Letters from Prison, VI: When Yellow Leaves, or Few, or None, Do Hang
I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” writes Paul to his friends in Philippi, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s talking about breaking the tape at the finish line, and going home with the gold medal. Would it surprise you to learn that sports metaphors are used eight times in the New Testament? Seven, including this one from Philippians, are by the Apostle Paul or by a ghost writer composing under St. Paul’s more celebrated name.
The frequent use of sports metaphors is not really surprising when you remember that Jesus and Paul and their contemporaries lived in a culture that was just as sports-crazed as our own.
Over in Greece the Olympic Games were held every four years; this had been going on for 700 years by the time Jesus and Paul came along and would go on for another 400 years until the excessively pious Roman Emperor Theodosius terminated the Olympics because he didn’t think the Games were Christian enough.
I strain forward for the tape at the finish line, to claim the gold medal of God’s call in Jesus Christ. The other day I went to see this new film called Race about Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the withering glare of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.
It’s a very nice film and you should see it, but I feel compelled to warn my fellow Wolverines that its two brave and talented heroes are Buckeyes. Larry Snyder was Jesse Owens’ track coach at Ohio State; Larry’s athletes broke 14 world records and won eight Olympic gold medals; 52 were All-Americans.
I wanted to see this film partly because it has one of the greatest movie titles in recent years. Race is about Race in more ways than one. One of Jesse’s best events is the 100-yard Dash, of course, or the 100 Meters. “For those ten seconds on the track,” says Jesse, “there’s no black and white, only fast and slow.” Yes?
So I saw Race because I wanted to see what they would do with that great movie title, but also to live into St. Paul’s track and field metaphor in Philippians. It was fun to see Jesse Owens lunge forward with his chest at the last step of the race to be the first to break the tape at the finish line. Like St. Paul, Jesse was ‘straining forward.’
Paul tells the Philippians his own life is like 100-yard Dash: I’m coming to the end, he says. There’s not much track left. I strain forward to break the tape and take home the gold.
Philippians almost sounds like a valedictory address, doesn’t it? It sounds like a man’s last, or at least very late, words. Paul tells us explicitly at the beginning of this little letter that he is writing it from prison, but during his lifetime, Paul was in prison so often and in so many different places that scholars are not entirely sure where and when he wrote this precious little letter to the Philippians, but if my guess is correct, Paul’s writing from a Roman prison cell in 62 or 63 A.D.
We think that St. Paul was an almost exact contemporary to Jesus of Nazareth, which means that he was born in about 4 B.C., so at the writing of this letter, Paul is about 65, 66 years old. That was a great age in the first century, when life expectancy was less than 35 years. Today it’s approaching 80, but not in Paul’s day. And this was after a lifetime of hardship, opposition, disputation, shipwreck, and crushing trial.
Paul knows he hasn’t much track left in his 100-yard Dash; time is probably short. He is awaiting trial in a Roman court of law, and he does not know whether his imprisonment will end in freedom, or in execution.
And so Paul is at that stage of life which William Shakespeare describes as
That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west.
As it turns out, William Shakespeare died at the age of 52, so he was never an old, old man, but maybe he was feeling old when he wrote this sonnet. He feels like he is in the late autumn of life, when only yellow leaves, or few, or none, remain. Then he changes the metaphor and says that he is in the twilight of life; it’s after sunset, not much light left.
Here’s a pointless aside, but at least it’s free. No extra charge for this. A high school teacher was teaching poetry to his senior English class. They’d spent days getting acquainted with the greatest poems in the language, including many of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, and one day the teacher decides to give his students a pop quiz.
“I’m going to recite some lines from a poem, and the first student who can tell me what the poem is gets an ‘A’ for the day. So the teacher starts reciting the first few lines of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73:
That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against…
And the teacher is only three lines into the poem when Brian, the smartest, sassiest kid in the class, shoots up his hand. “Yes, Brian,” says the teacher, “What poem is that?” And Brian says, “That’s a sonnet by Shakespeare.” And the teacher says, “Aye, Brian, that’s right; it’s a Shakespeare sonnet. But which one?” And Brian thinks for a minute and says, “William!’ That kid’s going to go far. He got his ‘A’ for the day.
Anyway, when Paul writes this letter, he is in that time of life when yellow leaves, or few, or none, do hang. Philippians might be his last will and testament. As far as posterity is concerned, they are his dying words.
And as the last letter Paul wrote, Philippians is unique in the Pauline corpus. Notice that here Paul turns from disputation to affirmation. You know how rough Paul can be with the churches he founded. To the Corinthians he writes, “What in the world has gotten into you? Why are you behaving like a bunch of heathens, like a bunch of…well, like a bunch of Corinthians!”
And to the Galatians, Paul says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? I am astonished that you are turning away from the Gospel I preached to you. How could you forget so soon what I taught you, you bunch of amnesiacs!”
But now in this letter, it is as Paul is saying, “Time is too short for admonition. Time is too short for dispute.”
You know what I think? I think we are witnessing in the letter to the Philippians the mellowing of a cantankerous old rapscallion. In the full flower of his productive middle years, his 40’s and 50’s, Paul gave us lofty theological treatises like Romans, I and II Corinthians, and Galatians. These documents are hard, complicated, some of them very long, more books than letters. Paul pulls no punches there. But here, when time is short, it is as if he comes to the conclusion that it is time for the lighter touch. “Rejoice!” he says to his friends. “Again, I say, rejoice!”
Do you know what they sometimes call Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi? They call it Paul’s Ode to Joy. “Rejoice!” says Paul, over and over and over again, 16 times in a short epistle of 104 verses. “Rejoice!” says Paul, 16 times. “Rejoice that to live is Christ and to die is gain. Rejoice that despite present appearances, God is in charge, always and everywhere. Rejoice that beyond life, more life.” Like Beethoven, St. Paul has an Ode to Joy; Philippians is his ninth and final symphony.
Do you think the world needs a gentle valedictory address like St. Paul’s just now? Does it seem as if the discourse in our democracy just now has become coarser and ruder and unkinder?
Last week the boys’ basketball team from Bishop Noll High School in Hammond, Indiana, played a road game at Andrean High in Merrillville, Indiana. Bishop Noll from Hammond is heavily Hispanic; Andrean from Merrillville is whiter. During the game, the Andrean student section held up cutouts of Donald Trump’s face and chanted “Build a Wall!” Both schools are Catholic, if you can believe that.
“On the track there is no black or white, just fast and slow,” said Jesse Owens. “I strain forward to break the tape at the finish line to take home the gold,” writes St. Paul.
You’ve probably noticed that William Shakespeare is the man of the hour around the world just now. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has a number of special events; The Lyric Opera is staging Romeo and Juliet just now; and it’s all because Mr. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616—his birthday, by the way—which makes the upcoming April 23 the 400th anniversary of his death.
Reading Philippians made me think of Shakespeare. This is what I mean: The great bard’s best and most profound and most difficult work comes from his 30’s and 40’s. The great, dark tragedies—Hamlet, Lear, MacBeth, Othello—where no character flaw is ever forgiven and every error amplified until the stage drips with blood—Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia; Hamlet and Ophelia; Othello and Desdemona; MacBeth and his wife. I’m not playing the spoiler here, am I? You know Hamlet dies in the end? You knew MacBeth dies in the end? A while back I went to Northwestern to see a film of the Hamlet Benedict Cumberbatch performed in London last fall; I was reminded that the body count is shocking.
These are the greatest plays ever written. The vision is profound, moral, and true, but dark and tragic. These great plays come from the genius of his most productive younger years.
But after this, when death is close and time is short, with his very final plays, Shakespeare turns to the lighter touch—Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest—these are nothing but fairy tales.
This is the way Frederick Buechner puts it: “Cymbeline, where innocence is vindicated and old enemies reconciled. The Winter’s Tale, where the dead queen turns out not to be dead after all, and the lost child, Perdita, restored to those who love her. And The Tempest, where the great storm of the world that lashed old Lear to madness is stilled by Prospero’s magic, and justice is done, and lovers reunited, and the kingdom restored to its rightful king.”
Do you remember what we felt last fall when we saw The Tempest in Chicago, when the vengeful despot Prospero finally morphs into the benevolent deity whose islanders flourish and love rather than suffer and hate? “Be not afear’d,” says Caliban:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The storm is nothing; the joy is all. Lear is true: your sins can kill you, and endanger your family. Lear is true, but The Tempest truer still. “It is as if at the end of his career Shakespeare speaks into the night a golden word too absurd perhaps to be anything but true, the laughter of things beyond the tears of things…That is the Gospel, the meeting of darkness and light, and the final victory of light…The joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief.”
And so Paul too. He has been hunted, jailed, tried, whipped, excoriated, shipwrecked, and anathematized, and now he’s in jail again, left there by the Romans to rot, for all they care. And at the end of it all he says, “Despite all this, I am filled with joy. Because of all this, I am filled with joy. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Have you ever taken the time and trouble to read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? I never did till I finally caved a while back to get ready for this sermon. Its language seemed so quaint and tired, and its genre is allegory, in which every character is really nothing more than an obvious cipher for some abstraction—you know, characters called Christian and Pliable and Obstinate and Faithful and Piety.
But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it would have been in nearly every home of the English-speaking world, right next to the King James Bible, whose language it shares. Many people learned to read with Pilgrim’s Progress, and it may be one of the most influential books in the language. It’s never been out of print. It was written by an uneducated poor man who made his living as a kind of handyman, and so literature scholars place it among the great works of unlettered genius written by rustics far from the university, like Homer and Bobby Burns.
It’s a letter from prison. John Bunyan wrote most of it while he was incarcerated in an English prison cell for twelve years. He was there because he was a Baptist, and that was a crime in seventeenth-century England. He refused to wear the gaudy vestments of the Anglican priest and would not install an altar rail at the communion table, so they arrested him, and told him he could go free if he would promise to conform, but he would not promise to conform. In his mind the Church of England in the seventeenth century was pompous, shallow, and self-satisfied.
So there he sat for 12 years. From his Bedfordshire prison cell, he wrote nine books and whittled a working flute from the broken leg of a wooden stool in his cell. His jailers loved him so much that they would permit him to escape now and then to visit friends and to preach at church meetings.
One night after such a furlough he came back to the prison only to find it all locked up for the night, so he woke the jailer so that he could be let back into his cell. When they finally let him out after 12 years, he went right back to his illegal preaching and got thrown back in again.
This is what he writes at the end of that long journey of the pilgrim’s progress into Christ. It seems almost a paraphrase of Paul’s description of the treasure he himself had found in the grace of Jesus Christ:
I see myself now at the end of my journey; my toilsome days are ended. I am going now to see that head that was crowned with thorns, and that face that was spat upon for me. I have loved to hear my Lord spoken of; and wherever I have seen the print of his shoe in the earth, there I have coveted to set my foot too. His voice to me has been most sweet; and his countenance I have more desired than they that have most desired the light of the sun. His Word I did use to gather for my food, and for antidotes against my faintings. He has held me, and I have kept me from mine iniquities; yea, my steps hath he strengthened in his way.
That’s not a bad valediction. What will yours be?
William Shakespeare, Sonnet #73.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 87.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, III, ii, 135ff.
Buechner, pp. 87-88, 91.
Slightly adapted for clarity from John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, originally published 1676. This passage is on the last or penultimate page of most editions.