Wm Andrew Schwartz
You know that moment in the movie where the tired and injured quarterback gives an inspiring speech in the huddle, so that his underdog team can push forward (despite all odds) and claim victory? That’s basically what is happening in this portion of the letter from Paul and Timothy, to the Christian community in Philippi.
Paul (and Tim) are giving an update on their situation, which includes Paul’s imprisonment. But instead of simply complaining about his plight, Paul focuses on all the good that has resulted from his suffering—namely the enhancement of his Christian witness. You can tell by the way Paul frames the letter, that he is communicating to an increasingly angry and frightened religious community. Yet he urges them not to act out in anger or fear, but to live a life of love. While this is certainly sound spiritual advice, I wonder if it isn’t also part of Paul’s practical political strategy. After all, lashing out against the Roman Empire would have lead to all sorts of violence, pain, and ultimately the annihilation of the early Church. I’d like to think that Paul, as a leader, had this bigger picture in mind. Like when Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged his followers to follow the path of non-violence, Paul seems to be instructing the Philippians to act in peace in love because that is the best way to advance their cause. Paul is calling the Philippians to focus on the mission; avoid getting swept up in the drama of politics and current affairs, and focus on proclaiming Christ out of love.
Then we get to the place in the letter where Paul famously writes, “For me, living is Christ, and dying is gain.” He even goes so far as to admit that he’s not sure which he would prefer—living or dying. To live, means the opportunity to spread the good news of Christ. But to die, is to be with Christ in death (eternal life). Like the quarterback in an inspiring huddle, it seems clear that Paul is tired. Yet, unlike Obi Wan Kenobi who decided he could do more to help Luke Skywalker if he died, Paul decides to stick around and fight the good fight. He basically tells the Philippians that the only reason he continues to fight—continues to live—is because it is more beneficial to them.
There is a sense in which this could be seen as an unfair burden (a guilt trip) being laid upon the Philippians. As if Paul is essentially saying that he will continue to endure the suffering of this world, persecution, and imprisonment, so that he can support the Philippians. There is a sense in which Paul’s tone could be interpreted as a “get real” moment, where Paul says, “Listen, you best be growing in faith and love, because I’m coming back to visit you some day, and I don’t want to be disappointed… after all I’ve done for you.”
On a more positive (a more generous) interpretation, however, Paul could be understood as simply expressing his very serious and deep commitment to the Christians in Philippi. The contemporary trope of “loving someone to death” is a real possibility for Paul. His love for Christ and for the Philippians is such that it could cost him his life. Yet, Paul turns the situation on its head and declares his commitment, not to die for the Philippians, but to live for them. Death would be a welcome respite from the trials Paul had been enduring. Paul takes the hard road, choosing to live, to fight, to push on, for the sake of the Church and the message of God’s love.
While we might read this and be challenged by Paul’s serious commitment to the Philippians, it is not just for the Philippians that Paul carries on, but because of them as well. Paul, alone, would rather give up and die. But Paul in community, decides to push on and fight the good fight.
We all need community. When we don’t have community, it is far too easy to let the weight of the world beat us down. This is one of the reasons why participating in a local Church is so important. We need a place to belong in which we can support one another.
By the end of this passage, Paul seems more supportive, encouraging the Philippians to be united and to live a life worthy of the message of Christ. These two themes (unity and love) are really the core of Paul’s message to the Philippians, which he would expound upon throughout the rest of his letter. It is in community, that we can live a life worthy of the message of Christ. Love is relational. And living a life of love is a relational task. If we are to carry on, to live a life of love (especially in the face of hardship), we must do so in community.
Wm Andrew Schwartz
About the Contributor
Managing Director, Center for Process Studies