Last year, a movie was released whose story is based on the life of the German poet and writer Heinrich von Kleist. Part of the early 19th century high bourgeoisie in Berlin, the young man suffered from an extraordinarily deep distaste for life. “My desire is to depart,” these words of the apostle Paul from tonight’s lesson could have been Heinrich’s.
The plot of the movie runs like this: The young poet’s emotional life is invaded by melancholy to the point that his longing for love is transformed into a desire to die. He becomes convinced that the woman who really loves him will not care about sharing life with him. She will want to share death with him instead! My desire is to depart: “If you really love me, you will wish to die together with me; for that is the one thing that will make me happy,” he says. “I will shoot you first, then myself.”
And this is what happens after Heinrich’s meandering between two possible candidates for this morbid adventure. The first woman of his choice refuses the suicide pact. The second one, supposedly suffering from a terminal illness, agrees. And on a November day of the year 1811 the double suicide moves from idea into reality.
The audience is left with ambiguous feelings: on the one hand, there are the comical aspects of such egocentric and absurd flirting with death; on the other hand, there is a shivering sense of the affinity of love and death – “love is strong as death”, as the Song of Songs has it (8:6). How radical can love become, and still be sane? The name of this movie is “Amour fou”, mad love.
Is Paul still sane, when he says “my desire is to depart” and “dying is gain”? Or is it “amour fou,” mad love, we are witnessing when we listen to his words to the followers of Christ in Philippi?
To begin with, Paul would not have objected to being called a fool, if it was for the sake of his love of Christ. After his conversion from a persecutor of Christians into a believer in Jesus Christ, he was not particularly concerned about what others thought about him. His concern was the gospel. His passion was to build communities, where people could grow in faith and in mission for the realm of God.
So, there are indeed differences between Paul in Philippians and the poet in the movie. Where the poet seems locked up in an egocentrism that takes another person’s life, Paul opens his whole being to Christ. Paul says: “It is my eager expectation and hope that … by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.”
In the poet’s mouth, these words would have been different. He would probably say something like: “It is my eager expectation and hope that by my speaking with all boldness, you will understand that the ultimate proof of your love is to die with me, because I want to die.” Where the poet circles around his own desire, Paul sees his own life, his own body connected to the living Christ.
The poet draws his suicide partner into his own lonely spiral of death and thus literally takes her out of the relationships she has to her husband, her daughter and her world. For Paul, it belongs to the essence of life to be open to and to grow in relationships: both in relationship to God through Christ and in relationship to others. He thinks about his own life and death as part of a web of relations with Christ, with other people, with creation.
Paul’s high-flying desire to leave this life behind and to be with Christ in heavenly bliss is mitigated by an insight that is quite down-to-earth: to remain alive in this life is necessary for you, he says to the Philippians. FOR YOU. The unhappy poet says tells the woman: as an expression of your love of me it is necessary for you to die with ME. Paul says: it is necessary for me to live with YOU. And he adds: I will remain with you and continue to live with you “for your progress and joy in faith”. Faith is about growth and joy. That’s it: faith is about growth and joy!
The unhappy poet’s happiest moments occur when he can boast of his distaste for life and his desire to die. Paul’s happiest moments occur when he, together with the people of God, shares in their boasting with Christ Jesus.
Now, I hope that none of us is as unhappy as the poet in his mad love. And none of us is really like Paul. But I suppose that we all long to love and to express our love. Not an “amour fou,” a mad love. But a love inspired by the Holy Spirit.
So that we may love our life fully and passionately, ready to let go of it, when that moment comes, but not a second earlier than needed. So that we may love those who love us, with endurance, ready to share their joy and their pain, ready to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. So that we may persevere in trying to love those who stand against us; and to do so, wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Mt 10:16). So that we may love creation, imbued as it is with wild creativity. So that we may rejoice in loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the fountain of life, the source of reconciliation, the wellspring of inspiration for our pilgrimage of justice and peace.
This is the progress and joy in faith we ask for in our prayers tonight – for ourselves and for the whole family of Christian churches around the globe: so that we may prevail in peacemaking.