Yr A ~ Philippians 1:21-30
I’m going to do something a bit different this morning. Usually I would read the scripture passage as it appears in the bible, according to whatever translation we were using that day. Then in my sermon I’d go in depth and talk about how the editor’s choice of words when translating from the original Greek or Hebrew can really change the way we hear and understand something. Today, rather than reading it and then reframing it, I’m just going to start with the reframed version. So here is Philippians 1:21-30, with some word substitutions and amplification which I hope can help us hear what I think is Paul’s deeper message without tripping on some of the surface language.
Remember, Paul is a minister talking to a church community that he has planted and is nurturing:
1:21 For to me, living is surrendering and abandoning myself to Christ, and dying to my old way and being reborn in Jesus’ Way is gain.
1:22 If I am to live in the flesh, in the here and now, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer.
1:23 I am hard pressed between the two: my heart’s desire, and passion, and longing is to just dissolve, and melt, and be with Christ, for that is far better;
1:24 but to not go off on a mountain top retreat and instead to remain ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak) is more necessary for you.
1:25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,
1:26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting, your joyful celebration of how well you’re doing, and how much you’re growing in Christ Jesus, when I come to you again.
1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you, or am absent and only get to hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,
1:28 and that in no way are you intimidated or knocked off the path by anyone or anything that might challenge that. Your steadfastness, and faith, and perseverance shows any obstacle that it is ineffective and powerless to oppose you. And this is God’s doing.
1:29 For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of experiencing strong feelings and passionate emotions for him as well –
1:30 since you are having the same agonizingly beautiful struggle that you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church! Amen.
Now, all I did there was to expand on the word fields that are in the text. To be fair, editors have to choose. They can’t go on and on like I can! Plus, we’re inheriting an English version that was largely shaped in the 16th and 17th centuries and they had a certain bias or interpretation (as we all surely do), and they chose language that supported their bias. It isn’t wrong language, but their editorial choices do limit how we hear some scripture passages.
My bias is toward transformation, and hearts strangely warmed.
This a very passionate scripture passage.
Sadly, the published versions don’t emphasize that.
Let’s look at verse 23.
The words speak of Paul’s desire to depart, which when combined with the living or dying language of verse 21 suggests that depart here means to leave, or even to die.
But a better translation for desire to depart is actually desire to dissolve – as in to melt.
It’s poetic love language.
It’s passion language.
It’s Eros language.
Then in verse 29 we get the phrase “For (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”
You’ve probably heard that phrase ‘suffering for Christ’ before. Well, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride movie), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”
I think the Christian church has grasped onto the idea of suffering for Christ as being a test of how strong you are, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for Christ, or how much hardship and pain you can endure to show how dedicated to God you are.
And that’s really sad, because it completely distorts Paul’s meaning here.
The Greek word is pásxō which means to experience strong feelings and strong emotions. Pásxō literally means passion!
Now, to be sure, to ‘suffer’ in pain is to experience a strong emotion. I’m not diminishing that.
But one can also ‘suffer’ positively – as in passionately, longingly, yearningly, desiring, aching, pining away for your true love.
THAT is what it means to ‘suffer for Christ’!
And that completely changes how we hear this whole passage.
Suffering for Christ is more of an expression of how much you love God – how much your heart yearns to feel more of God’s grace and peace – how much your soul aches when God seems distant – how you feel incomplete and empty when your love is not near, and how your heart bursts with joy, and affection, and fullness, and abundance when your love is clearly in focus.
Now, if you’re a long-time United Church person you may very well be squirming in your seat. All this emotional, passionate, love-language – about Jesus! About God! Our tradition has always tended to emphasize the academic, intellectual, head-based aspects of Christianity.
For lots of us that simple 12-inch journey south from your head to your heart is the longest and hardest spiritual journey of all.
But friends, it’s vitally necessary.
We don’t abandon our heads and check our brains at the door. We take our head with us as we descend into our hearts and experience strong emotions and feelings for God.
Preachers love to tell you that the word love in Greek has several different translations that all mean something different.
Agape is the love word that refers to spiritual love – it’s a holy, sacrificial, righteous, self-giving love. Love for other – love for neighbour. read on