secret decoder ring: philippians edition – redefining “you”

As my final project for a class on Philippians, I’m working through a series of posts on Paul’s new vision of reality, and all the ways he redefines the word we thought we knew. You can read the introduction to the series here.

Philippians 1:9 – And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.

Sometimes the cultural differences are so big, we can point to them hardly better than we can point to the air; they’re just everywhere.

The word “you” is a perfect example. When I read the word “you,” I assume that it refers to “me”. That’s how English works. That’s how my Bible makes sense to me when I’m reading it in my bedroom. That’s how we tend to do Christianity in America: verses like the one above are applied to the individual all the time.

The problem is that there’s no good way to translate the word “you” in this verse into English, because it’s a plural “you”. A vosotros or an Ustedes. A y’all. The word “you” refers to “us”, when we read it together. That’s how it was written, anyway. Paul was addressing “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi”, so one of the few people in the church who could read would stand up at a regular gathering and speak Paul’s words to the congregation. And they would hear his hope that “all of their love may abound… that they might all be able to discern what is best, and all be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.” These are collective actions, performed by a community as one.

If you’re like me, you sort of know this about reading letters out loud and probably about plural you-forms of verbs, too; but you don’t actually think about it that way. You can’t not bring individualist assumptions to the verses. And while this may not mean that your interpretation is utterly wrong or unhelpful, you’re missing the fullness of what’s being said.

Because this really is about an entirely different way of thinking. If you asked a Philippian what it meant to call oneself a “Christian” (or a “follower of the way”, or whatever they actually called themselves at that point), she probably wouldn’t tell you about her individual relationship with God or about the Bible. She’d tell you she belonged to a community of people who followed a Jewish man named Jesus. And if you weren’t a part of the community, there was no way to call yourself by the same name as that group. There was no “spiritual but not religious” can buy this on etsy!

I think this is why pastors and Christians in general become so enamored of the word “koinonia”. It’s a super word that means partnership, sharing, fellowship, and it’s much easier to pronounce than a lot of other Greek words. It doesn’t imply an activity – like toting a cheese ball along with your fill-in-the-blanks workbook to a church member’s house once a week – as much as an ongoing relationship, tied to each other, sharing a fate in some sense. It could be used, among other things, for a business partnership, but in Philippians it means a partnership, sharing, fellowship in the gospel (1:5). The possibly-overused phrase “doing life together” does capture the usual Biblical usage pretty well, I think.

If I take all of Paul’s advice in Philippians as if it were addressed to me in particular, I might manage to be a pretty good person, but that’s not really the idea here. Everything Paul says about enduring suffering, finding joy, humbling ourselves, and shining like stars is addressed to one community acting together. We just can’t do these things alone.

This is hard for me. I want to argue with it, to make everything about me anyway, to complain about how I can’t control other people’s actions and how annoying their kids are and how my cheese ball recipe is way better than theirs. I don’t want to really share when it’s not just sharing coffee and gossip. Sharing my life – whether that’s my story, my time, or my money – means giving up control over it.

I’d rather be joyful and humble and shiny all on my own. I want a blue ribbon for checking off a list of positive virtues in Paul. I want to believe in my own specialness and hard work.

But here is the inescapable thing  – when it comes to koinonia with Christ, Paul never talks about the individual Christian. We always find that koinonia with Christ is found through koinonia with others. It is always and only a communal reality. In fact, in 2:12 when Paul says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” it’s your-plural salvation-singular. All of y’all’s salvation. The salvation that you share.

Paul isn’t telling me to do things, even selfless, “community-building” things. He’s calling us to a certain kind of life together, connected in ways that a consumeristic, self-oriented society is forgetting how to imagine. Maybe we can only begin to respond if we start to see our salvation, our body, our life as one.

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1 Comment

  1. meldenius

     /  January 7, 2014

    Finally got a chance to read this. Spot on.

    Collectivism rocks.


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