mind the maxim that used to be found on school reports in days gone by—a phrase that would be frowned upon today I think:

“Could do better.”

When it comes to humility, we could arguable all do better. This means different things for different people. For most of us we need to take verse 3 in its simplest sense and think of ourselves less highly than comes naturally. For a few of us we might need to transform a broken meekness, grounded in a feeling of lack of self-worth, into wholesome humility by thinking of ourselves in Christ more highly. But either way, how can we display humility as seen in the life of Jesus? How can we be good by being humbler? How?

Romans 12:2 provides an answer to this question:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Humility, as the opposite to pride, is also the opposite to conforming to the world. It was pride that set the ball-rolling in Genesis 3. It was pride that is captured so powerfully in the vanity project called the Tower of Babel a few chapters later. Pride rears its ugly head in wider society, time and again as well as continually in us as individuals. Moral theologians often suggest that pride—the opposite of humility—is the foundation of all sin. So, if we are already wired this way—conformed to a pattern of thinking that is the natural way of human flesh—how are we to be transformed?

We have already defined humility through Jesus. But the meaning of the word in English is also a help to us. The word humility has the same origin as humus, or earth. Humility is about being earthy, lowly. It’s about being grounded. It’s about remembering where we came from. The Bible tells as that we were made from earth. In Hebrew adamah means earth, hence Adam:

. . . then the Lord God formed adam from the adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.
Genesis 2:7

Being humble means remembering where we came from and where we are, in one sense at least, going. As Ecclesiastes says:

All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 3:20, NIV

Such sobriety before God is the foundation of a healthy spirituality. Being grounded in this way means recognising our earthiness is not a firm foundation. It is God our rock, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that we should build upon. Humility makes room for the grace that we so desperately need in our lives—this is the grounding we need.

Humility means standing on the earth from which God made us and looking to him in all his majesty. Unless we do these basics, we return to our Eden factory settings, one hour at a time. There is grace that comes through being together in fellowship. Never underestimate the grace that we can show to one another. In the face of Corona, and limited gatherings and self-isolation, let’s work hard to find ways to be available.

If some of us do get more time at home over the next few weeks and months, use your imagination to find ways to improve your time with God. Store up treasure for life after Corona. Be transformed by the grace of God. Humility should be a foundation for disciplined dependence—a realisation of our need to pray and listen to God’s word.

Why? — Being Living Sacrifices
Humility is the foundation of other virtues. It is the foundation of the good life lived before God. How can we serve God unless we understand ourselves in relationship to him?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Romans 12:1, NIV

Don’t miss Paul’s point here, spiritual worship has real physical consequences. Paul knows nothing of a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. In a time of pandemic, we can show Christ to those around us. The simple acts of avoiding the excesses of panic buying, stockpiling at the expense of others, and  the discipline of washing our hands. These are a start, but only a start.

Washing your hands in the current context is a remarkable picture of humility. Each time you wash our hands you have no idea whether this is preventing the spread of disease. In most cases it won’t make that difference. But its only by doing it regularly and frequently that it works—it is a discipline. Persistence is everything in this as in spiritual disciplines. So, see each 20-second hand wash as a necessary step of humility putting the needs of our healthcare system and the frailer members of society ahead of yourself. Such a frequent discipline will on occasions make an unseen difference. But, on every occasion it can be a celebration of our collective frailty—our dependence on a loving God. Like any discipline each and every occasion can help shape us, change us, and transform us.

Life in the time of Corona can remind us of our lack of control—our dependence on God—the very basis for humility. In a time of pandemic we can make a difference. We have the love of God that eclipses fear. Humility enables us to be living sacrifices for God.

Over the next few days and weeks let’s be creative and attentive to how we can support one another and minister to our neighbours. Let’s do what Christ always makes possible—the turning of darkness into a place where his light shines all the brighter.

Surely our faith in Christ, our trust in our Father, can make a real difference in the time of Corona?

 

Standing Firm: Philippians 4:1–3

1. Joy
How might we ensure we stand firm in our faith? Such a question seems a sensible one when we see some around us drifting away from their faith. There are of course many answers. One way, I suggest lies at the heart of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and is mentioned in Philippians 4:1–3. How about cultivating joy, and more specifically a joy in the gospel?

Philippians 4 vv 1 to 3 17th Feb 2019

Paul sees the Philippians as his brothers and sisters. He loves them and longs to see them. For they are his joy and his crown. They are a crown in the sense that in his striving for the gospel of Jesus Christ he founded them as a church. They would not exist as a local embodiment of Christ were it not for his efforts to preach in their city. They would not be in Christ if he had not preached first to Jew and then to Gentile, and won enough people over to the gospel, to plant a congregation in Philippi. They testify continually to his missionary calling and action. In this sense they are his crown—just like the expression we might make today about some achievement being our crowning glory. This is no immodesty on Paul’s part. He knows that the church in Philippi is ultimately God’s work. Yet he also knows, just as surely as he has co-workers, that he is a co-worker with God (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Paul also sees them as his joy. Some people sadly suck the joy out of Christianity. But for Paul, and for us, for all who perceive the glory of what Jesus has done, joy should be at its very heart. What greater joy could there be than people finding out that God loves them in Christ and that they are called to be his community here on earth—called to be his hands and feet in furthering the gospel.

There is joy in being Christ’s body, of continuing his work. Knowing his incarnation as we realise, we are his hands and his feet. Knowing his death as we die to sin and death. Knowing his resurrection as we perceive the glory to come. Knowing his ascension to heaven as we trust in his faithfulness. Let us not become so serious in the task of being Christ’s body that we lose sight of the joy—the joy of seeing God at work in those around us.

The joy of the gospel starts with God himself. We all know that wonderful picture in The Parable of the Prodigal Son —the Father running to greet his wayward child, breaking with middle-eastern convention by hoisting his clothing and running—both seriously embarrassing for a respectable figure.

If that’s not joy, I don’t know what is. But the joy was gospel-focused for Jesus too:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1–2 (NIV)

There are stages to this race—this life of faith—there are hills to traverse, there are dark valleys to wander in, there are mountain top experiences, the analogues are endless. There are however three basic experiences in the midst of this infinite variety: disorientation, reorientation, and orientation.

Joy can come with reorientation. The experience of God putting things right. The joy of knowing Christ as a fresh experience. A recovery from illness, the getting over a bad relationship, the discovery of a good place after serious hardship.

2. Division
Standing firm can also be aided by avoiding division. There are many pitfall and diversions along the way. Loss of unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ is an especially painful one. When fellowship in Jesus goes wrong, we all have a problem on our journey at the same moment.

Unity is of fundamental importance to remaining a healthy community of God’s people. But we all know that unity is not always a straightforward goal.

Sometimes we learn the hard way the truth and profundity of Psalm 133 which opens:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

This is so self-evident when we have experienced serious disunity, that the illustrations that follow in verses 2 and 3 about beards, oil, mountains, and dew are poetic details that are almost unnecessary.

How do we commit to unity? How do we avoid division? No one sets out to create it at the outset and yet it can rear its ugly head in a moment. One way to avoid it, and it is but one way, is to be more open to the joy that we have in Christ and in serving him. When we have genuine joy in Christ, we take ourselves as individuals a little less seriously, we are fixing our eyes in the right place—we are humble servants of Jesus Christ. The lightness in our spirits that comes from joy is also less prone to take offence, on the one hand, and less hasty in judging others on the other.

Division at the end of the day is serious—it is about undoing the very work of Jesus. The body that Jesus has made whole through being broken on the cross, is denied in division. The walls that Jesus broke down are rebuilt. Division is the very opposite of the reconciliation that Jesus died for.

Indeed, so serious is the ground we walk on in joining division that we are likely to be walking off without Jesus by our side. Or perhaps he’s still there but we become myopic? Whatever the reality of Jesus’ presence, it is no coincidence that so many people at the centre of division leave behind their faith in Christ.

Euodia and Syntyche in our short passage have experienced lack of unity. And Paul urges them ‘to be of the same mind’. This is a rich idea, as members of the local body of Christ they should have his one mind on key matters.

As Paul says elsewhere:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV)

We don’t know all the details about this situation. We do know they are Paul’s co-workers, and though he’s exhorting them to sort the problem out he is clearly tender to them, they are not the people he has harsh words for elsewhere in this letter.

Lack of unity is painful. It is one of the many events in the life of faith that is difficult. We need to do all we can humanly and prayerfully to avoid it. It is one of the causes of Disorientation, the difficult steep upward slog on the marathon or pilgrimage.

3. New Order
Another way of standing firm is embracing God’s new order. Paul repeatedly speaks of the age to come—here it’s the mention of the Book of Life. A reminder of that goal for all who follow Jesus Christ.

Both discipleship and pilgrimage are about the journey and the destination:

  1. We walk with Christ and he is our destination.
  2. We walk with the Father and he is our destination.
  3. We journey with the life-giving Spirit and he is the very breath of God that breathes life into our bones at the resurrection.

 

4. Closing Prayer

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Saviour,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’
Helen Howarth Lemmel (1863–1961)

Philippians 1:12–26 — A Philippian Rhapsody

In an age of style over substance you might think that I’m simply jumping on a bandwagon following the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody late last year. But this reflection’s title is not just a nod to popular culture. It is not just timely given recent awards or the controversy over the film’s sacked director, Brian Singer. It is appropriate for several reasons as we will see later.

At the heart of Philippians 1:12–26 we find the short verse that reads:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

This verse has always struck me as on the one hand profound and on the other as worryingly challenging. As a soundbite it is an amazing summary of the Apostle Paul. It rings true with what we know of Paul. The Bible tells a clear story. Here is a man who had the most shocking of conversion experiences. He persecutes the Church in his passion for the God of Israel. Then the Risen Christ appears to him. This sets in motion the most complex shift in theology ever undertaken, worked out over three years in Arabia. All of this is followed by his three whirlwind tours of the Mediterranean—his evangelising and church planting record is truly remarkable.

It’s not to say the other Apostles weren’t busy, it’s just that he did so very much that we know about. And he managed to write thirteen of the books out of the twenty-seven in the New Testament. He even stars, along with Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In short he not only said but he lived “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Even in death, under Nero, this soundbite transfigures into the best of epitaphs. His life was a Rhapsody. One dictionary definition of a rhapsody is “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”. That’s Paul’s life and that’s Philippians 1:21.

Who else do we know who these words could be said of, and everyone would just nod sagely in agreement? Of course, we can’t all be an Apostle Paul or an Apostle Pauline. So, are we off the hook when it comes to ‘living out’ and ‘dying out’ Paul’s soundbite and epitaph?

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

We will answer this question later. But please note, Paul would be the first to say that the fruit of his life was not the result of human effort but is an example of God’s action. We can, and should, see God clearly at work in his life. To follow Paul is not to attempt a remarkable feat of hard work per se. It is to be open to God’s work and seeing God’s grace at work around us. This should be obvious—we will make a real difference, not because of our human effort but because of openness to God’s work.

In the modern world the Philippian Rhapsody has been imitated. Others have tried to crystallise their experience and personal ethos into similar soundbites. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the song by the band Queen with lyrics written by Freddy Mercury, for example, we find a similar statement to Paul’s. Now of course it’s a progressive rock song so it’s words shouldn’t be the subject of too much serious reflection. But the words seem to echo the troubles and challenges that Mercury experienced in his life, just as Paul’s words capture his very different ones:

I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Perhaps we all have moments like that? The form is similar to Paul’s great saying, but the meaning is closer to Job who famously said: “May the day of my birth perish” (Job 3:3). I have no reason to believe that Freddy Mercury was consciously, or even unconsciously, echoing Paul or Job. Another singer-songwriter, however, appears to have deliberately echoed Mercury:

I don’t wanna die
But I ain’t keen on living either
Robbie Williams, Feel

It reads biographically like the others, but feels contrived compared to the Apostle Paul’s and Freddy Mercury’s art—sorry Robbie!

But back to the Bible. Philippians 1:12–26 not only has a remarkable verse at its centre, these verse are in themselves a rhapsody. Paul may be just writing a letter, but what a letter. We have forgotten how to write letters. Paul’s short letter is a lesson in how to do it. It is recognised by experts as a specific style of letter known in antiquity—a Letter of Friendship. It captures the story of the Philippians and it captures Paul’s story—two stories in which God has been at work. It brings the two together to explain how Paul’s current experiences and the Philippians situation both fit together to advance the gospel which is also God’s work.

The Present (1:12–18a)
Some might see being imprisoned as a problem or even a failing. Not the Apostle Paul. Paul knows that that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). His dependence on God is acute enough to see that whatever happens to him it can serve the purposes of the living God. Paul does not hesitate in seeing that he is in chains for Christ. Not just that his imprisonment is a consequence of upsetting the status quo in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Even being in prison can be for Christ. There are people in the palace guard who have now heard the good news of Jesus. Rather than his imprisonment sending a message of fear, Paul says that he brothers and sisters in Christ are more confident in the Lord and will proclaim the gospel without fear.

It appears that some that preach the gospel don’t get on with Paul—those that preach ‘out of envy and rivalry’. The Early Church has its problems, like the Church in every age. Perhaps personalities will always clash this side of the final trumpet? But Paul is bigger than rivalry and envy and sees that the important thing is that Christ is preached. The precise story about Paul’s rivals remains unclear.

There are two things that are clear about the situation. Firstly, whatever the difficulty with rivals, it is a source of serious trial for Paul. He alludes to the Greek translation of Job chapter 13 (later in verse 19)—a passage where Job is in dialogue with rivals who masquerade as friends. Like Job, Paul is suffering but knows he will be vindicated. The second point of clarity is that Paul rejoices—in fact he is full of joy. Joy, that Christ is being preached. He sees God’s very hand at work. What other response is there than joy when God is at work?

Sometimes we try so hard to do things that we forget to slow down and see God at work. Sometimes we are so cynical that we don’t wait for God’s work to be perceived. Surely Paul had reasons to be cynical? But despite seeing the reality of life in prison and the reality of rivals ‘having it in for him’. Despite feeling like Job, he rejoices. He is ‘with Isaiah’ in perceiving that God is doing a new thing and is at work.

The Future (1: 18b–26)
Rejoicing is so important to Paul that he focuses on how he has joy in the present and will continue to have joy on the future. We see this is in verse 18 which marks a transition in this passage:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul is confident, not only that God is at work in his current situation. He is able to trust God—that he will continue to be at work. His trust and joy are not rooted in his comfort or well-being. Paul trusts and rejoices because he knows that God will continue to use him for the glory of Christ. Paul’s experience means he is past any naivety about Christian Discipleship being about a simple life of earthly blessing. Paul’s trust in God is not fatalism however. His eyes of faith see the need for the Philippians’ prayers, for God to deliver him, and the need for courage:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20–21

Even Paul’s hope for his life is selfless. He sees his life as ‘in the body’, not in his body, but in the body of Christ. His work as an Apostle is for the building up of the Philippians.
His partnership with the Philippians is such that he can perceive the joy they will have when he is released from prison.

Paul also knows that ‘to die is gain’. Not only that he will then be with Christ but also that should his death be that of a martyr it will benefit the body, that is Jesus Christ. He knows first hand from witnessing the death of the first martyr, Stephen, the powerful testimony that is spoken as a servant of Christ dies for him and his gospel. Paul in chains in Rome thinks of his beloved Philippians and his own life.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

His thinking. His theology. His ethos. His love. His plan for life. His hope. His trust. They all find their summary in that one key verse:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

Are we like the Apostle Paul? No. Not if we mean, we should do what he did. As God’s servants we are each unique in what we do.

Are we like the Apostle Paul? Yes. If we mean, we should be what he was. As God’s servants we are all the same in who we are. We are all loved in Christ. We are all able to perceive God at work. We are all able to rejoice in His work, past, present, and future.