08 Apr Lohmeyer and Philippians
Ernst Lohmeyer had worked for months toward a single goal. By turns Lohmeyer hurdled, skirted, and flirted with the range of obstacles before him, and if he was to see the fruition of his labour, he had to take his responsibilities seriously, with two hands and whatever else besides.
Lohmeyer knew no other mode but industry, or Fleiß as the Germans say (Fleiß rhymes roughly with ‘lice’), and his industry was running at full capacity. Meetings, politics, political meetings, pastoral duties, preaching, meetings, politics—such were the contents of Lohmeyer’s days as he laboured toward the scheduled day, February 15. The year was 1946 and February 15 was to play host to the (re)inauguration of the University of Greifswald, which the Soviet occupation authority had closed at the end of the Second World War.
Finally, the day arrived. Lohmeyer, the University President, had already prepared the inaugural address, and he left home well in advance of the 11:00 am opening ceremony. He had much before him, and he called his wife, Melie, to say he’d not be home for dinner. At 11:00 pm Melie responded to the doorbell, and at the landing found three members of the Soviet political police. The policemen asked after Melie’s husband and left upon finding him absent. Soon after, Lohmeyer returned home, “quite exhausted” according to Melie, and just in time for the police to return and arrest him. It was very early on February 16. Melie would never see her husband again.
Many years beforehand, as a New Testament professor and theologian, Lohmeyer had written a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Philippians and a study on the “Christ-Hymn” of Phil 2:5-11 entitled Kyrios Jesus (Lord Jesus). The latter made a profound “contribution” to the Forschungsstand (the “state of research”)—traditionally the pinnacle of academic achievement. Today, many might recognise Lohmeyer’s contribution, even if they fail to attribute it to him: among other things, Lohmeyer determined that the hymn probably predates Paul’s letter, and it is therefore an early instance of “high” Christology, which many scholars before and since Lohmeyer had understood and understand as an elaboration of the original message of the Gospel. High Christology consists in the view that the human being Jesus Christ, a first-century Palestinian Jew, is the Son of God who is identical to YHWH, the God of Israel (even if Lohmeyer didn’t put it quite this way!).
I want to offer a reflection on Philippians that takes in Lohmeyer’s odyssey with the letter and my own reading, and I pray the reflection is faithful and transparent enough to approach the holy precincts, the ground of Scripture, with integrity. Through the Lenten period I’ve been meditating on Philippians and looking forward to today, Maundy Thursday, when according to the breviary I follow, the Christ-Hymn of Phil 2:5-11 is read aloud. On the way I’ve been especially gripped by the Apostle’s words and prayer at Phil 1:8-11, as I reflected last week. The prayer unfolds in this way:
“For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God”. (Phil 1:8-11)
Paul exerts a magnetism on me that is rarely, if ever, comfortable, but which is always urgent. Paul’s urgency, the ferocity of his passion, the vitality of his conviction, is especially to the fore in his letter to the Philippians. Philippians is possibly Paul’s last letter, and it is possibly written from Rome. It is certainly written from prison. Philippians is a letter of consolation, and Paul writes not to console himself, but to console the Philippians who are grieving his imprisonment. 1:8 is the capstone of Paul’s affection for the Philippians and it patently expresses his bond with them, even to the point of a common heart (cf. 1:7)—language that in antiquity recalls friendship’s fullness. Lohmeyer speaks of Paul’s “passionate expression of longing”, and he finds in it Paul’s “decisive reason” for the letter (Briefe…, 27, 28).
Others find Paul’s central point in 1:9-11, as Paul’s affection for the Philippians overflows into prayer for them (e.g., Holloway). The key perhaps lies in Paul’s petition that the Philippians’ love super-abound “with knowledge and insight to help you determine what is best”. In essence, Paul believes the Philippians’ grief is misfounded: the Philippians have come to vest their concern in what does not ultimately matter, rather than what does, and a reorientation is necessary for the sake of the Philippians’ own holiness and “the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God”. Paul’s imprisonment doesn’t matter; others’ spiteful and ambitious machinations do not matter (1:17). Paul’s focus lies in what really matters, and for Paul, what matters is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its progress. And in this Paul rejoices. He harbours a deep and abiding joy that withstands the adversity of imprisonment and libellous rivals.
So Paul writes. His letter constitutes a form of intimacy with the Philippians, a mode of presence that seeks both to allay the Philippians’ grief at his absence and to direct them. He prays that the Philippians would come to participate in his vision, which takes after Christ’s own (cf. Phil 2:2-5), and that this vision would define their super-abounding love. Paul’s central petition is for “knowledge and full insight” (ἐπιγνώσει καὶ πάσῃ αἰσθήσει/epignései kai pasé aisthései, 1:9). The word ‘αἰσθήσει/aisthései’ appears only here in the New Testament, and when modified by the adjective ‘πάσῃ/pasé’ denotes “breadth of perception”: “the ability to make proper moral decisions in the midst of a vast array of differing and difficult choices that are constantly presenting themselves to the Christian” (Hawthorne/Martin, Philippians, 26f). Such perception is not an end in itself but serves love. Lohmeyer becomes effusive as he comments on this verse, linking it with 1 Cor 13:
“Just as love is the greatest among others [in 1 Cor 13], love here is the beginning, middle and end of the process, and perception has only to assist. In this, love does not alter but remains unchanging and ever the same. Increase alone is possible and satiety never is; this is love’s “never-becoming-tired” that 1 Cor 13 attests”. (Briefe…, 32)
I find Paul’s prayer at Phil 1:9-11 not only a grave challenge in these times, but a great encouragement. It is a grave challenge because it directs me to love and love that overflows. Yet this is a period of absence for us, just as it was for Paul and the Philippians: we are kept from each other. What does it look like to exhibit overflowing love in a time such as this? How can we be present to each other in love? Paul’s prayer is a grave challenge twice-over because it directs me to prayer as a mode of presence, and to plead that whatever love overflows in our lives would ultimately serve the glory of God. What does my prayer life look like? What changes do I need to make? And the passage challenges me to consider another fundamental question which tracks along always, faintly, but decisively: Whose knowledge and insight do I rely on? These are live questions for me.
Paul’s prayer is a great encouragement as well. Paul follows his prayer with these words:
“I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ…”(Phil 1:12-3)
God is at work, Paul’s circumstances notwithstanding, or better: through Paul’s circumstances, the Gospel breaks new ground. As I recite the prayer and read on, I find a measure of rest. I am encouraged by Paul and the Philippians, these saints who have gone before. I contemplate them as I attempt to attend adequately to Holy Scripture, this sacred ground, as they, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), envelop us. Just as prayer is a mode of presence, so this sacred ground mediates God’s presence to us.
The encouragement of prayer and Scripture, finally, spurs me to make Paul’s distinction every day between what does not matter and what does matter, and as some point out, to discern also what is (morally) indifferent. And in so doing I find it funds within me a desire to come after Paul as Paul came after Christ and as he prayed the Philippians would. The prayer directs me further to commend you all to our God, that you, in the service of God’s love, would make the distinction between what does not matter and what does matter and what is indifferent. And that you too would come after Paul as Paul came after Christ and as he prayed the Philippians would. That we would “think alike; love alike; be of one soul; be of one mind” (cf. Phil 2:1ff; see Black, 21).
Ernst Lohmeyer found the thematic centre of Philippians at 3:10-1: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ Lohmeyer found martyrdom fundamental in Philippians: it is a martyr’s letter, Paul’s final letter before his execution. Lohmeyer also wrote from prison. He married in 1916 and by 1946 his marriage with Melie had long lacked depth and life: their union was desiccated, dried up from Ernst’s devotion to his work (read: Fleiß), his wartime service, and “private” indiscretion. Though Ernst and Melie had corresponded frequently during the war-years, their letters had been kindly but not loving, at least in the way Ernst extolled the love of Phil 1:9ff. Yet Ernst’s internment led to transformation. According to his biographer:
“In cell 19 Lohmeyer ‘came to himself’, as Jesus said of the younger son who abandoned his home and father for a distant land. In ‘coming to himself,’ the son returned to the father to receive what the father ever longed to give.” (Edwards, 275)
I cannot help but see Lohmeyer’s life ultimately fulfilling the promise of his attention to Philippians. Not only would he incarnate Phil 3:10—the Soviets took his life on September 19, 1946—he would embody an answer to, even exegete in the flesh, Paul’s prayer at Phil 1:9-11. What he was unable to do in his presence to Melie, and in the freedom he had enjoyed, he found in enforced absence through the medium of the written word—and God used this particular absence/presence dynamic and context (and continues to do so!). Lohmeyer put it like this in his final letter to Melie:
“Through these long years I have often sought God, but my search was only one search among others, not the one and only search. I have sometimes even thought myself to be near God, but I did not feel or find him. How could I have? I have looked in many places and thought to find him where he was not; and at the one place where he was present for me and should be present for me, and where I could have found him, which was in our love, there I no longer found him…
[God] took freedom from me, which until then I had used to try to do everything by my own powers, and [he] compelled me to kneel before his command, which seemed senseless and foolish [to me]. He made me as one fettered, in order to fetter me to himself and to you, and in so doing he gave me the gift of inner freedom from all the mortal burdens of my life. He did all this to me, an innocent victim in the world’s eyes, the martyr of a good cause—and only he and you know that in doing so he was truly just and truly consoling. I am now a prisoner, and yet I have everything I have longed for…. In everything I am free and inwardly certain, no longer because of myself but because of the bond of unity that binds me to God and to you”. (Trans. Edwards, with some changes, 270-1, 271-2).
Our faith is ultimately incarnational, and yet we find ourselves at a distance from each other and from others whom we love. But we are not without media, modes of presence, that connect us to each other and to our Lord and saviour. This reflection embodies one modest medium, yet please join with me to pray from afar on the holy ground of Scripture, in the power of the Holy Spirit:
Father, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. We pray this in the name that is above every name, Jesus, amen.
R. Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel : God Crucified and Other Essays on the New Testament’s Christology (Milton Keynes: Authentic Publishers, 2013)
A.B. Black, The Lion, the Dove, & the Lamb: An Exploration into the Nature of the Christian God as Trinity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012)
J.R. Edwards, Between Swastika and the Sickle: The Life, Disappearance, and Execution of Ernst Lohmeyer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019)
G.F. Hawthorne & R.P. Martin, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004)
P.A. Holloway, Philippians: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2017)
E. Lohmeyer, Die Briefe an die Philipper, an die Kolosser und an Philemon (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964).
– Kyrios Jesus: eine Untersuchung zu Phil. 2.5-11 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962)
(“Apostle Saint Paul”, by El-Greco, licensed under CC Zero)