Finally, my brothers and sisters, farewell in the Lord.
The letter to the Church in Philippi reflects Paul’s own uncertainty about his life and what I think is his own trying to prepare his community for his passing (cf. 1:6; 1:20–24; 1:27; 2:5–11; 2:12–13; 3:7–11; 3:12–16).
The letter itself is believed to have been written around 62 CE and Paul is believed to have been martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero shortly thereafter.
What is even more moving is a word Paul chooses to use throughout his letter: chairo. It is used 9 times in this letter. It can be translated as rejoice. Here are a couple instances:
- Phil. 2:17 But even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
- Phil. 3:1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again to you is no trouble for me, and it is a safeguard for you.
- Phil. 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!
But you know how else it can be translated?
It can be translated: be well: be glad, God speed, or farewell.
Let’s re-read these that way:
- Finally, my brothers and sisters, farewell in the Lord.
- Farewell in the Lord always; again I will say, farewell. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand (Phil. 4:4 ).
Do you see how this shifts it?
Not only do we see into the heart of Paul, who is one suffering in prison for the Gospel he has preached but also that he is learning how to say farewell through his own process of writing. I think he is coming to terms with the fact that this is the end for him. That his life, like Jesus’, will be poured out for those he loves.
And importantly, it is also a farewell letter to his community. Paul hopes to give them some parting words of encouragement that they may hang onto until the end. In a way, it is meant to help them learn how to say farewell and continue on into the unknown future.
Colony of Heaven
I think Paul knows that the church is always in danger of having “a failure of nerve,” of giving in to the demands of “the world,” of bending under the pressure of being nice, keeping the peace or just plain old survival. Paul is well aware of the cost that is incurred when it comes to trying to build the beloved community or as he calls it the “colony of heaven” (3:20).
To be the church, to be a part of this group of people right here – you’ll be relieved to know – does not mean that you are all saints like Francis, or Teresa, or even like Paul. It doesn’t mean that you spend every day praying, or reading Scripture. It doesn’t mean that you always love your enemies, or always say the right thing to someone. It doesn’t mean that you’ve worked out your prejudices, racisms, classisms, or whatever ism fits you. It certainly doesn’t mean that you always feel like God is close to you. Nor does it mean that since you are a part of the church, all the answers to life’s most challenging questions come to you in a blink of an eye.
This is not what it means to a part of the church.
But there is one thing that I do know that it means to be a part of this “colony of heaven” and that is that we take risks.
It is a risk to be a community of people who have no other reasons to meet together, to be committed to one another, to look out for one another, or to go bat for one another, other than because of a commitment to learn what it means to embody love right here in our world. Right here in a world that so desperately needs people committed to the way of love and integrity.
To be a “colony of heaven” not mean that we are waiting for our exit strategy to get off this planet or, like Pilate, wash our hands of all responsibility. It means that the Spirit has set up shop here and is building heaven on Earth. To see heaven here is to see that we are to live as God intended the world to be. To participate in the colony of heaven is to participate in a “dress rehearsal for the future.” It means to live now what we hope the future will look like.
It means that we aren’t waiting around for people to get their policies rewritten, or their budgets in order, or a better administration, or for them to read a few more books, or for things to sort themselves out over time so that we can begin to live rightly and act justly. No. We are not waiting, we are doing it right now. We will not wait Christ has come and is leading us to respond to the injustices of our world. If we do not stand up, if we do not speak up, who will?
To be a “colony of heaven” means that we will live in contrast with and sometimes have to be a prophetic voice to other colonies. Paul knew that the city of Philippi was itself a military colony that was populated by veterans of wars and as a Roman colony, it had all the rights and privileges of what it meant to be a Roman citizen. In this context Paul says, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus…”
Every right, entitlement or privilege we have can just as easily become an obstacle to speaking truth to power. Paul knows that even with all his credentials, all his rights as a Roman citizen, this did not protect him from the empire. And he preached the Gospel of love anyway.
To be a “colony of heaven” means that we must have our minds refocused. Those who are a part of the “colony of empire” have their “minds set on earthly things.” Their imaginations are captured by the prestige of power, by the rush of wealth, by the exhilaration of violence, by the pride of silencing others. Imaginations “set on earthly things” will be met with their logical conclusion. Destruction. Violence begets violence. Silence perpetuates domination. Misuse of power is costly for the whole community.
Or as Darleen Ortega wrote this week on Facebook:
Oppression depends on the acquiescence and silence of good people.
This is why Paul stresses again and again throughout his letter that the church’s mind be set on contrasting values, prophetic witness, and concern for the other.
Here my translation of Phil 4:4ff:
Godspeed in the Lord always; again I will say, farewell. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious 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.
Finally, beloved, whatever is truthful, whatever is honorable, whatever is equitable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, if there is any goodness and worthy of applause this is all the capital your colony will ever need.
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.