So, my dears, as you have always been good listeners, not only when I was with you, but now even more in my absence, keep on working at your own rescue with fear and trembling, For it’s God who energises you to will and to work according to his good design. Do everything without muttering or argument, so that you may be free from blame and pure – faultless children of God in a bent and distorted culture, in the midst of which you shine like stars in the cosmos.
Hold on to the word of life, so that in the Day of Messiah I can boast that I did not run or tire myself out for nothing. But even if I’m to be tossed out as a libation over the sacrificial offering of your faith, I‘ll be happy sharing your happiness, just as you’ll be happy sharing mine.
Apollo pouring a libation on the sacred omphalos
This blog signals a return to faithulness on my part, seeing that over the Easter and post – Easter weeks I’ve been busy, and neglectful of my daily blogging duty. I’m continuing my translation of Philippians and my commentary on it.
Careful reading of this short passage shows two wonderful truths about Paul’s messianic communitites:
1. Paul and the believers in Philippi are united across time and space. The time of Paul’s mission amongst them and the time in which he writes, are brought together into the one time of him announcing and they listening to the gospel. So also across the geographical distance separating them, their hearts are gladdened by each other’s happiness. These instances of shared life point to the koinonia (shared enterprise) of the Spirit which breaks down barriers between races and nations and establishes the Church as the visible sign of God’s Rule in the world.
2. This koinonia, this shared life, is given by God and includes God. The believers must work at their own rescue from sin and death, but at the same time, it is God who is working in them. We should not imagine that their work and God’s work are two things: no, their work IS God’s work. Sarah Ruden, the great American translator of ancient texts, including parts of the Bible, wrote to me this week about what she called God’s “in- ness”, whereby the call of God and the action of the human personality cannot be distinguished. This is an important theme of theology. God is not some supernatural gloop added to human life, but rather a companion who adopts the lives of all creatures as his/her own. God wants to rescue us, but will not do so by force; S/ he waits in humility for us to adopt the task of rescue as our own.
The discipline demanded by Paul is part of the content of the shared life. Generosity of spirit, which grudges nothing, is God’s life in the human person, separating those who are open to God from those who are captives of a bent and distorted culture. Paul’s realism about the depths of human evil is helpful when we consider that the evil of President Assad this weekend, in using poison gas on children, has managed to eclipse the evil of Donald Trump. Believers who hold to the word of life in a culture of death, shine like stars, according to Paul – not like the sun, we should note, for the sky remains black, but as the great hymn says: “and for the everlasting right/ the silent stars are strong.”
Paul’s generosity of Spirit includes the readiness for his own life to be no more than wine or blood poured out as a libation on a public sacrifice, in this case the sacrificial faith of the Philippians. The deep deep truths we find in this letter issue from the special affection which characterises the shared life of Paul and this assembly of God’s people.