Proper 20 (25), Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
24 September 2023
“Living is Christ and dying is gain.”
I worry about the world. Perhaps not as much as I would if I were in my twenties, but I do worry. Mostly I worry for my children. That every generation before me has also worried for their children does not take away my anxiety. My worry about the world is one reason I have opted out of the daily news cycle, because participating in it only increases my anxiety.
I was ordained in 1994. I knew well before I was ordained that the church was in transition. We knew not only that our institutions were shrinking and thus engaged in an endless and still ongoing exercise of restructuring, but we also knew that our place in society had changed. And anyone who has been part of the church for some time has noticed that it is not only that the church has become marginalized but also that the church has not yet figured out how to respond. We are experiencing an identity crisis. Some churches, perhaps the papacy of Pope Benedict is an example, shore up doctrines and dig in their heels in preservation mode while other churches, worshipping the idol of relevancy, replicate what they see in the world around them. One response appears to hold on for the sake of holding on, the other seems unaware of the unique identity and calling of the church, for a church that replicates the world is no longer able to distinguish between the agenda of the church and the agenda of the world.
As someone who grew up in a society as secular as ours is becoming I keep thinking of the theological periodical of the 1920s that carried the name “Between the Times.”1 We appear to be living in in-between times, knowing what was but not yet knowing what will be.
And then there is the world. Our society continues to polarize on many issues and citizens are often more interested in holding opinions than in doing the work that leads to informed opinions. Challenges of climate and environment are real but the economy continues to dictate everything.
If we are anxious, the apostle Paul has every reason to be anxious. He is imprisoned and his very life is threatened.
We have grown used to Paul’s imprisonments and sufferings, for us it simply is part of the history of the church. What such getting used to misses is what it would be like for a follower of Jesus to live one’s life in opposition to the authorities. We often equate being a Christian with being a good citizen, and realizing that these two are not the same would manifest a radical change. Looking at the life of Paul, that of Jesus, of the early church, and of the lives of Christians suffering persecution today, to stop equating citizenship with being a Christian would deepen our understanding of our life in Christ, beginning with the question of what it means to be a Christian.
Paul writes lovingly to the Philippians. They know each other. Paul founded this community. He does not complain about his own predicament but only expresses the joy he has in the faithfulness of those he is writing to, the spread of the Good News of Jesus, and of his life in Christ. And so it is easy for us to miss the harshness of Paul’s imprisonment and the very real threat to his life.
But paying attention to his imprisonment and his possible death creates a connection to our own anxiety. True, we are not imprisoned and the threats to our life seem more subtle and governed by democratic principles, but how do we deal with the things that raise our anxiety, threats to the life of the church, to ecosystems, to our democracy, or strife in the family, trouble at work, failing health, or dire personal economics?
You may know that I recently had an accident. You may have seen my car after the accident. To my surprise, it caused me anxiety. Everyone was OK, and the car will be repaired. In that regard all is good.
But it caused me anxiety because I consider the accident a failure on my part and I don’t like to fail, because failure reminds me of my limitations. And as strange as it may sound for an accident in which no one was hurt, my limitations remind me of death, our ultimate limitation.
Ignatius of Antioch on his way to his martyrdom at the beginning of the second century writes, “Allow me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die … Allow me to receive the pure light. When I shall have arrived there, I will be a human being.”2 This is a reversal. For Ignatius dying means to be born and to become a human being is the result of following Jesus in his passion, for Jesus is the true human being in the way God intended us.
This is hard to understand, and yet in 2 Corinthians Paul, speaking about his own affliction, says, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (v.10)
It may be that I have somehow always understood this, for the words of John the Baptist about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease,” (John 3) have always resonated with me.
For both Ignatius of Antioch and for the Apostle Paul this enlarges their frame of reference. They no longer see only their suffering, they see it as well – this is not about denial – , but what puts their anxiety and their suffering into perspective is that they know it to be true what the Lord said to Paul, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (v.9)
There are many reasons Paul can rejoice, underlying all of them is that despite the world’s chaos, God is in control, God has the whole world in his hands, and Christ is all in all. As my youth group leader said many years ago when we asked him (as he and his wife were expecting their first child) how they could bring a child into this world of chaos. He answered, “because Jesus said, I am with you always.”
The ability to rejoice in the Lord, despite the things that rightfully cause us anxiety, is the result of seeing the big picture, seeing the world in the light of God’s salvation. This means that we neither despair at tasks seemingly too great, nor that we believed all depended on us, for we know that our salvation is drawing near.