Today’s Second Reading from Philippians takes us to a first century prison cell in Rome. The prisoner must be wondering if he will be whipped with a cord or whether he will die in isolation. In any case, he must certainly be experiencing anxiety and fear.
That prisoner in a Roman prison cell was none other than the apostle Paul. But this was not his first time in prison. Clement tells us that Paul was imprisoned seven times as he spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. From his prison cell in Rome, it is believed that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian congregation he and Silas founded on European soil in about 50 A.D.
In the verses for today’s lesson from Philippians, Paul focuses on rejoicing, gentleness, not worrying, prayer with thanksgiving, and the peace which only Christ can give. In just a few verses Paul has given us much to think about as we live as Christians in this world where anxieties and fears are all around us and threaten to destroy our lives.
As I thought about these verses from Philippians and Paul writing from prison, I also thought about two other famous Christians who were also imprisoned, Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and pastor and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. All three of these men faced jail time; all three of these men had strong faith in Christ; and all three of these men could have easily succumbed to fears and anxiety. But in each case, worries did not get the best of them.
As we recall Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Tegel for his participation in the resistance against Nazism. In his “Letters and Papers from Prison” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8, Fortress Press, 2010), there is one letter to his parents, Karl and Paula, which gives us insight about Bonhoeffer’s character while in the Tegel prison in 1943. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Surprisingly, the days are passing quickly in here. It seems incredible that I have already been here for three weeks. I enjoy going to bed at 8:00 p.m. – supper is at 4:00 p.m. and I look forward to my dreams…Until I fall asleep, I recite the Bible verse I memorized during the day. Then at six in the morning I enjoy reading Psalms and hymns, thinking of you, and knowing that you are thinking of me, too…By now the day has passed, and I only hope that you feel as peaceful as I do.”
Imprisoned and in isolation from his family, friends, and church family, Bonhoeffer was at peace. How was that possible? Why didn’t the fears and anxieties of prison life make his life miserable? Bonhoeffer meditated on Scripture and hymns. He held onto God’s holy word to strengthen his faith for the two years he was imprisoned before his untimely execution in the Flossenburg concentration camp in April, 1945.
Some twenty years later another Christian was imprisoned for sharing the gospel. In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. protested with others against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He was arrested on the charge of “parading without a permit” and locked up in a prison cell. From that cell he wrote a letter to eight white clergymen in Alabama who believed the civil rights movement would cause violence:
“Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, published in Liberation; Christian Century; http://www.shmoop.com)
How was it possible for King to focus on carrying the gospel by means of a non-violent movement and not let worries sway him from the mission of civil rights? King recalled the eighth century prophets who the Lord strengthened for mission when they faced rejection and oppression. Knowing this and trusting in the Lord, King wrote an inspiring letter from prison about the need to work for civil rights and justice.
As the apostle Paul wrote his letter from a Roman prison, he did not focus on what would happen next to him. He did not worry about what was to come at the hands of Roman soldiers. Instead Paul wrote to his congregation in Philippi and encouraged them to take hold of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
One fruit or gift of the Holy Spirit is joy. So Paul could write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (4:4)
Another fruit or gift from the Holy Spirit is gentleness. So Paul could write, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” (4:5)
Since the Holy Spirit gives joy and gentleness, Paul encouraged his congregation to let go of worries. He wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (4:6) This letting go of worries is done as we open ourselves up to God in prayer, trust in his goodness for us, and give him praise and thanks for the many blessings he bestows upon his people.
Finally, Paul reminds the Philippians of Christ’s promise of peace with the words, “And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:7) In fact, Jesus promised peace to his followers with these words, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The peace Christ gives goes beyond our understanding. It surpasses what we can dream about or imagine. The peace of the Lord given to us calms our fears, wipes out our worries, and destroys anxieties which would leave us in despair.
Are we worried about our future? Do we feel imprisoned by guilt or shame? Have the daily pressures of work and home life zapped our energy and clouded our minds?
As Paul reminded the Philippians, we are to hold onto the peace Christ gives which surpasses our understanding. We cannot fully comprehend how much Christ loves us. We cannot fully understand the inner calm Christ gives as we are grounded in him and live in him. Yet Christ’s love and peace makes all the difference in the world for us.
That peace made the difference for Paul, Bonhoeffer, and King. So, too, as we face the imprisonment of sin in this life, we believe that Christ forgives us, has mercy upon us, and sets us free to live for him and for others. Knowing this gives us the peace beyond what we can understand.
Believing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit our lives are wonder-filled. And being wonder-filled, we can go on our way rejoicing, being gentle to others and to ourselves, and letting go of the worries and fears of this life.
Thanks be to God!
(For more information about Philippians 4:4-7, see http://www.workingpreacher.org by Holly Hearon and by Troy Troftgruben.)