Bible and Bible Study: September 2004 Archives

Why Philippians?

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Perhaps you have asked yourself why I maunder on so about the Letter to the Philippians. And as it only just occurred to me the other night, I thought I might share a little of my motivation in reflecting on Philippians.

We all have greater or less interest or love for different books of the Bible. Naturally the Gospels hold pride of place in terms of their compelling interest in salvation history and our understanding of it. But there are some books we come back to over and over again depending on who we are and how God wants to speak to us.

Those who have seen my comments and who have frequented this place know that , in general, I tend to have a "Pollyanna" view of the world. This is not an expression of pride, nor of sorrow, but an attempt to describe how, in serenity, I like to look at the people and things around me. One of Pollyanna's chief attributes (at least as conveyed to us by the Disney movie) is that she was always playing "the glad game." That is, she looked into all events to try to find something good, something to rejoice in. For the most part, she was successful. Even at the end, where things are in doubt, we are shown the "good" of a very, very bad thing indeed.

Within my limited human capacity, that is how I like to operate. I like to take people at their word. I like to think the best of people and their motivations. I refuse to allow journalism to cloud my mind with their vague hints and dubious gossip. These things make headlines, but they rarely reflect the reality of the people they gossip about. Listening to too much of it turns one's head in such a way that it is extremely difficult to return to a state of appreciation for our fellow-travelers.

That, in part, leads me to Philippians. Paul is imprisoned in Rome while writing it. I don't know the order of composition, but I'm of the impression that this is near the end of his sojourn in Rome. And yet, he is thankful for his imprisonment, for the people of Philippi, for the praetorian Guard, for God's will, for everything. The joy that radiates from this letter is the joy of one who has recently stood (almost bodily one might think) in the throne room of the Lord and seen all the good that permeates creation. Paul affirms this good, and then encourages us to move beyond it to the Best. He tells us that "to live is Christ and to die is gain." He tells us that he longs to return home, and yet, for the sake of those who need Him, he is willing to remain behind. The depth of his faith, his love, his hope radiates out through all the ages again and again in verse after verse.

"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. . . . What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice. " (Phil 1: 15, 18)

"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. " (Phil 2:1-2)

"Even if I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. " (Phil 2: 17-18)

"Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe for you. " (Phil. 3:1)

" But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself." (Phil 3:20-21)

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety 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 passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. " (Phil 4:4-8)

Over and over and over again, we hear joy in the midst of adversity. Even addressing the central issues of the letter--a quarrel between two prominent church women, Paul is gentle in his admonishment and in joyful hope that the quarrel will see a rapid resolution.

So Philippians speaks to the way I see life most of the time and it is the model for how I would like to live my life all of the time. For me, it is one exemplar of the Christian Witness, a very attractive one, one likely to bring people flocking to Christianity with its love, joy, and hope.

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Reflections on Philippians 1:10b


Philippians 1:9-11

9: And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,
10: so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11: filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

I left off with approving what is excellent, a necessary but not sufficient component of Christian life and a chief reason for Paul's prayer for the Philippians, and for us. But the approval of what is excellent flows into the second reason Paul states for his prayer. "And may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ."

Paul prays for us and for our salvation. He prays that we can recognize and act upon what is excellent. Through the powers of discernment we are to choose what is BEST, not merely what is good. All creation is good, but much of creation is merely a way station on the path to God, and can be an obstacle to increasing holiness. What Paul calls on for us to do is to recognize the path to the One Thing Necessary, and through approving this path with our words, but more with our actions, to grow into purity and blamelessness.

Now surely, if so great a Saint as Paul lays this goal out before us, and certainly, if so great a Saint leads the company of Saints in praying for us, if we incline our wills the smallest amount, the spirit that is within us cannot fail to bring us a step closer. God desires the salvation of all, it is we who question whether we really want salvation or immolation in the goods of Earth. The acceptable sacrifice to the Lord is a humble and contrite heart, a life lived in approving what is excellent and transforming that approval into purity and blamelessness. We do none of this ourselves. Everything we do (other than sin) is aided by the power of God Himself. More--the prayers of all the Saints and the specific prayer that starts in this letter and resonates through eternity, are a beacon, a lighthouse, a strong signal that guides us home.

That the great Saint's prayer be not in vain, let us take one step closer today. One moment more reflecting on the Lord, one prayer more said in a calm moment, one sacrifice of love, one word of kindness, one helping hand, one moment of silence. Today we can pray for the people of Haiti who have suffered so great a disaster, we can pray that the storms out there still stay far from land and harming others, we can pray that those who do not know Christ come to know Him, we can pray through our actions and help someone in need, leading them to Christ not through words but through the corporal acts of mercy. We can love with hearts that long to see home, and we can join St. Paul in the dilemma he will express somewhat later in this great letter, "To live is Christ and to die is gain." One step at a time, we can move toward our Lord and savior. One prayer, one word, one action, one thought, one moment, any movement toward God is a movement away from the old life of separation and a step on the journey home.

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Reflections on Philippians: 1:10


While my intention is only to comment on verses 10, it seems wise to provide the three verses that make up a single sentence of this note to the Philippians.

Before I go there though, the need to site three verses (a great many more in Ephesians and others) to account for a single sentence makes me wonder about the mysteries of how the divisions between verse were originally decided. I haven't enough biblical history to know the answer to this question--but if anyone has quick reference to which they could direct me, I'd be most interested. I understand why you might break a sentence in the middle of poetry--as they can ramble on forever; however, in the midst of a block of prose, I am left to wonder. Not to question so much as to want to consider the minds of those originally tasked with this project.

One further note: I realize that a reflection chopped up by verses must to some degree be recursive. And for this I do apologize because it become tedious to tread once again old territory. On the other hand, the composition of a coherent whole, even on so little a passage as three verses might entail too long a period of time. In other words, at least by commenting sequentially and frequently, I actually end up writing the commentary. Were I to wait until everything were distilled, gelled, and solid in my mind, there is every likelihood that I would not bother to say anything at all. (Which situation might, in fact, come as a relief to those three people who stop by once or twice a week. But so far, no one has been so cruel or kind as to say so.)

Philippians 1:9-11

9: And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,
10: so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11: filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

The other day I commented on the need for discernment and how much the gift seemed to be lacking in the world today. But today my attention is focused on Paul's own explanation of why that gift is so critical and so necessary. He lists two reasons. There are undoubtedly a great many reasons, but Paul here refers specifically to two--(1) that you may approve what is excellent and (2) be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. This second reason has some further amplification in verse 11--what the expected fruits of that purity are to be.

The first of these reasons is the beautiful and lofty center of evangelical Christian life in the world. It addresses quite directly the task we are assigned and that we need to assume if our lives are to be a proper Christian witness. When we talk about "lifestyle evangelism," it is this essentially point that must be addressed--we must "approve what is excellent." I like this because it makes the point sharply. We do not merely endorse what is good. Paul knows this because all of creation is good--God made it that way. Good is, for anyone living the Christian life, the least common denominator. God made all things good so endorsing what is good does not really instruct or raise people to new heights from which to see God. Moreover, what is good is subject to endless subjective qualifications and discussions.

Approving what is excellent requires a good deal more. It requires that first we identify and name "what is excellent." And then we must approve it. How does this actually take place? We approve what is excellent by doing it. What is excellent is not a matter of aesthetic appreciation and approval is not a matter of verbal endorsement. What is excellent is what most directly leads us into closer union with God. Approval of what is excellent requires that we act on the knowledge of its excellence. We approve prayer not when we tell others to do it, but when we ourselves pray. We approve liturgy not by demanding that others attend, but when we attend and help rather than merely sit in our seats. Approval is not merely a stamp or a seal that indicates that something is good (at least not in this case), rather, it is a way of life.

The time I have for this today is done. I will return soon with further reflections on the second half of the verse.

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Philippians 1:9

9: And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,

Paul prays for the people of Philippi and, one assumes, in his place before the Lord for us as well. And the prayer--that our love may abound. With that abounding love, he asks as well a gift that is often given, less often unwrapped, and still less often actually used. He asks for knowledge and discernment. Now, a great many of us, myself among them, think we know a great deal more than we actually do. We credit ourselves with great learning. What those of us proud of our intellectual prowess seldom realize is that we know everything in the world about what does not matter and astonishingly little about "the one thing necessary." The gift that Paul asks for us is knowledge of the Lord and that knowledge is a deep understanding--an intimate view of Love. Thus knowledge deepens our own love, and knowledge otherwise directed, while always fruitful, is not at its most fruitful. What Paul prays for us is the most fruitful gift of knowledge.

This knowledge ends in discernment--because love, and particularly Love Incarnate, is the ultimate discernment. If there is any gift less used than knowledge, it must be the gift of discernment. I seem to be constitutionally incapable of choosing the greatest good. I can choose greater goods, but my will is weak, and I don't seem to be able to choose the very greatest Good, the one Good.

Discernment is sorely needed as we pass into the season of lies and counterlies, of half-truths, and of subtle traps (pun intended) that seek to persuade us to vote one way or another. But discernment is sorely needed for everyday activities. The art and grace of listening to the Lord is something that Christians have too long neglected, relying instead upon their own devices. Discernment is a faculty of the intellect inspired by grace and led by the Holy Spirit, but the intellect must be ready to be led, or discernment cannot occur. And discernment, valuing the greater good in its proper measure and thus choosing the greater good, is something whereby the entire community of God profits.

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In reading the Gospel of Luke, I happened upon several passages that were intriguing and worthy of much more comment than I am likely to give here. But one thing that crossed my mind is God's apparent obsession with free will in creation. How much more harmonious a world might He have established if He had just done something about Free Will.

It also brought into sharp focus the plight of the fallen Angels and of humanity. In fact, we both committed the same sin for the same or similar reasons. Pride says distinctly non serviam. When Adam took a bite of the forbidden fruit, he was saying, in essence, I shall not serve. When we get up each morning to face the day, immediately after our morning offering or morning prayer, many of us begin to say, "I will not serve."

But why was the sin of the Angels so much greater than our own? Why will we be forgiven and saved, but the fallen Angels cast away from God's presence? The answer lies, I think, in the fact that the choice of the angels was made with much more information at their disposal. That is, the angels directly experienced the Beatific Vision. They saw and understood precisely what it was that they were rejecting. Even in our clearest Human sight, our faulty forefather did not engage in this direct experience of God. Yes, communion was far closer than it is today. Adam and God walked in the Garden together. But we are spirits trapped in a body of flesh. Angels are pure spirit experiencing pure spirit. They knew what they rejected. They knew with long knowledge.

But another passage in the Gospel of Luke makes me wonder about the fate of the Angels. I know that the Church teaches that they will be cast out--I will hold to that faith regardless of the tantilizing suggestions that led to the "heresy" of Universalism in the west. (I'm given to understand that the Eastern Church does not regard universalism as a heresy.) The passage I find intriguing in this regard is the story of the Gerasene demoniac. When Jesus is ready to cast out the demons, they plead with HIm and beg not to be cast into the abyss, but into the bodies of a nearby herd of swine. Jesus acquiesces nd allows this to happen. How so? Why should Jesus pay attention to the pleadings of demons?

No matter how disobedient the children, I think it is very hard even for a human parent to completely repudiate them. It can be done, but it is difficult. The fallen Angels are also God's children. Even if their crime was serious, and their sin more deeply injurious because of greater knowledge and responsibility, God still sees them as part of His creation which flowed out of pure love. When they beg "for a loaf of bread" He does not "hand them a stone."

I don't know what all of this means, but it opens my eyes to the wonder of the love of God. He is gentle even with the worst and blackest of his creation. What does it mean? Honestly, I don't know, but it does seem to reinforce St. Paul's magnificent paean to love--"Love is gentle, love is kind." Surely here, we see it enduring all things and exercising tremendous forebearance.

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I know that St. Blogs is filled with inveterate readers and so I thought I'd pose this question that niggles at me from time to time. If I am such an inveterate reader, why do I not read scripture with the avidity with which I approach Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and others?

The Gospels are far shorter than the novels we read. They are, in fact, easily read in one sitting, were we so inclilned. So why is it that we seem to be so little inclined? Why is it that I do not read the Gospels through at least once a month. (One a week for four weeks.)

I can make all sorts of excuses and suggest reasons why I do not spend time in the scriptures, but the reality of the matter is that they do not mean to me what they should mean. They are not as important in my life as they should be to a person who purports to follow the leadership of the One whose life they describe.

I become more convinced through time that immersion in scripture and Tradition is what helps to make saints. Avoidance of this immersion is part of what holds us back. How can we be like Christ if the only time we hear anything about Him is at Sunday Mass? How can we hope to imitate, indeed become, Him, if we don't know who He is? And more importantly, who WE are? Because the scriptures, like any great work of literature, but par excellance, are a mirror for the reader. We read them and they accuse us of our faults and failings. They point out how we fail to be what God calls us to be. I know that in real life I avoid mirrors at all costs. I do not like to look at myself--I don't much care for what I see. (One of the chief advantages of being me is that I am on the inside looking out.) How much more then will I dislike looking in the mirror of the soul. How much less likely I am to like what I see there.

The pain of the mirror may be one reason for avoiding Scriptures, on the other hand, it is also one of the most compelling reasons to frequently visit and revisit them. This pain is a purifying pain, it is God's word of love. Just as we would not allow one of our own loved ones to go out into the world in deshabille, so too God wants us to internalize the fact that, to quote the young people of today, "You're not all that." Once this happens, perhaps we are closer to realizing that God is "all that."

So scripture reading, for those of us who love to read, seems to be de rigeur. And as we are a people set up on a hill, a lampstand to light the world, perhaps we would do well to act the part.

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Apparently King James himself developed fifteen rules for the translation of the Bible that he ordered. In these rules we see a remarkable wisdom, indeed, in one so vain and so full of himself, we see the light of the Holy Spirit Himself, assuring a translation that would guide His people for a great many years and resonate throughout all of our literature for four centuries and more. Much of what we read after this translation of the Bible was deeply influenced by its cadences and its beauty.

There are two major points of these fifteen precepts I want to touch upon. One serious, and one quite humorous.

from God’s Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

4. When a word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath ben most commonly used by the most of the ancient Fathers being agreeable to the propertie of ye place and the analogies of fayth.

The Church of England, like the Church of Rome, but unlike the more fully reformed churches of Europe, relied for its understanding of the often complex texts of scripture on the ancient inherited traditions of Christianity, the statements and resolutions of the councils of the early church and the great body of patristic scholarship, in particular those church fathers—above all Jerome, St John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Origen—of whom sixteenth-century English scholars, including several of the Translators, had made a particular study. This instruction is part of that widespread Reformation phenomenon, the search for primitive authenticity, for avoiding all hint of dreaded ‘innovation,’ looking for true meaning in the most ancient and hence most reliable texts. This too is a mark of the moderate: a historical consciousness and a sense that the world now has fallen away from the more perfect state in which it once existed.

Whether we like the fact or not, the King James Version of the Bible was guided by very “Catholic” understandings of the meaning of Scripture. We tend to think of the times as Puritan, and because the translation was eventually embraced by the Protestant Church, we tend to regard KJV as somehow “sullied” by its Protestant provenance. However, if one were to judge objectively on the base of guiding principles, the notion of interpreting scripture by Tradition is very, very Catholic.

This, coupled with another James’s edicts (7) that there should be no marginal notes beyond those required to clarify linguistic difficulties, actually resulted in a translation that was far from partisan. To quote Nicolson, “ The words of this translation, then, could embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity, did not have to settle into a single doctrinal mode but could embrace different meanings, either within the text itself or in the margins. This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon, an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. “ The resultant work could reflect both the difficulties of translation and the multiplicity of meanings inherent in written language in such a way as to create both a profound work of literature and a meaningful instance of the Word of God. What is most interesting is that the tension between the Puritan Translators and the Anglican Translators forced the Anglicans into a more “high church” mode resulting in adherence to Catholic Traditions (which, of course, they insisted were “reformed” by the true Church founded by Henry VIII). Whatever the cause, James’s edict for the translation resulted in a deep, meaningful, and fruitful translation that has yet to be equaled in beauty, if not in clarity. (I will point out though, that it was clear enough to my grandfather and his generation—my Grandfather himself having graduated only 8th grade. (This could be likened today to having graduated from a junior college at least.)

Anyway, now for the more amusing point, which was actually a side note to the main body of the text. One of James’s rules stated that the names of persons in the Bible should remain as names and not be translated into what they meant. Thus, Timothy was to remain Timothy and not be translated as “Fear of God.”

Bancroft himself had written about the absurdity of calling your children ‘The Lord-is-near, More-trial, Reformation, More-fruit, Dust and many other such-like.’ These were not invented. Puritan children at Warbleton in Sussex, the heartland of this practice laboured under the names of Eschew-evil, Lament, No-merit, Sorry-for-sin, Learn-wisdom, Faint-not, Give-thanks, and the most popular, Sin-deny, which was landed on ten children baptized between 1586 and 1596. One family, the children of the curate Thomas Hely, would have been introduced by their proud father as Much-mercy Hely, Increased Hely, Sin-deny Hely, Fear-not Hely and sweet little Constance Hely.

Now, would that I had only known this before we had Samuel. Then we could have “The-Lord-is-My-Shepherd” Riddle. Or perhaps If-Thine-Eye-Offend-Thee-Pluck-it-Out Riddle. Can you imagine bubbling THAT name in on those stupid standardized test forms? Maybe we should have a Puritan name-giving contest for our next goldfish or turtle.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Bible and Bible Study category from September 2004.

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