The Happy Warrior

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 — Week of Proper 18, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)

Psalms 45 (morning) 47, 48 (evening)

1 Kings 16:23-34

Philippians 1:12-30

Mark 16:1-8(9-20)

Today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a muscular passage, ripe with military and athletic imagery. Paul writes from prison, and he writes joyfully. Some of his joy is his sense of the spread of the gospel, which he sees facilitated by his imprisonment. The word that is translated as “spread” (or sometimes “progress”) is a word related to the activity of cutting a path for an army’s progress. Even in jail, Paul is cutting a path for the spread of the progress of the gospel.

Paul says that he has become familiar to the whole praetorium, and that they know that his imprisonment is related to his witness to Christ. Scholars debate over whether Paul is speaking of the imperial guard in Rome, or the praetorium of another Roman administration in places like Caesarea, Ephesus, or Corinth. Whatever the setting, we see Paul vigorously debating his case and Christ’s cause, making progress to spread the gospel among his guards and elsewhere. His imprisonment is an active one.

Paul knows that part of his struggle is with competing Christian leaders, probably Judaizers, who insist that the Jesus movement continue as a reform of Judaism, with the expectation that Christians continue to observe the Torah, including the practice of circumcision and kosher. Paul’s lengthy conflict with these fellow Christians mark them as his enemies. He indicts their motives. He says they intend to increase his suffering in his imprisonment. Yet he also can rejoice or rationalize. “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

Paul offers us a helpful image in the conflicts and competition that affect the Christian church, with all of our divisive issues and various denominations today. Paul is self-defining and combative, but he also recognizes and rejoices that “Christ is proclaimed in every way.” He honors and respects the presence and centrality of Christ even among those groups he regards as being seriously wrong in their theology and practice.

You get the feeling that Paul really lives with a deep joy that overcomes the circumstances of his imprisonment and the theological battles that he wages. His expresses a deep sense of security. If he suffers or dies, he shares Christ’s suffering and death. If he lives and “cuts a path,” he progresses and spreads the faith of Christ. Joy abounds.

Paul closes this section with a series of military images — “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and in no way intimidated by your opponents” — he speaks like an encouraging coach, urging his readers to persevere, “since you are having the same struggle that you saw I have and now hear that I still have.”

My memory goes back to the late Hubert Humphrey. He was nicknamed the “Happy Warrior.” I remember his characteristic smile and radiant being. He left college as a boy because of his family’s financial troubles, and helped his dad start a new drugstore. He worked there for seven years, but he did not enjoy pharmacy (a form of imprisonment?). Eventually he returned to school to study political science. He came to national prominence at the Democratic convention of 1948 when he successfully defeated the rather modest civil rights plank urged by incumbent president Harry Truman. Humphrey lead a successful minority resolution on behalf of a strong statement in support of equal rights. The actions of that convention split the party as Southern Democrats created the Dixiecrat party.

Humphrey was an outspoken and energetic proponent of civil rights, arms control, a nuclear test ban, and many humanitarian causes. He introduced early legislation to create the Peace Corps. He was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

A joyful protagonist. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the letter of a happy warrior. In muscular and athletic language he urges his readers to be strong and secure, active and proactive, happy and joyful. On the day after Labor Day, we resume our work. May we do so with energy and joy, and, when necessary, a bit of the competitive spirit that Paul models for us.

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