By Bruce G. Epperly
Advent 3, Year C
Theme: Living joyfully
Location: Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA
Good theology—clear and life-changing thinking about God—has three interconnected components:
- A vision of the world in which live, a perspective on life and God’s presence in our lives and in the world
- A promise that we can experience the God of whom we speak in our everyday lives
- Practices that enable us to experience God in life-transforming ways.
The advent readings from Philippians provide the foundations for a lively theology of joy in challenging times. While we don’t know a lot about the context of Paul’s letters, two things are certain for readers of Paul’s epistle to the Christians at Philippi: 1) Paul is in prison and 2) Paul is living joyfully. Throughout Paul’s letter—and in today’s reading—he speaks of “rejoicing” and “joy” as the heart of his experience as a Christian, despite his loss of freedom and the possibility of martyrdom. Paul’s joyful spirit provides a path for those of us who easily fall into panic, depression, anxiety, or impatience, when we face inconveniences, small and large, and by our ongoing struggles with chronic illnesses of body, mind, or spirit.
Paul grounds his joy in his belief that “the One who began a good work in the life of the Philippians—and in Paul’s own life—will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.” Writing from the German concentration camps, Victor Frankl asserts that if you have a “why,” or a reason for living, you can respond to any situation with courage and grace. Paul roots his joy, not in denial or escapism, but in God’s providential love in every situation, even prison and the prospect of death. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” . . . “God will complete God’s good work in our lives.”
That grand old word, “providence” does not mean that God determines everything, or chooses everything in our lives—from car accidents and illness to success and good health—but that in all things, God is working for good, providing resources and possibilities, and the energy to achieve them, wherever we are. That’s a vision that can change your life—the vision of God as an intimate companion, loving you completely, inspiring you always, giving you enough direction and inspiration to use your freedom and creativity for a greater good, and enough vision to see hopeful possibilities in otherwise hopeless situations. Even in the darkest time, God’s light shines—giving us a way when there is no way.
In Philippians, Paul gives us a promise. Because God is intimately present in every moment of life, urging us toward healing relationships and aiming us toward faithful witness, we can experience God’s shalom, God’s dynamic wholeness, in every situation. As Isaiah proclaims, “surely God is our salvation, I will trust and not be afraid.” And, Paul adds, if you follow the practices of relationship with the intimate God, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.”
Yes, we can experience God . . . we can see the world through the lenses of God’s ever-present love. We can have the stature of spirit that enables us to experience our highest good as connected with the well-being of the whole earth.
Like a good teacher, Paul not only shares a vision, but also presents us with a pathway to promise . . . to the experience of God’s peace, wholeness, and beauty in all circumstances.
“Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.” That’s the promise, and the path goes through practicing prayer, gentleness, and spiritual affirmations.
First, gentleness . . . “ let your gentleness be known to everyone, for God is near.” What does it mean to have a gentle spirit? (Sharing by members of the community.) Surely gentleness involves a commitment to treat everyone as Christ. In the spirit of the Benedictines, we can see Christ everywhere, because Christ is everywhere . . . we can make our lives a gift to God, because God experiences each and everything from the inside as well as the outside. Gentleness is the commitment to give God a world of beauty and goodness, by loving our neighbor . . . by pausing before a hurtful remark, by listening to her or his story, by seeing the other in her or his best light and inner goodness, rather than in terms of our ego and defensiveness. We can begin the path of gentleness simply by changing our language to that of gratitude, care, and welcome, and even in conflict, speaking quiet words, “I” statements, and asking questions, rather than demanding answers or making accusations.
Second, Paul calls us to pray in all circumstances, and we can’t be gentle, without prayer, especially around persons who try our patience or with whom we have an unhappy past. “in every thing by prayer and thanksgiving with supplication, let your requests be known to God.” Pray your tears, pray your fears…pray with each breath (tell your unconscious to align itself with God’s passion for each moment) . . . pray when you pick up the phone or send an e-mail . . . Give thanks…for this beautiful day . . . for the next breath . . . for your congregation . . . for new ideas . . . for a kind word . . . for the opportunity to grow through difficult experiences. As you long as you pray, you’re not alone, nor are you hopeless . . . prayer connects us with a well-spring of possibilities, divine insights, and the energy to bring goodness to ourselves and others.
Finally, live by spiritual affirmations. Our self-talk shapes our realities. Listen to your words and knee-jerk responses . . . pause a moment, are they hopeful or hopeless? Do they connect you with the universe or isolate you from your neighbor? Do they open you to new dimensions or constrict your reality? Do they take wings and soar, or burrow in fearfully? Listen to Paul, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pleasing…think about these things!” Spiritual affirmations do not deny the concrete evils of our time—whether starvation in Darfur, the violence in Iraq, the American health care crisis, global warming, or our own relational and personal challenges. Spiritual affirmations place our lives and the world in a larger perspective, a deeper, more authentic reality in which God is alive, God is working in our lives, in which we can change our lives and make a difference, in which we have gifts beyond our current imagination. That’s why Luke concludes his description of John the Baptist’s blunt and words with the comment, “so, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
It’s hard to imagine sentences laced with words like “brood of vipers,” as good news, but John’s “tough love,” is a call to repentance, grounded in his affirmation that we can change and experience God as our lively and personal companion. We can go, John affirms, from small-souled self-interest, to large-souled, justice-making and sharing.
So, today, what affirmations can we make that will change our lives – what positive statements can we repeat day after day until we come to see ourselves as God sees us . . . and then act on what we see. (Community sharing)
We get some affirmations today from Paul and John the Baptist. Let me name a few:
- I can repent and change my life
- I can experience God’s peace in challenging times
- God’s good work is moving through my life
- I pray and experience God’s nearness in every situation
- I am grateful for God’s bounty in all circumstances
- God is constantly giving me new possibilities and the energy to embody them
Yes, we can live a life of rejoicing. For God is near and God is here…in this place, in your heart, in your acts…Look to God’s perspective, trust God’s promises, practice gratitude, gentleness, and spiritual affirmations, and “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” will be yours.
For more on spiritual affirmations, see Bruce Epperly, The Power of Affirmative Faith (Chalice Press), Mending the World, written with Rabbi Lewis Solomon (Innisfree/Fortress), Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice (Pilgrim), and The Call of the Spirit, written with John B. Cobb and Paul Nancarrow.