Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is the last from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians for awhile. The reading ends at verse thirteen, but I’ve tacked on the remaining verses. The purpose of the letter becomes evident with those verses – Paul is writing a thank you to the Philippians for giving him support while he is imprisoned and awaiting a hearing before pagan authorities. In Roman times imprisonment was not actually the punishment, but a means of controlling the accused until judgement was delivered. Punishment was financial, physical, exile, or death, depending on the crime, but it was never confinement in prison.
It is not clear from the letter where Paul was or on what charge he was imprisoned. He refers to “the emperor’s household” which may be an ironic reference to other followers of Jesus also imprisoned, although some have seen it as a reference to soldiers or those close to the Emperor; on that basis, some have read the letter as having been written while Paul was in Rome, prior to his death. It also puts any discussion of “citizenship” by Paul in sharp relief especially as Paul is described by the Acts of the Apostles as being a Roman citizen.
This part of the letter has exhortations and personal notes, as is typical in the latter parts of Greek/Roman letter writing.
Philippians 4.1-13 (14-23)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
We have no good sense of who these people were or what they did. The Acts of the Apostles was written a generation after Paul and his letters, and it makes no mention of them. Presumably they are people in Philippi. The letters tend to suggest that Paul enlisted the help of capable of women in the communities where he set up churches, whereas Acts does not emphasise this and describes Paul working with one or two others. The Book of Life is mentioned in Psalm 69.28. and it is a heavenly book containing the names of the righteous.
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.
This is a lovely passage, and I cannot hear it without thinking of Henry Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord Always (c. 1682-1685). The sense of peace it describes is transcendent and desirable. What is stunning is that he clearly experiences this joy himself, even though he is in prison.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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.
There is a tradition in philosophy known as virtue ethics, which can be traced back to Aristotle but has become more prominent in recent decades thanks to the work of the Scottish-American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He, with others, views the cultivation of virtues as central to living a moral life; these virtues are rooted in ἀρετή or “excellences”. Not by accident, MacIntyre was also a Roman Catholic who was grounded in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and his moral thought, which drew heavily on Aristotle. This kind of ethics would find much support in the passage above by Paul.
Paul then goes on to describe his personal situation and to give thanks for the assistance received from the Philippians through Epaphroditus.
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. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
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, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The final verse might recall the greeting frequently used in Prayer Book liturgies: V: The Lord be with you. R: And with thy spirit. In modern liturgies the response was changed to, “And also with you”. Some objected to this, feeling that it was not an accurate translation from the various sources in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew from which the call and response came from. In particular, since it was normally an ordained person who gave the versicle “The Lord be with you” it was thought that the response “and with thy spirit” was a recognition by the congregation of the special character of the speaker’s spirit by virtue of that ordination. My own thought on this is that this is a reading into ancient phrases of an exaltation of the clergy – in truth, all Christians live by the spirit, as is evidenced by Paul’s theology and usage. Clergy are set aside not by some magical transformation of their character, but by the need for the community to have leaders. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are discerned in advance of ordination and perhaps strengthened by the prayers said by the Bishop and the laying on of hands, but there is no ontological change as such – that already took place at baptism.