I live to serve Jesus, but dying is even better. If I live, I it will be to work and get results. And I can’t make up my mind whether I’d rather die sooner and be with Jesus, which would be better for me, or live longer, which would be better for you. Come to think of it, I expect I’ll live. That way you’ll make progress, and together we can brag about Jesus when we see each other again.
Meanwhile, live in a way that Jesus would be proud of. That way, whether I make it back to see you, or I just hear about you, I’ll know that you’re staying true to your purpose, pulling together to live your faith, and not intimidated by opposition. Doing this proves that you will prevail and they will fall, and that God is still in charge. In fact, your following Jesus is a gift from God, and it’s also your privilege to suffer for Jesus. So you see, what you’re facing is really no different from what I’m facing.
Let us remember first that Paul is writing this letter from prison. Even the great lights crack under pressure. Here we find Paul, working out whether he’d rather live or die. Often romanticized and lauded as Paul’s high-minded willingness to be a sacrifice, this is quite the opposite. Things are going so badly, that death seems like a desirable alternative. In the end, he decides he’d rather live, if only to see his friends again.
Recognizing, however, that his fate is not really in his own hands, he commends to his friends to live well. He wants Jesus to be proud of them, no doubt, but he also is hedging against the possibility that their new and fragile community may also crack and fall apart under the pressures they are facing. Failure of the Philippian followers of Jesus would not only mean that Paul’s own life was in jeopardy, but also that the work that drove Paul’s life and gave it meaning would also turn out to be meaningless. One gets the sense that this is more than Paul can take. He’d rather die than see them fail.
It is, and always has been, difficult work to do something that hasn’t been done before, something bold. And it’s often dangerous. There is the temptation from within to quit rather than do the hard work. There is temptation from outside, with all the nay-sayers, those who think your plans are foolish, those who just don’t get it, and those who do and are dead-set against it happening. To do it as an individual, as Paul did, is hard enough. To do it in concert with others, and to keep an entire community together around a project is even harder. Leading a congregation, especially a demoralized congregation under pressure, is one of the hardest tasks anyone can take on. And there is no guarantee of success.
Paul’s best advice for the community of Jesus followers as he hangs on the razor’s edge of hope and despair himself, is to focus on three things:
- Stay true to your purpose. In everything keep coming back to why this community, this movement exists. Not what it does, all the varieties of programs and activities, but the Why. Why you exist as a community must be crystal clear. It must be at the center of every program and activity. It is not a debatable proposition. It’s the core out of which everything else operates.
- Pull together to live your faith. It’s been said that leading churches is like herding cats. But, difficult as it may be, it is less difficult if there is agreement about purpose. But purpose by itself is an engine without wheels. People need to actually do the work together to move a community toward fulfillment of its purpose. It’s one thing to say why you exist, but next comes actually doing what you say you exist for. Paul’s advice: do it!
- Don’t let the bastards get you down. Of course, it’s one thing to say it. But Paul at this point is living proof that it’s another thing to actually do it. It’s natural to feelings to rise and fall. It’s also natural to question whether you have what it takes, or whether it’s all really worth the effort. It’s also natural, in the face of danger and risk, to want to pull back, or in the case of opposition, to back down. The question, for the Philippian congregation, for Paul, and for anyone trying to accomplish something worth doing, is whether you give in to those despairing thoughts, or whether you push through. Paul, just barely, is pushing through.
If we strip away all the romantic notions about Paul’s selflessness, it’s clear that all his drivel about how pie in the sky might really be better is really his own working through the possibility of facing failure and death. In the end, he doesn’t choose death and pie in the sky for himself, nor does he commend it to his congregation. Better, Paul says, wherever the chips may fall, that when they go down, we know who we are, do the work, and press onward. Pie in the sky, as it turns out, isn’t anything at all. But the proof that a community will prevail is in the work.