This was my humble and much wrestled with attempt to speak to the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut. May we continue to pray for God’s peace for the families and community affected, as well as for all people and nations. And may we be peacemakers, sharing the love we have experienced in Christ Jesus with all those we encounter in both our words and our actions.
Today is Gaudate or Joy Sunday. And the readings we’ve just heard are bursting with praise and joy. But to be honest, I don’t really feel a whole lot like rejoicing. I’m still thinking about the horrible shootings of the past week – two in one week. I’m sad and wondering how this could have happened. I’m frustrated and I’m angry that once again there have been shootings in our country.
I guess when I think about it more, I’m just tired. I’m tired of turning on the news and hearing about continuing bloodshed in Syria, or more trouble in Israel and Palestine. I’m tired of hearing about tragedies happening in movie theaters, temples, malls and in schools. I’m tired of all the bad news.
And so it seems that these texts for today are horribly out of place given what’s been going on in our world. But I think just the opposite is true – these texts have a lot to say to us this morning, particularly the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
I really love this letter to the Philippians. It’s positive and upbeat, it includes the Christ Hymn in the second chapter, and it’s full of these wonderfully written sentences and phrases that I have found incredibly valuable in my own spiritual life. Not to mention, it’s short and that makes it seem a little bit easier to handle!
But there’s a lot more depth to these four chapters than we might think at first glance. The Philippians were living in what is now northern Greece along one of the major Roman trade roads of the day – the Via Egnatia. In addition, the city of Philippi, once a backwater town, had become a sort of retirement community for Roman military personnel who had fought previously with Marc Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius – yes, “Et tu, Brute?” So the city had a Roman vibe.
Then, in around 50 CE, this guy named Paul had founded a tiny church – the first on European soil. As a follow-up, Paul writes to the Philippians to share what he’s been up to, to encourage them to stay united in Christ, and to continue in the faith despite opposition. And he’s not just writing this letter from his cushy home office, he’s sitting in a prison cell, knowing that his life could seriously be in danger. Prisons in Paul’s day were not places for punishment or reform, but rather places where people would be held until a verdict could be reached. Paul was waiting to see what would happen.
It is with all this in mind that we hear four verses of Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi. We hear about rejoicing, about not worrying, and the peace of God.
How on earth is Paul able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice?” If I were sitting in a dark, dank prison cell, pondering the possibility of my death, as much as I’d like to, I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to write that. And yet, Paul is not the only prisoner I know who has had this attitude.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII for various charges, the gist of which was that he wasn’t following the Nazi party line as he should have been. During Christmas of 1943, sitting in prison, away from his family, friends and fiancée, Bonhoeffer wrote a Morning Prayer included in a collection of “Prayers for Those Also Imprisoned.” The prayer is rather long, but here’s a portion of it that echoes Paul’s words:
“In me it is dark,
but with you, there is light;
I am lonely, but you don’t leave me;
I am faint-hearted, but with you there is help;
I am disquieted, but with you there is peace;
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I don’t understand your ways, but
You know the way for me…
Lord Jesus Christ
You were poor
And wretched, and imprisoned and abandoned like me.
You know the affliction of all people,
You stay with me,
Even when no person stands with me.
You don’t forget me and you search me out.
You desire that I recognize you,
And that I turn myself towards you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
These words help to clarify for me some of what Paul was talking about.
All of the things Paul talks about in these four verses – rejoicing, not being worried, receiving the peace of God – all of these things only happen in the context of what God has done first. We are able rejoice, but we rejoice “in the Lord.” We are not concerned or worried about the things we face, because in all things, we can always bring our prayers, requests, and questions before God. And we receive the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.” In God, come down to earth in a fragile, vulnerable baby, we rejoice, we pray, and we know God’s peace.
What is peace? How do we define it? There are two KFC commercials right now that feature the tagline: “find some peace this holiday.” One shows a man using chicken to quiet two women, who are laughing and gabbing, while the other shows this same man pacifying his fighting children with chicken and chocolate chip cookies. Is that what peace is? Quieting down the noise with fried chicken?!
When we say we long for peace or that we’re praying for peace, what is it that we’re actually saying? Are we hoping that people will stop being physically harmful to one another? Or are we hoping that conflicts will cease? What does peace mean to you? What does peace look like and feel like to you?
I think we often have a more limited view of peace. I think our idea of peace sometimes looks like something that you’d hear in a beauty pageant – “I wish for world peace and for everyone to have a puppy!” Both awesome things, but a little limited.
God’s peace is far greater than that. God’s peace is “shalom” – completeness, soundness, safety, health, prosperity and wholeness. God’s peace is nothing short of the complete healing and wholeness of an aching world. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it. Wars cease. Painful conflicts end. Bitterness between politicians disappears. Words of love and joy flow from peoples’ lips. Sharp and hurtful remarks are gone. Relationships are healed and restored. People feel and are safe and secure because this peace from God is permanent – it is not temporary or confined like human peace.
This is the peace that Paul and Bonhoeffer knew. It was in the hope of this peace that they lived and died. It was in this peace that they waited for Christ’s return, just as we do today. And it’s not that their lives were free from the pains, tragedies and sufferings we experience. No – just the opposite! They had more than enough trials and ordeals. But they knew that the Lord was near.
They knew that God had come into a violent, worrisome world as a vulnerable child to live life among us. They knew that God, the holy One of Israel, had lived life as a poor peasant – an outcast. They knew that this same God, had faced the injustice and violence of the world head on, and had been crucified. They knew that this God – the God who worked through weakness and the unexpected – was raised from the dead conquering sin and death once and for all. And they knew that this God had done all of this out of love for God’s beloved children.
They knew that they could take all of their struggles, worries, problems, fears, doubts, questions and joys to God in prayer and supplication. They knew to give thanks for the good things and to let their requests – all of them, even the most mundane – be made known to God. Knowing all of this, they lived with the peace of God guarding their hearts and minds. They were able to rejoice in the goodness and the promises of God even in the midst of persecution, violence and injustice. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.”
We catch glimpses of or experience this peace from time to time. We may feel God’s peace surround us when praying or being prayed for. We may witness courageous souls stand up against violence and hate in favor of love. We may see it in little children who go caroling through the neighborhood, lifting a neighbor’s spirits. God’s peace – God’s kingdom – is breaking in, despite all that we have seen to the contrary. It has always been this way.
The peace of God is found in expectant hope. We see the horrors of the world around us and yet we know what God has done for us in Christ. We watch the news and we pray, knowing that God hears us and is at work, even if we cannot perceive how. We wait and hope for that day when God’s peace will reign. We wait and hope for Christ’s coming, knowing that all things will be made right at last.
It will take time to grieve the losses we have experienced this week. Even if we were not in that Oregon mall or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are all grieving. We are all wondering what the next steps will be. But God is also grieving. God is grieved anytime there is suffering in this world. And God knows the unbearable pain of losing a child. But God also knows that death does not have the last word. There is light that the darkness can never overcome. There is peace that no violence can take away. There is life that comes forth from death.
I’ll close with the last verse of the hymn we are about to sing: “O God, whose heart compassionate bears ev’ry human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign. O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again.” Amen.
© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.