Some thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Philippians

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So, instead of working today I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s short, but I don’t think I’d ever just read it straight through before. It’s one of those letters that everyone is pretty sure Paul actually wrote, and I found myself in relationship with him in all his humanness in his words.

I started reading because I saw someone quoting Phil. 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” So I read the few verses around that. Then all of chapter four, then I backed up and started from the beginning.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.

Such a beautiful greeting. “Every time I remember you.” How many things do we see, hear, smell, touch and taste daily that go by without our noticing? How many things have we forgotten before we’ve even experienced them? How many people have we forgotten as soon as we’ve become aware of them. Can we remember them? Can we open ourselves to the experience of everything and everyone around us? If we can remember, can we thank God for each thing we remember?

How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Compassion is not a detached feeling of “Oh, that’s too bad.” It is a longing. It is a desire. It is such a desire that you start to feel what the other person feels. Compassion is feeling the experience of another with them.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Knowledge and love are tied together. Love must be enacted, and we must learn how to do that. This is a knowledge of lived experience, not of abstraction, nor of empiricism.

Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.

Reading this, I could hear the fretting mother Paul, worried for her children, wanting them to be happy and healthy. Knowing that she’ll be able to relax some when the children are together, even if their mother can’t be there. It’s this humanness that grabbed at my heart. If I can jump ahead to the end of the letter, Paul says:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.

I laughed. Mother Paul again, saying, “It warms my heart to know you care about me. Not that I need you to pay attention to me. No. I’m doing just fine. But it warms my heart.”

But back to where we left off.

Beware of those who mutilate the flesh!

Paul does not seem to have a happy relationship with his flesh, nor with any other flesh, so this phrase surprised me. It jumped out at me. I was left dwelling on it. “Those who mutilate the flesh” could certainly refer to those who demanded circumcision, and that seems to be who Paul is referring to. But it also refers to those who want to punish the body for the sake of the spirit. Paul says that they “have no confidence in the flesh.” As he’s just sung a hymn of the incarnation, of God in flesh, I can’t believe he is dismissive of the body. I have to read this as having no trust that doing things to spite one’s flesh will bring about rightness or salvation. Mortification does not bring one closer to God.

This is not to paint Paul as a champion of the flesh, but to find in his words an affirmation of the sacredness of the flesh.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Be gentle. Don’t worry. Acknowledge your struggle before God, give thanks, and keep going. It doesn’t say not to struggle. It doesn’t say that struggles, difficulties and work are to be avoided. It’s not an escapist sort of “give it to God.” It’s a reminder to be gentle, to let go of worry, and to act from under the guard of God’s peace.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Once again, I don’t think this is an exhortation to avoid the injustices and violence of the world, but a reminded not to let it consume you. It’s a plea that we take the time to notice other things as well. Spend time dwelling on the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent worthy things that you encounter. Terrible things can and do make themselves known without our effort, so we have to deliberately notice the good around us so it can keep us afloat. We come back to the first passage I mentioned: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Paul wants us to open our hearts, to be aware, to remember, to think about all the good we encounter. It is as important as the bad. If we open ourselves to the experience we may find more good than we ever expected.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned

Rejoice, acknowledge, give thanks, dwell on the good, and keep working.

Finally, Paul closes with thanks for the gifts they had sent him.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.

Wikipedia mentions that Paul was always thankful for gifts, but did not always accept them. He accepts gifts from the largely poor people of Philippi, though. On reading this, Paul’s saying “I know what it is to have little” came back to me. Paul, having been without, knows the importance giving has among the poor. I’m speaking from experience here. I grew up poor, and it was always important to share what we had when we could. There is a grace in receiving that gives strength to both the ones giving and the ones receiving. Paul knew this, and refused to turn away from this grace he could share with the people he “long[ed] for… with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


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