Phil 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
Phil 4: 1Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you must stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, my true yokefellow, to help these women who have labored with me for the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.…
Some time ago, some wag took a photo of about a square inch of his painter’s overalls and posted the results, replete with stains and splatters. It’s a Jackson Pollock, he said, and dared us to prove otherwise. I think the point he hoped to make involved modern art, subjectivity, and random meaninglessness. I’ve stood in front of a few paintings by this artist (Pollock) in my time, as have some of you….and I suspect (or at least hope)that you would agree that the work is substantial and has merit. If you are not familiar with the artist or the work, then look.
He received early training as a landscape painter, and then later began to fill his surfaces with surreal symbols and semi abstract imagery. He finally took off all the filters and went for the heart of the matter, dripping his paints onto a sea of raw canvas. If we stand back and take in the whole picture mounted on the museum wall, then Pollock’s control, color choices and compositional approach come into fuller (elegant?) view. Everything he learned from his forays into landscape, and surrealism is in those drips and splatters. Pollock’s declaration ‘I am nature’ suggests that the particular dragon he was chasing has its roots in Romanticism, hacked its way through a Surrealist undergrowth and hit upon an endgame of pure action and gesture. Cut out the middleman. Go for the jugular.
Another uncompromisingly abstract painter who hit with a visceral punch was Mark Rothko. When I’ve entered a dedicated Rothko room, or even stood for a while in front of one of his paintings, I’ve felt a definite change in atmosphere. Rothko decried the critics who wanted to `explain’ his work by simply analyzing its formal elements of color, scale and so on. He wanted his viewers to experience something a bit more grounded, borderline …even `transcendent.’ I suspect the dragon he was chasing was in some ways similar to Pollock’s, but with Pollock, you get the feeling that he thought (at least, at one point) that he had broken through `to the garden’…whereas Rothko stood outside, access barred by an angel with a sword. I feel a sense of melancholy and exile come across in Rothko’s work.
By now, you might be wondering how I hope to convincingly segue into some remarks on Paul’s epistle to the Philippians…with some emphasis on the `fear and trembling’ verse….Phil 2:12. More than once I have found myself deep in conversation with some anxious soul who wants to know `how they can work out their salvation’ ….and how does this square with all the stuff Paul says about God’s saving grace and our utter helplessness and inability to make any contribution to getting into his good books. The full range of possible meanings behind `the stuff Paul says’ is well explored by others elsewhere. I am limiting myself to how `we’ read passages like this in this letter (and, incidentally, look at modern abstract art) What I am about to say is not really new or original….I did a brief online search and found that others had studied the epistle and formed similar conclusions. However, as Philippians (and Jackson Pollock) have come up in a couple of conversations recently, I thought I would share…
`Fear and trembling? work out your own salvation?’
Well, the good news is he’s not talking about YOU and even better news is that trying to squeeze volumes of theology out a couple of verses is as about as facile as trying to pass off a photo of a bit of your painter’s overalls as a rediscovered Jackson Pollock. There is a bigger picture involved. It only comes into view as you read the epistle as a whole. An overall (npi) read of the epistle should give you the following impression. There is a bit of tension at the church in Philippi, and Paul cannot intervene in person because he’s in prison. He names the two people who appear to be going at it (but appeals to the others….so perhaps some `sides taking’ was going on?) and `beseeches’ them to take it down a few, and find a point of harmony and agreement. He tells them they have the resources to work out a resolution to any current conflict, and provides them with some powerful images of the resources he is talking about. In my opinion, these images and their connection to each other only fully come into view when you stand back and take n the document as a whole.
The first image is the famous one. (It is) Christ taking the form of servant, even to the point of dying for the ones He was serving. Paul points out that Jesus stepped away from all the privilege and position one might associate with divinity and took the role of a servant. He was later vindicated by God who raised Him from the dead. Look at that example, Paul suggests to his conflicted readers. Adopt an attitude like that and apply it to the current situation. He then moves to another example. There is a young man that he regards as a `spiritual son’ and no doubt, an excellent role model.
Paul’s second example is… Timothy. Paul talks about the virtues and selfless lifestyle of the young man, and says he wishes he could send him along. People in this church, wondering how to untangle and `work out’ a solution to their current dilemma could learn something by looking at Timothy…But apparently sending young Tim is not in the cards. Upon reflection, Paul decides on sending someone well known to them. This is someone who has been a courier/messenger between Paul and the church. He is personally upset by what he hears is going on. In addition, he has health problems. Paul thinks it `necessary’ to send him back to Philippi. His name was Epaphroditus. They are familiar with Epahroditus. Paul suggests that his concerns, efforts, and willingness to go the extra mile are commendable. Hold such a one in high regard, says Paul (and while you are at it, look and learn…) So, Timothy and Epaphroditus are implicitly offered as role models to this struggling congregation.
Finally, Paul puts his own cards on the table. He gives a brief description of his learning and privileged position as a Jew, and then summarily dismisses it in order to establish new allegiance and priorities in Christ. He describes himself as striving to take hold of all that God has for him in Christ. He is not asking the Philippians to do anything he is not doing. He is doing it in order to demonstrate and experience the truth of the Gospel. He wants them to, as well. At this point Paul trains both barrels on `the enemies of the Cross’…those who prey on congregations and stir things up by either introducing unnecessary rules, or by trying to suggest that people can do whatever the heck they like, without fear of consequences. Avoid these people, says Paul. Paul also points out that there `is no law’ that prevents them from focusing on the truly good and beautiful. Maybe such a focus will help the congregation sort itself out a bit, and avoid the risk of inappropriately taking sides in the disagreement.
All this goes some way towards answering what it might mean to `work out (one’s) salvation, with fear and trembling.’ The larger patterns sensed throughout the document are the ones that should govern how we interpret the little puzzling bits.
It is the pattern and image of Christ, laying aside position and privilege in order to serve that is offered to the people at Philippi. There are minor elaborations on the theme, in the examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself. In my opinion, this does not quite come into view as part of the compositional architecture until we step back from our parsing and micro managing of `verses’ and such like, and take in the big picture….just like a Jackson Pollock painting.