joy from prison

Oct 5, 2014

Most week’s my Sunday reflections and homilies are centered on the words of Jesus in the Gospel. Often the first reading of the Sunday liturgy (usually from the Old Testament) gives us a key to understanding the Gospel: Old Testament anticipation and Gospel fulfillment. The second reading (following the psalm) is usually taken from one of the letters (epistles) of the New Testament, but these sadly (due to constraints of homily time) often escape the preacher’s reflection. Today I just can’t miss the opportunity to ensure that we all get Paul’s message in his little note to the small community of Philippi (in present day Greece), a community for which he obviously has a great affection.

The New Testament letters give us some great tips on how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus transformed the the first Christians. Before their encounter with Christ their existence was a daily struggle as they tried to negotiate life’s tensions carrying burdens of personal, family and communal fears and failures. After encountering Christ, the burdens, tensions and failures were still present, but they were no longer the realities that defined these Christians. Instead their focus was somewhere else as they lived in “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”

The one who does not delight in the reality of God in the midst of daily routines is left with no choice but to see their own projects, occupations and relationships as life and death realities. In this ignorance we see these human concerns as the realities that determine our personal identity. Such a perspective makes us vulnerabile to the moods and tantrums of every employer and spouse. Christ brings a greater reality. Even if my projects fail, I lose my career and my relationships break down, my identity (while perhaps shaken in the event and aftermath of the tragedies I may suffer) continues to dwell in peace and joy in the embrace of Christ who carries me through earthly tremors into divine and eternal security, joy and peace.

For clarity I am going to use a risky example: risky because it’s not too politically correct in a secular climate. If you are upset by politcal incorrectness I advise you to skip the next paragraph.

It is very acceptable (to the politically correct) to say that my spouse or my children are the most important realities in my life. Sometimes the hyperbole gets out of control and the infatuated lover proclaims at the wedding: ‘you are my world, you are everything to me.’ At a funeral we often hear the grief-stricken mourner cry ‘now that you are gone I have lost everything, my life has no meaning.’ While in the midst of the extremes of joy or grief our limited language might struggle to express our depth of feeling, a Christian will quickly come back to distinguishing between “this is how it feels” (I have lost everything, you are my all), and the actual reality reminding us that “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

Paul lived this greater reality in the midst of every human struggle and persecution. Keep in mind that he wrote this letter to the followers of Jesus in Philippi from his jail cell! (He had been arrested simply for saying that Jesus was the Son of God). But even when behind bars after losing family and friends (because of his conversion to Christ) and all his physical freedom (in jail), he remains totally centered on Jesus Christ and proclaims (in the words of today’s reading)

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Is it possible to live this way in 2014?  YES! YES! YES!  Not only is it possible, but this is the only way a human can truly live. We can exist and survive, cope and endure without giving Christ a thought, but if we really want to live there is no other way. From my personal experience I know that it is impossible (for me and perhaps for you) to live this new Christ-centered life alone. Too easily I lose focus and forget what is truly important. How fickle I am. I cave in to the demands and pressures that surround me and I end up exausted by my own efforts to build my own kingdoms.

So what is the secret to this deep contentment? No secret! Just 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus Paul proclaims the ultimate freedom from his prison confinement. Wherever we find truth, honour, justice, purity, loveliness, graciousness, excellence, and anyone or anything worthy of praise then we are in an environment where we will experience God’s peace. It is the wise person who keeps a safe distance from attitudes and behaviours that sow seeds of disharmony. It is the wise person who seeks to spend time with people who strive to live these virtures in relationship with Christ. As Paul concludes today’s reading:

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.

Amen.  

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