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A Spiritual Equation

September 22, 2014

“A Spiritual Equation” Philippians 1:12-26 © 9.21.14 Ordinary 25A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve never been any good at math. It all started in first grade when I couldn’t learn to add, an operation that I still don’t trust myself with unless I’m punching numbers on a calculator. I only got through a calculus class in college because my friend Don worked with me. Unfortunately, having a tutor for the math portion of the GRE did me no good when I tried to get into a doctoral program at Union Seminary. And when I was put on the Administration Committee of Presbytery, the discussions of budgets and investments mostly went over my head. In fact, I made a fool of myself at one meeting when I tried to make a suggestion about a financial strategy.

But I do know enough to recognize an equation, with numbers or symbols on two sides, separated by an “equals” sign. Equations can be simple, like 1+1=2 or very complex, as I imagine Scotty’s was for trans-warp beaming in the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” movies.

Sometimes we read the “equals” sign as the present tense of the verb “to be.” 1+1 is 2. And that works not just with numbers. We make other statements that equate one thing with another, saying “this is that.” For example, we might find a particularly enjoyable and relaxing activity, and remark to ourselves and others “Now this is living!” Romantic songs might have the lover say: “You are my everything” or “you are my destiny.” Possibly the best example is Brad Paisley’s lyric: “To the world, you may be just another girl, but to me, baby, you are the world” ( Indeed, praise and worship music, which often sounds like a love song to Jesus or God, has lyrics like “This is the air I breathe, your holy presence living in me” and “you are my all in all.”

For the inspiration for the latter we need look no farther than Paul’s extraordinary spiritual equation in Philippians. “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The statement even becomes a kind of lyric in Greek, where the words rhyme: “emoi gar tow zane Christos kai tow apothanein kerdos.”

As we reflect on his statement, it’s helpful to know that Paul is in prison in Ephesus, a city in the Roman province of Asia, in about 52 AD, near the beginning of what’s known as his Aegean mission, named after the Aegean Sea. He’s run afoul of the authorities and isn’t sure if he’s going to get out of jail or be executed, dying a martyr to the faith. I should say that the other possibility, which has had traditional support, but is less likely, is that Paul is under house arrest in Rome at the end of his ministry and will indeed die at the hands of the Roman government. Philippians thus becomes either one of the earliest letters the apostle wrote or one of the last.

Once, of course, when he was known as Saul, he was the man in charge, seeking to put believers in prison and even execute them in God’s name. Then one day he literally saw the light and turned from his former ways to the Way, as Christianity was known then. Paul now became the one subjected, as he would say later, to “…imprisonments…countless floggings” and brushes with death. He was in “danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from [his] own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters” (2 Corinthians 11).

So is his sense that dying is gain a longing to be free from suffering and trouble? We have certainly known folks, including people we love, who are in such pain and distress that they would welcome death, for there is no other way they will be healed. Or maybe Paul is simply fed up and ready to quit. Again, we have no doubt encountered that attitude.

But neither is the case here. He could just as well have reversed the elements of the equation and said “To live is gain and to die is Christ.” For Paul, somehow living and dying are both the same, because Christ is the meaning and focus of both. If living is Christ, then our Lord is Paul’s beginning, middle, and end; his focus, friend, and family; his energizer, enabler, and example; the apostle’s confidant, confessor, and covenant partner. Christ is the star Paul orbits, the One in whom and for whom and to whom are all things. As the praise song has it, Christ was for Paul his “one pure and holy passion,” his “one magnificent obsession” (Mark Altrogge, He lived to give glory to our Lord, through his service, his words, and if necessary, his death.

And dying, he says, is gain. Paul expands on that fairly quickly and with a rich image. The English versions mostly have “my desire is to depart and be with Christ,” but that doesn’t do the Greek justice. In that language, the word Paul uses has the sense of “breaking camp” and heading out on the journey again to see what lies ahead or of a ship being loosed from its moorings and sailing out to sea for ports unknown. It’s a picturesque, expressive word, full of freedom and movement. It can have the sense of “complete relaxation.” The term can even mean “to dissolve,” as both the Latin Vulgate and one Catholic translation put it. “Cupio dissolvi” Paul writes. “I wish to dissolve, to melt” and be with Christ.

He becomes on that reading something of a mystic. He longs to be completely united with the Lord. The closest parallel is actually, again, love songs, in which the singer fervently wants to be with the object of affection, to melt into his or her arms, to be together forever. Perhaps the most well-known is the classsic by Modern English: “I’ll stop the world and melt with you.” But again, praise and worship songs, following perhaps the lead of medieval mystics, sound like poems to a lover: “I melt in your peace; it’s overwhelming. This love is so deep; it’s more than I can stand” (Kari Jobe, “The More I Seek You”). And indeed, in the ancient world, Paul’s Greek word is the same as that used of husband and wife uniting in intimacy.

We may be a bit scandalized by that. What sort of talk is this? But Paul’s desire is that strong, that focused, that overwhelming. It’s a lover on fire for his beloved, the suffering and release of one pure and holy passion.

I find it extraordinary that the apostle talks as if he has a choice between melting away into the waiting arms of Jesus and staying in this life to continue his ministry with the Philippians and others. How can he say that? Doesn’t he realize somebody else is making the decisions about his fate? Yes, of course, but Paul knows there is a freedom that can’t be taken away by chains and guards and prisons. Paul is free because his life is focused on Christ, is Christ, and nothing and no one can take our Lord’s presence from him. In life or in death, the Spirit is there.

All this is in Paul’s mind and heart as he writes from prison, and we may find it interesting. But what’s the practical takeaway for us, the help with our journey of faith? First, we have a choice in life, even when we feel hemmed in and it seems someone else controls our destiny and our decisions. Everyone of us has known a time when we felt we had no options. Or maybe we were besieged by hostile forces, whether our own doubts and sorrows or people out to get us. We wondered what tomorrow would bring. Or perhaps we had a difficult upbringing that has left us emotionally scarred or lacking in essential social skills. Could be our work is unsatisfying, but we’re stuck with what we’re doing or our health is failing in ever new and different ways. We can be bitter and resentful or we can choose to find possibility and promise in even the worst of circumstances. When we locate the source and definition of our lives beyond ourselves, in one who said “I am the life,” we may know a freedom, a confidence, a loosing, that nothing can take away.

Do you recall the movie “Braveheart”? Then you also remember the slogan of William Wallace, the character played by Mel Gibson. Whatever deprivations the authorities might cause for his people, Wallace assured his army: “They can’t take away our freedom.” Even in the midst of torture which led to his death, Wallace summoned the strength to cry out one word: “Freedom.”

The medieval Scot would not let even the worst circumstance take away what he held most dear. That can be true for us, too, when we trust in the providence of God in Jesus Christ.

Paul Tillich, one of the greatest modern theologians, once asked what we mean by the word “providence.” Around the middle of the 20th century, he explained: “It is certainly not a vague promise that, with the help of God, everything will come to a good end; there are many things that come to a bad end. And it is not the maintenance of hope in every situation; there are situations in which there can be no hope. Nor is it the anticipation of a period of history, in which divine Providence will be proved by human happiness and goodness; there is no generation in which divine Providence will be less paradoxical than it is in ours. But the content of the faith in Providence is this: when death rains from heaven as it does now, when cruelty wields power over nations and individuals as it does now, when hunger and persecution drive millions from place to place as they do now, and when prisons and slums all over the world distort the humanity of the bodies and souls of men as they do now, we can boast in that time, and just in that time, that even all of this cannot separate us from the love of God. In this sense, and in this sense alone, all things work together for good, for the ultimate good, the eternal love, and the Kingdom of God. Faith in divine Providence is the faith that nothing can prevent us from fulfilling the ultimate meaning of our existence. Providence does not mean a divine planning by which everything is predetermined, as is an efficient machine. Rather, Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event. Providence means that the daemonic and destructive forces within ourselves and our world can never have an unbreakable grasp upon us, and that the bond which connects us with the fulfilling love can never be disrupted” (The Shaking of the Foundations: 106-7).

So, because of the working of God in Christ we have a choice. But second, we are invited to practice a passionate spirituality. Presbyterians are infamously known as “God’s frozen chosen” and at times, that reputation for being dour and sour may be deserved. But actually our tradition cares as much about ardor as about order. John Calvin’s personal coat of arms was an open hand with a flaming heart in it, indicating his zeal. Reformed spirituality is not ashamed of the passion of the apostle Paul. We are invited to join him in wanting to be enveloped, embraced, overwhelmed, inflamed by a deep, abiding, and restless desire for union with Christ, our cosmic Source and Goal. We enter into the consuming fire of God’s love and melt away.

A Presbyterian minister in North Carolina, after an intense experience of walking a labyrinth, wrote: “My heart was overflowing. My mind was resting in God. My whole being was overwhelmed with the power of God’s presence. I felt like my very self was being melted in the presence of God….There are holy moments in our lives when God reaches into our hearts and melts us”  (

Indeed. We melt into union with Christ, a bond only made sweeter and stronger when we enter fully into his presence when we pass from this life, when we see face to face, when we know fully even as we have been fully known.

So, we have a choice in difficulty. We are invited to passionate relationship. But finally, we are called to give glory to Christ. We need not be missionaries or martyrs for our lives to glorify our Lord. Indeed, in everything we do and say and think, we may and do bring him praise. Whatever our worthy goals in life, they are all penultimate. Our chief end, our ultimate goal, as we are taught by our tradition, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, a sentence that manages to gather up not only this theme, but also that of the passion we were just talking about. We make our prayer that of the hymn writer: “Triune God….deeper than our minds can fathom, greater than our creeds rehearse: help us in our varied callings your full image to proclaim, that our ministries uniting may give glory to your name” (Carl P. Daw, Jr., “God the Spirit, Guide, and Guardian”).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as you probably know, was imprisoned and executed for participating in a plot to kill Hitler. So he certainly knew something about maintaining faith in the face of persecution. In his book entitled simply Ethics, the German martyr provides a fitting summary for us today: “We can only live life; we cannot define it. [Jesus says] ‘I am the life.’ No question about life can go back further than this ‘I am’. The question of what is life gives place to the answer who is life. Life is not a thing, an entity or concept; it is a person, a particular and unique person…. [L]ife can never again be separated from the…person…of Jesus….Jesus does not merely say that He is life…. He says that He is…my life, our life….My life is outside myself…another than myself; it is Jesus Christ… (paperback edition: 217-18).

Or as the translation of the lovely Spanish hymn puts it: “When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we’re dying, it is in the Lord. Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God, we belong to God.”

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