Rudyard Kipling received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. The writer and poet was perhaps best known for books like The Jungle Book (before Disney got a hold of it), The Man Who Would Be King, and Captains Courageous, as well as poems like Gunga Din. He was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in British India. I know his work primarily through the poem If, written as fatherly advice on how to keep the stereotypical British stiff upper lip. The opening of the poem may sound familiar: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Eleven times the father says “if,” suggesting that if his son can do all the things described, then “yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and — which is more — you’ll be a Man my son!”

Grammarians call this a conditional. The entire poem points toward the climactic final line: the achievement of manhood and…well, empire. But these things are conditional on everything that comes before. If you can do this, only then will this be the result.

There’s an element of uncertainty in conditionals. “If you love me,” a wife says to her husband. She’s not really sure he does love her; as Gary Chapman might say, he’s not speaking her “love language.” So she tells him what he needs to do to demonstrate his love: If you love me, you’ll do/stop doing this. And beneath that plea may be a second conditional: And then I’ll love you back.

As chapter 2 of the letter to the Philippians opens, Paul begins with “if”:

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil 2:1-2, NRSVUE)

The translation doesn’t show it, but there are actually four ifs here: if there is comfort…if there is consolation…if there is partnership…if there is affection and sympathy. To a speaker of modern English, all those ifs make Paul sound tentative. Is he worried that the Philippians might not have what it takes? Would the Philippians have read his letter as rhetorical finger-wagging?

Probably not.

I’m reminded here of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthians, which was as stormy as his relationship to the Philippians was steady and calm. Paul loved the believers in both churches immensely. And even though the Corinthians caused him no end of personal and theological distress, he was certain that the Holy Spirit was alive and well in their midst.

The Philippians? Even more so. Indeed, some scholars see a trinitarian element to these verses: there is explicit mention of Christ and the Spirit, and Paul often associates love with God the Father. Read that way, these verses express confidence in the fullness of God’s presence among the Philippians. All those “ifs” could be translated instead as “since.” It’s as if Paul were asking a series of rhetorical questions with an implied “yes” in response. I know you folks are getting some grief from your neighbors. As you’re going through this, though, are you drawing any comfort from being in Christ? I know that you are! Are you soothed by the knowledge that God loves you? Surely. Are you experiencing fellowship in the Holy Spirit? Of course! Well then, since all those things are true…

He’s not asking them to do something they’re not already doing, but to be more intentional and consistent. Even the most unified of churches may have pockets of disunity. Will they let these pockets be, or consider full unity a part of their vision and mission?

If you could do the latter, Paul says, it would really make my day.

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