Free in Prison
When I was preaching regularly I would often find myself torn between two of the three Lectionary texts for a given Sunday. Back and forth I would go.
So this week I am drawn to both the Philippians passage (below) and to the Gospel text, which continues from last week with John the Baptist in the spotlight.
But since I am not preaching but blogging, I do not have to choose. I can do both! So, for today, here are some thoughts prompted by the epistle lesson, Philippians 4: 4 – 7. On Wednesday, I’ll turn to the Gospel lesson from Luke.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
These words of Paul to the Philippians may strike us as really lightweight, la-la land, Hallmark kind of stuff. “Do not worry about anything.” Really? What you been smoking Paul?
They might strike us that way until we are reminded that the guy who wrote them was in a Roman prison cell, the prisoner of a harsh, violent empire that had Paul under a death sentence. And, if that were not enough, Paul wrote to a small Christian congregation that had experienced persecution and could expect more to come.
La-la land this is not. Hallmark sentimentality not here.
This is a strange wisdom, a senseless joy, and an impossible peace.
Moreover, this joy and peace are not to be had in the typical American way, that is as a DIY (“do it yourself”) operation. Just buck up, think positive thoughts and get your act together. (“I just need to ‘rejoice’ harder!”) Rather than a DIY situation, this is a “let’s call somebody,” situation as Alyce McKenzie points out in a fine reflection on this passage at Patheous.
If few of us are in prison the way Paul was, that is literally, there are other kinds of prisons. We can be imprisoned by despair, overwhelmed by darkness and a sense of hopelessness. We can be imprisoned situationally, caught in difficult situation, from which there is no easy out or ready exit. And there’s a sense in which all Americans today are held hostage by Donald Trump and his chaotic, dangerous, distraction-a-day Presidency.
The other evening I was at a home where there was a beautiful display of this year’s Christmas cards, almost all showing gorgeous, happy families. All the cards but one had secular greetings. Things like “Peace and happiness from our home to yours,” or “Joy!” One, however, said “God Is Good.” The pictured family were all making funny faces at the camera, which I kind of appreciated.
My reaction to that card and the words “God is Good,” were a bit bi-polar. At one pole — “What a pathetic theological cliche! Besides, how can you say that! Don’t you know how crappy things are?” At the same moment, however, I felt deeply convicted by that simple, possibly trite, phrase. I had forgotten God. I had made the worries and frustrations of the present moment my own little prison. I was, once again, taking myself far too seriously.
Paul knows about suffering. He knows about the evil empire. But he knows something else too. That the God of Jesus Christ and not Caesar, though he claimed to be divine, is ultimate. He knows today’s worries and frustrations are not the last word. God is. Here’s the catch: such knowledge is not our human achievement; it is a gift. It’s not a “DIY.” It’s a “call somebody.”
“When we tire of the endless struggle to master our anxiety by summoning our own inner resolve, let’s acknowledge that we’ve come to the end of our human abilities and need to call for help.
Let’s call Somebody!”
So Paul’s words here are a “call somebody.” They turn us toward God in Christ, who is “near.” They remind us, as that Christmas card reminded me, of another reality and counter-truth. “God is Good.” They re-orient us. Not by pretending there is no darkness or suffering. But by reminding us that there is something, and someone, more.
Knowing this, the prison may still in a sense be there (whether a life situation or Trump lunacy) and yet we can be, and are, free.
Finally, Paul prays “And the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
There is guard at Paul’s cell door. A Roman guard. But Paul is saying that this guard is not the real one or the true one or the one that guards his heart or mind. God is his true guardian, and yours and mine.