Nearly everyone, I suspect, has something about themselves they would like to change. Here’s one of mine: I sometimes think I’m too curmudgeonly. It’s easier for me to see the dark clouds, and I can be impatient with those who only see the silver linings. My wife, however, is more generous of spirit (and, I think, more generous period). If we’re out driving and another motorist cuts me off and speeds away, I will invariably make some kind of judgmental and snide remark. But she imagines that the other driver had a good reason: he’s going so fast because he needs, well, to go.
You know, badly.
That’s not to say I walk around with a sour face. I love to laugh and crack wise; growing up, I always had the reputation in our family of being a jokester, the happy-go-lucky one. And yet with all that, I’ve always felt the word joy to be a bit foreign, as if it were something just out of my reach.
You can imagine, then, how it’s a bit of a head-scratcher for me to read the following in Paul:
But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the service of your faith, I rejoice, and I rejoice together with all of you; in the same way also you should rejoice and rejoice together with me. (Phil 2:17-18, NRSVUE)
We’ve seen how Paul used the language of ritual sacrifice when he counseled the Philippians to be “children of God without blemish” (vs. 15). Here, he continues with similar language and imagery. The Philippians’ faithful service to God and the gospel is their sacrifice (cf. Rom 12:1); in this, they are one with Paul, who is being “poured out” as a drink offering, a type of sacrifice described numerous times in Mosaic law.
In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Paul speaks similarly of his being poured out as a libation; there, it means he knows his end is near. But he’s already told the Philippians that he expects to be released from Roman custody, and just a few verses down the line, he’ll say it again. At the moment, then, his sacrifice is his imprisonment for the gospel. As partners in that gospel (Phil 1:7), Paul and the Philippians must suffer in their own way.
Frankly, the passage would read a little differently to me if Paul ended with the first “rejoice”: I’m being poured out, but I rejoice. Period, full stop. That would seem sober, serious, appropriate to the theme of sacrifice and suffering.
But “rejoice” used four times in the same sentence? Or half a sentence?
Isn’t that a little over the top? Giddy, even?
The kind of joy Paul is talking about, of course, is neither mere positive emotion nor some kind of unrestrained glee. It is rather the positive result of knowing, deep down in our soul, what Paul has already been trying to teach the Philippians. Our personal stories — troubled and uncertain as they can be — are moments in God’s Story, a story whose ending is both glorious and sure.
Paul doesn’t rejoice because he enjoys (en-joys) being in chains; he rejoices because he knows his imprisonment serves the purposes of the gospel. Nor is he asking the Philippians to enjoy being persecuted by their neighbors. Rather, he wants them to see their situation as Paul sees his: as an opportunity to serve a gracious God with love and gratitude.
Paul and his beloved Philippians are in it together. That’s why he can’t simply say “I rejoice” and leave it at that. Joy isn’t merely an individual emotion; it’s a communal stance. He actually uses two related words here: “rejoice,” and a compound word that could be translated as “co-rejoice.” Thus, he first says, “I rejoice (in my suffering as an individual), and I co-rejoice with you (in your suffering).” Then he asks them to reciprocate from their side: “Rejoice (in your suffering), and co-rejoice with me (in mine).”
After all, what are friends for?
I will probably never be the jump-for-joy kind of person (though I may shout in triumph when the team I’m rooting for wins a close game or a championship). But joy isn’t dependent on our temperament, nor is it dictated by the ups and downs of our lives. It’s the freedom of spirit that comes from knowing in any and all circumstances that we serve a good and gracious God, and from taking pleasure in that service.
In that way, we rejoice as faithful individuals, and we rejoice together in community, spurring one another on in faith, hope, and love. Let us therefore rejoice. Let us co-rejoice.
And if that happens to spark a bit of merriment, so be it. I promise not to frown.