A Letter from Death Row

The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Ark.
October 12, 2011
17 Pentecost
Proper 23, Year A, Track 1

(Philippians 4:1-9) – My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 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.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

He’s writing from jail. He’s under the shadow of accusation of a capital offense. He’s likely to lose the case. He’ll probably spend the rest of his life incarcerated, and then be executed. It’s such a corrupt system, too. If you’ve got money and influence, you can moderate some of the misery. But in all probability, he knows – his life in the sun is over. So he writes this:

“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.”

A man condemned, imprisoned. A man at peace. Paul of Tarsus. This church is entrusted to his patronage. We are known as “St. Paul’s Church.” And so we are.

Word reaches Paul from outside the prison. From another one of his favorite congregations, the little church in Philippi. There is trouble. A big fight in the church. It is creating division. Resentment. Two of the leaders are estranged. It is causing serious repercussions throughout the community.

From his chains, Paul writes them. “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord…, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Synthyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. …Help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Paul has been thinking about this “book of life” a lot lately. Maybe because he sees the approach of the last chapter of his own life.

He knows that the church is under threat and intimidation from the outside. Attackers have been able to thwart his mission and place him behind bars. He also knows that the church is under threat from the inside, from internal strife and division, from Euodia and Synthyche and others.

***

Paul offers the same solution to both external intimidation and internal strife.

Is there external threat? Nothing outside can intimidate us, he says, if we live with utter confidence in the victory of Jesus. Christ’s glory is our glory. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.” Even the threat of execution.

No internal strife can touch us either, Paul says, if we identify our lives with the victory of Christ. His glory is our glory. “Stand firm in the Lord.” Because his victory is already accomplished, we need nothing else. All is accomplished; there is nothing to fight about.

So … “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the thing that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Don’t worry. Focus on the good stuff.

Yes, there is so much that invites us to be worried or anxious, near and far. Nearby: We all have personal problems. Pressures, threats, worries. But if you put your particular complaints next to Paul’s situation, living on death row as he is, might that put your problems into a different perspective. Listen to him tell you so robustly from prison, “Rejoice, …and again I say rejoice. …The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.” If he can say that from prison, can’t we lift our heads up just a bit.

There is also so much to stoke our anxieties in the wider world. Economic doldrums, perpetual war, a country profoundly divided, climate change, unemployment, deficits, a dearth of leadership. Yet Paul tells us confidently to “Stand firm in the Lord.” Don’t be unnerved by these things. Instead, think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable. If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. That takes a little discipline. Discipline of mind and of attention. It is so easy to forget that “The Lord is near.”

We tend to see what we expect to see. So much of our experience is influenced by how we interpret it.

***

What if we made a conscious choice to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable? What if, every time something negative or depressing seeks our attention, we chose instead to look for any excellence, to focus on anything worthy of praise, and to think about these things.

Paul can do this from death row. Maybe even harder, he can do this while Euodia and Synthyche are stirring things up.

Is he being false? Is Paul naïve? A part of me wants to say, “Maybe so, but so what?” Is it really better to rail self-righteously against Roman injustice and to stress over family threats and conflicts. Or to look those same problems in the eye and choose to say, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”

Sometimes when I talk to people this way, as they share their own problems and difficulties with me, somebody will say, “But I don’t know if I believe ‘The Lord is near.’ I’m not sure if I even believe that there is a God. How can I be sure?”

For most of us, there is no way to be sure. How can we know with certainty about things that are essentially mysterious?

But we will put our trust in something. Either cynicism or hope. Our own narrow interests or something greater.

***

In George MacDonald’s novel Thomas Winfold, Curate, a young priest under duress is trying to decide whether to continue his ministry. He is living with great external conflict and stress, as he is going through an internal crisis of faith, uncertain whether what he preaches is actually true. His friend asks him if he is still thinking about giving up his curacy. Here is the doubting priest’s response:

Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further… and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him. If there be no God, I feel assured that existence is and could be but a chaos of contradictions, whence can emerge nothing worthy to be called a truth, nothing worth living for. — No, I will not give up my curacy. I will teach that which IS good, even if there should be no God to make a fact of it, and I will spend my life on it, in the growing hope, which MAY become assurance, that there is indeed a perfect God, worthy of being the Father of Jesus Christ, and that it was BECAUSE they are true, that these things were lovely to me and to so many men and women, of whom some have died for them, and some would be yet ready to die.

***

Paul invites us into a way of life that is worth living for, and, he would say to us, worth happily dying for. Choose to live this way, he tells us. You can so choose to… rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Let your gentleness be known. Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.