Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14A

I have trouble believing Paul in today’s second reading. Not because I think he’s dishonest, but because, given his circumstances, I can’t see why he can be in such a good mood. This letter EXUDES joyful praise of God, and offers encouragement to a struggling church that he just started. His worry wasn’t for himself. His worry was for this new church in Phillipi that was trying to keep afloat.

I have trouble believing Paul because it sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into not being afraid of being executed. He’s sitting in a Roman jail, chained to the wall, and what does he have to think about all day? He’s thinking about when his end will come, and what it will look like.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death...” he says.

That’s a bold statement. Especially from someone who could be taken away and executed at any moment. Some might say that he’s masking his fear with heroic religious language, trying to convince himself that the promise of new and everlasting life with Christ was not a mere fantasy, but a present reality waiting for him just on the other side of the jail cell door.

Others might say Paul is declaring his strong, confident faith in difficult circumstances, defiantly staring death in the face, proclaiming the mighty acts of God in a world opposed to God’s kingdom.

Maybe it’s a mixture of the two.

“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he goes on to say. “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.”

So this is a win-win for Paul. If he lives, he knows that he will continue his productive hard, building churches. But if he dies he’ll be with Christ. He doesn’t know which one is better. He can’t decide which one he wants: doing rewarding, effective work on earth, or being with Christ in heaven. It’s a tough choice for Paul

But not for me. I know what I’d choose. Dying isn’t something I’m looking forward to. Although I trust that God will know what to do with me when it happens, the thought of closing my eyes with only the hope and assurance of everlasting life doesn’t sit well with me. So maybe I don’t have the confidence of Paul. Or maybe Paul is putting on a strong religious face for his people - or even for himself.

What really worries me about this passage, is that we might be tempted to reduce our faith to the prospect of being with Christ when we die, and we miss Paul’s other great joy: being fruitful in this life. Which I think is the real point he’s trying to make.

I hear too many well-meaning Christians who seem to say that this life doesn’t matter, that all that we do here in this life is just a set up for the life that is to come, that our time here on this planet is nothing more than a warm-up act for the main event which is heaven.

And if we misread what Paul is saying we could find ourselves even further from his message. Paul seems to be saying that suffering is GOOD! That we should rejoice in our suffering! But, of course, the suffering that Paul is talking about is the suffering of persecution, not just any old suffering.

But that’s not always clear. And again, I’ve heard many Christians talk about how suffering is the evidence of our evil and sinful world, and that we should just accept it because, in the next world, our suffering will end. We just have to be patient.

But that’s NOT what Paul is talking about because that is to completely miss the point of what God wants for us. God doesn’t want us to keep our gaze continually turned toward heaven. God wants our eyes set on the race that is before us. God wants us to focus on the task at hand. God wants us to love the life we’ve been given because that life is such a precious gift.

To diminish the life we have today is to diminish the value of the gift of life that God has given us the world God has so lovingly made.

That’s why Paul tells them to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Not as an act of obedience that will get you into heaven. Not as a burden meant to give you worth. But as a gift to give you life.

The gospel is love. The gospel is forgiveness. It’s peace, justice, mercy, and grace. These are the values that Paul is talking about when he says to live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.

It is because you have been given love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace, that you can live them. It is because of Jesus, you ARE worthy of the gospel. It is because God has named and claimed you as God’s own, that you can live your life in Christ.

And that means something difference for everyone. Everyone has a different task. Maybe God is asking you to pray for others. Maybe God is asking you to talk to a stranger. To heal a broken relationship. To write a letter of encouragement to someone you know who needs it. To pick up the phone and share some good news.

No matter who you are, and not matter where you are, God is calling you to live a life worthy of the gospel, because that is who you are, that is who God in Christ made you to be, so now you are agents of God’s healing mercy and forgiving love.

And today, God has claimed Ziya Jaye-Lynn in the waters of baptism. In these waters God has made her worthy to live her life in Christ. God hand is upon her, and will NEVER be let go. It is because of God’s good work in her, that she will do good work for others. God has set her on a path that leads from the joys and challenges of this world, and into the world to come.

So, live YOUR life in a manner worthy of the gospel. Life YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s grace, live YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s mercy, that reflects God’s forgiveness and peace. LOVE the life that God has given you. Shine with God’s brilliant light.

Jesus is the one who set your free from sin and death, so live your life knowing that you’re worthy, and one day, you will depart and be with Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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