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Living Up to What We Have Already Attained

To all the graduates at Eastern University, together with their overseers–family, friends, university faculty, and administrative deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! My text is from the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written around AD 61, which he begins with a somewhat similar greeting. What I want to highlight from the text is Paul’s statement in 1:6: “I am confident that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus.” Indeed, the title of my address re- flects Paul’s expression of a similar sentiment in Philippians 3:16, where he urges his readers, along with himself, to “live up to what we have already attained.”

Let’s begin with some historical context. For Paul, as he writes this letter around AD 61, it must seem like both the best of times, and the worst of times. He is, after all, writing either while in prison (possibly in Caesarea, possibly in Ephesus) or under house arrest (possibly in Rome) and his future is highly uncertain. In addition, as we learn later in his letter, the Philippian church is wracked by persecution from without, and from within by personal rivalries and by bad theology that lurches between Jewish legalism and pagan antinomianism. So Paul does not mince words about the situation in which he and this young church find themselves. They live, he reminds them in chapter 2, in the midst of “a crooked and depraved generation.” And Paul knows that he himself may soon be martyred for the sake of the gospel–“poured out like a drink offering,” as he puts it in 2:17.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming message of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of hope and rejoicing. The word “joy” in its various forms occurs some sixteen times in four short chapters, and the letter contains some of the most beloved, memorized exhortations of the church throughout the ages. For example: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, because it is God who works in you, to will and to act according to his purpose” (1:12-13). “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (2:13-14). “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice…. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:4- 6). “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true (Quaecumque sunt vera–the motto of the university that gave me this doctoral robe in 1971), whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things” (4:8-9). And again, the text which is as true for this year’s graduating class as it was for the infant church at Philippi: “I am confident that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6).

Now is all this happy talk from Paul just a case of whistling in the dark while he is in prison? Or is he distributing the opiate of religion to the Philippian Christians to distract them from their fear of persecution as a vulnerable minority? Alternately, is Paul, like a Platonist, urging his readers to ignore what he thinks is a debased and irrelevant material world in order to contemplate more important heavenly realities? No, and no, and no: Paul’s letter to the Philippians is earthy and practical, showing both a concern and an appreciation for the complexities of daily life in this young church. He thanks the Philippians profusely for their material support of him. He frets about their anxiety concerning the health of his fellow worker, Epaphroditus, and promises to send him back to Philippi to reassure them of his recovery. Without taking sides, he gently implores two quarreling women, Euodia and Syntyche, “to agree with each other” so that they may again become yokefellows “in the cause of the gospel” (4:2-3).

So Paul is not promoting “pie in the sky when you die,” or telling the Philippians (or us) to ignore the complex ups and downs of our historical existence. Without denying that his readers must “know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings,” he hammers home again and again, in various ways, “the power of His resurrection” (3:10). Paul knows, as all who confess Christ must know, that our life in the midst of history–whatever its ups and downs–is not like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” On the contrary, in the hands of a sovereign God, our lives are part of a cosmic drama of creation, fall, redemption, and future hope, and that drama is ultimately a comedy,

In the hands of a sovereign God, our lives are part of a cosmic drama of creation, fall, redemption, and hope, and that drama is ultimately a comedy, not a tragedy.

not a tragedy. That kingdom of future hope, where all things will be made new, is in God’s hands, and God will surely bring it to pass in God’s own good time. And yet, by God’s grace, we are co-workers with God and with each other to that end. That is why Paul could write the following words in his earlier letter to the Corinthian church: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord”–Why? “Because [Paul writes] you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

One of the great things about the Bible (as my husband the Old Testament scholar keeps telling his students) is that it is a reality book–indeed, the ultimate reality book. It is, so to speak, God’s letter to the human race, written across hundreds of years “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). And so the Bible tells us, with a depth that exceeds any other source of knowledge, just who we are as human beings, where we are in cosmic history, what’s gone wrong with our world, and why there is a solution that allows us to think and to work in anticipation of a happy ending. Thus, when we read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, with its mix of realism about the present and hope about the future, we should be able to recognize human and cosmic themes that are still very much present today. And no one can deny that you graduates are being launched into the wider world in times that are just as uncertain as those in which the Philippian church was born.

For example, each day, as I read the front section of The New York Times, I find my stomach churning as I read the names of soldiers who have perished in Iraq in the past twenty-four hours–some of them as young as nineteen years of age. So far, I have also felt relief that among those names is not the name of a recent Eastern University Honors College student who has just finished basic army training and been deployed to Baghdad as an armored vehicle driver. Another example: In the past three weeks, I have found myself apologizing to three different non-American visitors (two from Canada, one from Europe) for the fact that the Independence Hall area in downtown Philadelphia has changed from being an open park in William Penn’s “green country town” to being, in effect, an armed camp bristling with metal guard rails and security guards. My nephew, who happens to be a lieutenant in the Canadian armed forces, noted the irony of having to go through such heavy security in order to visit (of all things) the Liberty Bell. All I could say to him, by way of apology, was “It wasn’t this way before 9/11.”

Moreover, even if America were not in the midst of a very controversial war, you graduates still have to face the possibility of a lot of individual insecurity. It’s true that a greater proportion of students than ever before are graduating from colleges and universities, but often with a load of debt that forces them to postpone marriage, family, and home ownership until well into their thirties. On top of this there is the uncertainty, born of globalization and other more local economic policies, that you will have enough steady employment to pay off those college debts, guarantee continuous health coverage, and undertake the graduate training that is more and more necessary for professional certi- fication. You early�twenties graduates (as most of you are) have no doubt read that you are part of the first American generation whose overall standard of living, on average, may be lower than that of your parents. However else your elders might want to criticize you, you cannot be faulted for complacency. It is not for nothing that you, and those a little older than you, have been called “the anxious generation.”

So if Paul were catapulted into our midst tonight from some metaphorical heavenly space ship, I suspect he would recognize the substance, if not the details, of our present situation, with its “wars and rumors of wars,” and with its economic uncertainty. I suspect he would say, in effect, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Dear flock (he might add),

I suspect Paul would recognize the substance, if not the details, of our present situation, with its “wars and rumors of wars,” and with its economic uncertainty.

what did you expect in this ‘time between the times,’ in this era of ‘the already, but the not-yet,’ in this cosmic historical interlude between the D-Day of Christ’s resurrection and the V-Day of Christ’s final return to make all things new?” And yet I suspect–no, I know–that Paul would also say to you what he wrote to the Philippians almost two thousand years ago: “I am confident that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus.” The Philippian church was suffering its share of persecution, as was Paul himself. But most of us here today (and I include myself, as one who grew up part of the materially-secure, post-World War Two baby-boom generation) are still more like the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews: in our struggle against sin, brokenness, and uncertainty, we “have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Heb. 12:4). And so, when we think anxiously about the future in a time of economic and political uncertainty, we would do well to remember that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) –some of them still alive and in this very room–who have been through a great deal more.

My parents came to maturity in rural Ontario in the middle of World War One. No sooner had the nation recovered from that trauma when the Great Depression hit. No sooner had recovery from the Depression begun when World War Two arrived on the scene. How did they manage, I ask myself, looking back from my all-too-comfortable pew in the present. How did they survive, keep the faith, raise children, pursue their jobs as school teachers, and not lapse into cynicism or–worse still–curse God for having them born into the generation they were in? I will go further: my parents-inlaw not only lived through two world wars and a depression; they also lived through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and all the trauma of a post-war immigration experience in the United States. What led them to risk their necks to join the Dutch resistance and help smuggle Jews to safety, instead of looking out for number one by simply marking time and keeping a calculated low profile till the war’s end? (Plenty of people did just that: my mother-in-law recalls a family in her Dutch village that kept portraits on hand of both Hitler and Queen Wilhelmina, putting one or the other above the mantelpiece, depending on who was in town that week, the Nazis or members of the Dutch resistance).

Do not misunderstand me when I speak of such events: I am not trying to romanticize the past, because my Reformed theology– which affirms that sin and grace are complexly intertwined in every age–will not let me do that. I would love to be able to say that the outcome of my parents’ and my in-laws’ lives was one of triumphant success in the wake of their sacrifices.

You graduating seniors need to take current political and economic uncertainties seriously–but not too seriously, because they are not God’s final word for history.

But the truth is that there has been as much brokenness as triumph in their lives and those of their descendents. And if we are truly biblical people, this should not surprise us, for the Bible tells us that we are caught up in the last stages of a cosmic battle between good and evil–and in any battle, there are bound to be civilian casualties. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, they too were confi- dent, with the apostle Paul, that “the One who began a good work” in them would “bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.” So they applied the transforming, Christian vision as best they could in the circumstance in which they were placed, and left the rest up to God.

In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, C. S. Lewis preached a sermon to Oxford undergraduates entitled “Learning in War-Time.” In that sermon, he too affirmed the need to be mindful both of the cosmic battle and the more ultimate cosmic drama in which we are caught up. War and other stressful times are far from pleasant, he acknowledged, but let us not be fooled into thinking that they represent a quantum change from so-called normal life:

This war [he told his students] creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself …We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, and emergencies.

But lest his listeners–young men who had yet to be called up to active duty, and who felt vaguely guilty about still being in university– take this battle metaphor to be the last word about cosmic reality, Lewis adds a good dose of creation theology to his sermon mix:

If [humans] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would have never begun…Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some more imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes …The insects are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing on Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature.

And so now, just as Lewis was saying to his Oxford undergraduates over half a century ago in England, you graduating seniors need to take current political and economic uncertainties seriously–but not too seriously, both because there would be uncertainties in your life no matter what year you graduated, but even more so because those uncertainties are not God’s final word for history. That is why my colleague Cal De Witt–a biologist at the University of Wisconsin and occasional visitor to Eastern University–when asked by students what they should do after graduation,

Plant vineyards and enjoy them; write poems and discuss them; program computers and use them wisely; act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

tells them in all seriousness to “go and plant a vineyard.” What he means is that he wants his students to develop a sense of place in God’s creation–a niche to which they will be committed, not just for days or weeks or months, but for the years of patient stewardship that it takes to bring projects and relationships to fruition. I suspect that when he says this he is also recalling Martin Luther’s famous comment to the effect that if he knew for certain that Christ was going to return tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. Both Luther and Cal De Witt are affirming the biblical truth that our earthly, creational life is hallowed by God, and that we do not have to be in a high-gear, Type-A personality mode all the time in order to please our Maker.

In closing, if I were asked to find an Old Testament text to go along with my theme from Philippians 1, I would choose two. The first would be that great passage in Ecclesiastes 3, which reminds us that there is a proper time for every activity under heaven: a proper time to plant or uproot, to weep or laugh, to keep or throw away, to be silent or to speak–and so on. The passage then goes on to affirm God’s sovereignty “from beginning to end” and concludes as follows: “There is nothing better for humans than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil –this is a gift of God.” The second passage –especially relevant to graduates from a university that centers its mission around ‘faith, reason and justice’–would be from Micah 6:8: “God has shown you, O man [God has showed you, O graduates] what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? [Only this:] To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” I think I speak for all of Eastern’s faculty when I say that as we walk in our ridiculous robes through your midst at baccalaureate and commencement, we take a great deal of pleasure in seeing the students we have taught arrive at this rite of passage. And we hope and pray that, in spite of our limitations, your time at Eastern has prepared you well to plant vineyards and enjoy them; to write poems and discuss them; to program computers and use them wisely; to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. And it’s as true for you as it was for the members of the Philippian church in the first century AD: The One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. So go in peace and go forth in joy, to love and serve the Lord, knowing that your work–whatever it is, however humble or exalted– that work is never in vain.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. This speech was delivered as a commencement address at Eastern University.