And I am sure that he who began a good work in your will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
“It’s a familiar tale: an aging Beethoven, ill and deaf, conducting the orchestra and chorus in the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, conducting even after they had ceased to perform, after they had reached the end of the stunning new work, after the audience had already begun to applaud, continuing to conduct until a singer turned him around so that he could see the thunderous cheers that were resounding throughout the hall. The image is deeply moving. Several eyewitnesses tell the same tale of that fateful performance in Vienna on May 7, 1824. Their stories vary somewhat in detail. Some place the dramatic moment at the symphony’s conclusion. Others maintain it occurred at the end of the scherzo. Whenever the applause occurred, the fact that it passed unheard by Beethoven makes it clear that he could never have heard a note of this most magnificent composition. Think about that bitter fact, and then wonder that a man so crossed by fate could still demand a choir to sing rapturously of joy.”
If the letter of Paul to the Philippians was a symphony, the central theme would have been something similar to Beethoven’s Ode of Joy. The theme running through the entire letter is the word ‘joy’. No less than 12 times he uses the term in the four chapters. Rather a strange phrase for a person in chains and certainly not to be associated with a person whose entire life is in the balance. Picture this: Paul is in prison. He lives from day to day, not knowing if he will be able to see the night. The conditions of prisons in Paul’s day were a lot worse than what we can imagine today.
Paul started this letter as a friendship letter. Instead of an official greeting, he greets the congregation as friends using the greeting word “charis” which was the usual greeting words used by Greeks and “eirene’ or “Shalom,” the usual greeting for Jews. Already Paul unites the diverse congregation in his opening words. The tone of the letter is joy and gratitude. During the first part of the letter Paul lifts their spirits by giving them words of hope and courage. He also opens his own heart to them and lends the struggling congregation a sympathetic and understanding heart. Although their circumstances were greatly negative with a possible church split, division and strife pending, Paul imparts a positive message and so lifts their spirits and gives them hope.
Paul addresses the one underlying fear of the congregation which he had to deal with in his own heart first. The fear that God might let them down! Paul is in prison awaiting trial and possible death. The congregation in Philippi which started so well is going down the drain at the speed of light. Their heartfelt cry was: where is God?
Please allow me this sad story as an illustration. In 2006 a local synod of one of the churches in South Africa had on its agenda a motion which was suppose to deal with the so called gay ‘problem’. Is homosexuality a sin or not and are gays welcome as members of the church? The local synod voted 51 against 50 in favor of the motion that a previously, very outdated resolution of the church against gay people still applies. As a direct result of this decision, two ladies from different, though very conservative families, and who have been in a loving relationship for a long time, were disowned and all contact with their families were terminated. Let down by the church and their families, these ladies were shattered and disappointed. Their heartbreaking concern was: will God let us down as well? Will God give up on us as well?
This is but one sad example of the rejection and let down GLTB people experience in abundance. The tragedy of let-downs is that hope is shattered and despair sets in. Paul and the congregation of Philippi could well subscribe to this. All started so well and now half way, the let-downs! Will God also terminate his work half way? How does God view you and me? Is God really at work in our lives? Is it possible for God to stop half way and turn to ‘more important’ matters? The answer is no and a thousand times over: No! Why?
Let’s focus in on the words of Paul in Fil. 1:6. Allow me to use the metaphor of a composer and a composition to illustrate the truth of Paul’s words:
1. You are God’s composition!
When listening to the great works of music, you become aware of one thing: this piece of music is not just a mere afterthought of the composer. Let’s stick to the glorious sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Where did it all start with maestro Beethoven?
It all started with a poem, Schiller’s “An die Freude” (To Joy) over thirty years before the composition saw the light. He made various attempts to set the poem to music, even as early as 1792, only a few years after he first read it. It is said that when Beethoven first came to know this poem, he was and “optimistic young artist who had not yet even composed his First Symphony.” For him years of personal and professional growth lied ahead before he was ready to attempt once again this poem with its spiritual beauty and power.
It is also said of Beethoven that “ten years would pass before this final symphony’s completion, ten years in which Beethoven shed blood over every note, considering and rejecting over two-hundred different versions of the “Joy” theme alone. At the end of that time, he offered to the public a radically new creation that was part symphony and part oratorio, a hybrid that proved puzzling to his less daring observers. The conductor Louis Spohr, who knew Beethoven, asserted privately that the piece was “tasteless,” and Verdi, who, it must be admitted knew a thing or two about how to blend music and words, lamented that the grand finale was “badly set.” Yet others have better understood Beethoven’s final symphonic work, and have defended it eloquently.
Let us give Claude Debussy the last word:
“It is the most triumphant example of the molding of an idea to the preconceived form; at each leap forward there is a new delight, without either effort or appearance of repetition; the magical blossoming, so to speak, of a tree whose leaves burst forth simultaneously. Nothing is superfluous in this stupendous work… Beethoven had already written eight symphonies and the figure nine seems to have had for him an almost mystic significance. He determined to surpass himself. I can scarcely see how his success can be questioned.”
What a work! What a masterpiece! But it took time, sweat and tears.
A few years ago, a young gay man sat in front of me. “Johan,” he said, “do you know how I think of myself? I think of myself as God’s clown. Somehow God must have had some weird sense of humor to create such a joke! When I’m out at work or in the streets, people look at me, laughing behind my back. ‘Weird,’ they say. ‘What a fag!’ I’m so tired to live!”
How do we view ourselves? How tragic it is to listen to so many of our brothers and sisters who view themselves as God’s re-jects, God’s leftovers. How tragic is it that this view is echoed by the voices of churches, society and sometimes family! How many times have I witnessed how one of our brothers or sisters broking down in tears and shouts to God: Why am I different? Why this struggle just to be accepted and loved. How do you see yourself? I know how God sees you and me!
In Philippians 1:6 Paul sees the tiny, scattered, broken congregation of Philippi as God’s work. For the word “work” he uses a Greek word that includes the idea of labor. But the meaning even goes deeper. Note the exact words: He who has began a good work in you.
The word ‘began’ is in Greek ‘enarchomai’ and means to make a beginning or commence. It was the normal Greek word for beginning a sacrifice and described scattering the grains of barley on and around the victim which was the first act of a sacrifice. And then he uses ‘agathos’ and ‘ergon’ that carries the contextual meaning of a magnificent work of art! Wow! Did you hear this: a magnificent work of art! That’s what God thinks of you!!!!
When this incredible truth broke through their souls, think on what joy went through their hearts. There’s more! Much more!
Psalm 139 must be one the greatest psalms ever written. Look at it:
Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
The Amplified translates it like this:
For You did form my inward parts; You did knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will confess and praise You for You are fearful and wonderful and for the awful wonder of my birth! Wonderful are Your works, and that my inner self knows right well.
My frame was not hidden from You when I was being formed in secret [and] intricately and curiously wrought [as if embroidered with various colors] in the depths of the earth [a region of darkness and mystery].
Your eyes saw my unformed substance, and in Your book all the days [of my life] were written before ever they took shape, when as yet there was none of them.
There is no exclusion clause hidden somewhere here! You have been planned as God’s symphony! God’s work of art! The heavenly Ode of Joy! A symphony is an array of sounds, carefully and complicated woven together to make music. A symphony is well planned, carefully put together. That’s what God tries to tell you as a GLTB person! You are as much a symphony in progress as anyone else! But remember: you are the composition of the Master! Not a Beethoven or Mozart. No! You are the composition of the Creator of the heavens and earth. The One who surpasses all our understanding and yet is so close!
2. God is still busy with you!
A composition takes time. Read the history of works that passed the test of time. Beethoven worked very long hours on the 9th Symphony. It consumed him entirely. If I think of Handel and his masterpiece, the Messiah, I see a man working around the clock – barely eating or sleeping. A passion that consumed his inner being, his emotions and even his body! I think of Mozart’s last work, the Requiem, heavenly in grandeur and emotion. I think of how Mozart worked on it on his deathbed, labored without stop until his last breath! This is what God is doing with you! Passionately busy with a work of art! And this work of art is like a symphony – it has different movements. There are the boisterous adagios, the dark largo’s, the comic scherzos and the light and the dancing andantes, all in one work, a work interesting and creative!
God takes the initiative in starting His work in us. He takes the responsibility to continue this work and the promise to complete it!
3. God will complete it!
It is not in God’s nature to leave work unfinished. The word for ‘perfect’ in the text is ‘epitileo’ which means to make an end and bring something to its destined goal. It also conveys the sense that God will carry the work out to the finish. God will not commence this and then abandon us. He will finish the work He has begun in us and will bring it to its intended goal. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that ‘epiteleo’ was used of performing of religious services, referring to the act of fully completing the ritual of any sacrifice.
The Bible commentator William Barclay shed some more light on the words used by Paul:
“the words Paul uses for to begin (enarchomai) and for to complete (epiteleo) are technical terms for the beginning and the ending of a sacrifice. There was an initial ritual in connection with a Greek sacrifice. A torch was lit from the fire on the altar and then dipped into a bowl of water to cleanse it with its sacred flame; and with the purified water the victim and the people were sprinkled to make them holy and clean. Then followed what was known as the euphemia, the sacred silence, in which the worshipper was meant to make his prayers to his god. Finally a basket of barley was brought, and some grains of the barley were scattered on the victim, and on the ground round about it. These actions were the beginning of the sacrifice, and the technical term for making this beginning was the verb ‘enarchesthai’ which Paul uses here.”
What a picture: God finishes what God has started! Think of God’s symphonies of the past. Take Moses as an example: A stuttering murderer, hidden somewhere in the desert. Is this all there is to life, he might have asked. Forty years in the palace and now all these years hidden in a empty void? Moses, take courage, God is still composing! What a final movement it was in the Moses symphony when he led the people out of Egypt through the sea and set them on their way to the Promised land! Look at the lives of Abraham, David and many more! Look at Job! God has no unfinished symphonies!
How do all of this apply to you and me? As a gay person it lifts me up knowing I’m not a jingle, but a symphony. Not completed yet, but a masterpiece in progress. God’s Symphony in G major! (Your own interpretation applies to the G-major part!) Also that I’m in the hands of the Master! A Master who pours out heart and soul in the creation of this work! There’s something of God’s heart in me and you! Every composer pours something of his own mind and heart in his/her work! So does God! And this God won’t let you down! Listen to how Chuck Swindoll experiences it:
How do we live with worry and stress and fear? How do we withstand these joy stealers?…Let me be downright practical and tell you what I do. First I remind myself early in the morning and on several occasions during the day, ‘God, You are at work, and You are in control. And, Lord God, You know this is happening. You were there at the beginning, and You will bring everything that occurs to a conclusion that results in Your greater glory in the end.’ And then? Then (and only then!) I relax. From that point on, it really doesn’t matter all that much what happens. It is in God’s hands.
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He spent his last days in prison before he was executed during the 2nd World War, days before the death of his executor, Hitler. And he wrote this incredible poem:
A Poem from Prison: “Who Am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly,
cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and
clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably,
smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of
myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for
colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for
words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and
petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at
praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am
I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly
woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Who are you? God’s Symphony in G major – in progress. To be finished…
Johan Reiners is a former pastor of the Christian Reformed Church. He also served as senior lecturer and vice president of the Christian Reformed Theological Seminary before moving to South Korea in 2007. His other passion is music. In this regard he was actively involved with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra and the performing arts in South Africa. Johan is currently a lecturer and a narrative therapist.