A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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.
Eros-love gets a really bad rap. We hear Eros and we instantly associate it with erotic – which is a word that has come to be associated with sex, but that’s not what it really, fully means.
Eros is love that seeks to possess another in order to fill an emptiness in oneself.
Over the centuries we’ve been taught that that kind of love is selfish, whereas to be Christ-like we must strive to be selfless.
So I wonder – how do we become filled with Agape-love?
I believe the answer is through Eros-love – for God.
Eros speaks of the emptiness in oneself – the void – the longing deep in our hearts that yearns for the only thing that can fill our emptiness.
Pascal said “we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts.”
I think that’s absolutely true.
A God-shaped hole in our hearts.
It’s a hole that longs, yearns, aches to be filled up with God-ness, holiness, love.
Of course, this also presents a potential problem.
What if we’ve misidentified our God-shaped hole and think the hole in our hearts – that feeling like there’s something missing, Something More – is maybe something like power, or possessions, or ambition, or greed?
What if we try to fill our God-shaped yearning with something shaped differently?
Look around our world. Aren’t we seeing that all too often, and tragically many folks don’t even realize it.
But we do, hopefully.
We have a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we, as followers of the Way of Jesus, are constantly striving to fill it.
The hole yearns to be made whole.
This is why we pray.
This is why we serve.
This is why we show compassion.
This is why we worship.
This is why we’re tuned into this church service right now.
We have a God-shaped hole in our hearts and we know that this is one of the great ways to fill it.
As I said a few minutes ago, folks in our tradition aren’t typically all that comfortable with talking about yearning, and aching, and passionately longing for God. That isn’t to say we don’t feel it (I hope). It’s just that we don’t often express it.
Except in music! Yes! In our music we’re a bit more free to sing of our ‘suffering for Christ’ – our yearning, passionate love for Christ.
Except for one problem.
Most of our hymns are pretty heady – not heart-y. Our hymns are theologically dense and emotionally thin.
And this is one of the reasons I love praise and worship music – because in praise music we unabashedly sing of our love for God. Sometimes praise music lyrics can get carried away and it almost makes Jesus sound like your boyfriend – but that’s just a person with a God-shaped hole trying to express the utter joy of feeling it filled up.
The kind of love praise music sings about is ultimately Agape-love, but it uses the language of Eros-love to do it.
This can make us mainline types squirm – because it looks right into the heart of the ‘frozen chosen’ and dares to melt them.
Philippians 1:23 My heart’s desire and passion and longing is to just dissolve and melt and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Eros-love is ardent love – it’s passionate love – it’s all-consuming love.
This passionate desire is what fuels our faith life.
Eros-love is the love that poets trade in – I’d climb the highest mountain for you – you’re my everything – my heart flutters when I see you – I’d die without you! That’s Paul’s language in this letter. And that’s the language of praise music.
Will you go there with me?
I love you Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul, rejoice!
Take joy my king, in what you hear. May it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ear.
This is the air I breathe, this is the air I breathe, your holy presence, living in me
And I, I, I’m desperate for you. I, I, I’m lost without you
For the eyes of my heart, they’re on you forever, they’re on you forever
Jesus, I’m in love with you! Jesus, I’m in love with you! Jesus
And I love, I love, I love your presence. I love, I love, I love your presence
I love, I love, I love you Jesus! I love, I love, I love your presence
Love the Lord with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.
Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Love one another as Jesus loves us. Love, love, love – Agape, Eros, whatever word you want to use – love.
It’s the only thing in the world that can fill that God-shaped hole we all have.
Paul takes Jesus’ call to ‘love with our whole being’ and challenges us to really feel it – longingly, achingly.
It’s a call to tear down my barriers, rip my heart wide open, and burst forth with desire, and gratitude, and ardour, and passion to claim this unbelievably awesome gift that God offers – God’s grace, God’s kingdom – That I would dedicate myself to striving with my community of faith with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
Every single one of us has a God-shaped hole in their heart.
With what will you try to fill yours?
May you know the abundant joy of passionately dying, melting, and suffering for Christ, in this agonizingly beautiful struggle we call faith, this day and always.