And it is our Epistle for today, 1 October 2017, Proper 21, Year A.The fuller quote for Phil. 2:1-13 is an excellent reminder that while we are to be “of the same mind” with one another, we are all called to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 2 begins,
1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
Not long ago I was reading this passage with a church group and I pointed out the very firm and unreasonable admonition from Paul that we all “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” What I believe is compelling is that Paul certainly knows such a request is unattainable. When are humans ever “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind“? Never. Nevertheless, we are to strive for that, it is our goal, just as after we confess our sins we seek to no longer sin, knowing that we will return again to the rite of confession and absolution. Someone in our group then said, “I prefer Eugene Peterson’s translation.”
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.
I note that the person in our study group referred to The Message as a “translation,” citing the fact that he worked from the original languages. While one could argue that any rendering from one language to another is a translation, in the field of translation The Message would be best described as a paraphrase or, generously, a dynamic translation. Peterson understands that and describes The Message not as a literal translation, “the worst translations are literal,” but rather a rendering into contemporary language and tone, seeking to convey the sense of the text rather than the literal words themselves. He does suggest that he is not paraphrasing,1 even as he admits he is trying to give the “sense” of the text. In the preface to the Message he explains,
I hoped to bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.’
There is nothing wrong with his intent, in fact, I would argue that this is the very goal and purpose of preaching. I appreciate greatly what Peterson has done with The Message and in his other works and I this is not a post to disparage or attack him or his work, there are far too many posts by others doing that. What I do want to point out is that in this single verse, Phil. 2:2, his rendering moves us away from the real challenge of Paul’s words that, as Peterson says he is hoping to achieve, the original audience would have perceived and understood without any intervention.
It is, in a way, an excellent example of the challenge and power of the Gospel that we all too often water down because we feel it is unreasonable. Of course it is! It is intended to be life-changing and eternal. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it. I always think of the words of Rabbi Tarfon from Pirkei Avoth, “”It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”
Paul is not calling us to “agree with each other” we are called to be “of one mind.” He is not asking us to be “deep-spirited friends,” but to be “in full accord and of one mind.” Can you think of any church, no matter how small, where this is the case? I can’t either, but that is actually the wrong question. Can you think of any church that has this aspiration, that is seeking to be “in full accord and of one mind”? Sadly, I can’t either, but I can think of churches that are trying to “agree with each other.” That is a poor second.
It is unreasonable to expect people to be of “one mind,” but so to is it unreasonable to expect us all to love one another as we love ourselves. And yet that is what we are called to do. It reminds me of the statement by Rabbi Tarfon.
Pirkei Avoth 2:21 הוּא הָיָה אוֹמְ׳ לֹא עָלֶיךָ מְלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִים לִיבָּטֵל
[R. Tarfon] would say “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”