Philippians is a jewel box of Scripture. You can put your finger down just about anywhere and find something beautiful. People love Philippians, with its talk of love and rejoicing.
Last fall I taught a class on Philippians at my church. I’ve studied the book before, even published a Bible study guide on it. But this time I found myself reflecting on it in a different way, long after I was done teaching.
What I realized is that Philippians is like the letters Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison as he waited to be executed. Paul’s circumstances are equally harrowing. He is soon to go on trial for his life. He believes there is an excellent chance he will be executed. Meanwhile, all around him, chaos and venality spread: his rivals are crowing, his helper is sick and close to death.
Philippians is, then, a book about crisis. It’s absorbed in practical advice for times of calamity: “How Then Shall We Live?”
Paul knows that the Philippians are also in crisis—though about this crisis we get less detail, naturally, since the Philippians don’t need to be told what they face. Paul tries to pass on what he has learned about living in crisis, believing it applies immediately to them.
And, one hopes, it applies to us. None of us can help being affected by global calamities—the collapse of the Middle East, the dramatic migration from broken societies toward Europe, the apocalyptic threats of global warming, and perhaps most troubling of all, the sense that our political systems are unable to cope—whether in America from polarized government, in Europe from a dithering elite, or in China from a once-omnipotent oligarchy that seems reduced to stabs in the dark.
Not to mention our own personal and family crises.
Philippians is a letter, not a philosophic essay. The advice isn’t systematic. Paul weaves in and out of several themes, repeating himself. There’s one word that he repeats more than any other: rejoice. That’s where I’ll start.
Paul tells the Philippians that he rejoices in his circumstances, and he keeps telling them to rejoice too. This is not a philosophical stance: “look on the bright side,” or “everything will turn out for the best.” It’s not “count your blessings” or seeing the glass half full. Rejoice is a verb that calls us to make a full-body response. Rejoicing is done with the voice and the heart, often through song. Rejoicing links your whole self to your conviction that Jesus’ story is the important truth about the universe and about your life. It’s an anticipation of glory.
Paul is also under no illusion that all is well in the world. Consider these lines: “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry….out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” “Everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.” “Many lives as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.”
Yet these realities do not deter Paul for one minute. Having described the sore situation of his rivals and their jealous ambitions, Paul gets right at it. “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.”
I used to think this was whistling in a graveyard. I have changed my mind, and the best way to explain it is through a story Earl Palmer related.
He told of a local middle school that had an ambitious music program and one day announced that they would perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Music people tried to talk them out of it. It’s a difficult piece to perform, and way over the head of most middle school musicians. “Don’t do it,” people warned. “You’ll embarrass yourselves.” But the music directors at the school were determined, and they went ahead.
It turned out to be as bad as people had warned. The students couldn’t do justice to the symphony. For anybody with a love for music, it was cringe-worthy to hear them try.
“But you know,” Palmer said, “everybody who attended that concert came out humming: Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah….” Despite the performance, they heard the melody. Sometimes the melody is more powerful than the performance.
In Philippians Paul is saying that the melody of the gospel, the story of how Jesus gave his life for the world, comes through even when told by bad people. It is lived out in the most horrible circumstances. It has a life of its own that springs out of the most dire crisis in history. That’s reason to rejoice.
Even more reason to rejoice is this: the Philippians, with all their woes, are living that story too. If you know the story as the pattern by which all the universe is being cut—and if you are part of the story—then you can rejoice.
Rejoicing is a way to get the story down to your gut. You can know the story in a factual way, and even believe it factually, but not have it penetrate. Therefore rejoice, even—especially—in time of crisis.
Which is to say that in times of crisis we need to worship, more than ever.
Tomorrow I’ll post part 2, on how we relate to the melody that Paul wants to sing.