A few weeks ago, I saw a sincere portrait of Jesus in a church classroom. An enormous buff Jesus stood atop the entire earth. One massive foot touched down on the North Pole and descended over Canada. Was it Easter or maybe the Second Coming? This curly headed brunette Jesus wore a dazzling white robe with a crimson tunic. The clouds rolled back like a scroll as a massive holy wind flew Jesus’ crimson tunic out behind him like Superman’s cape. As I studied the painting’s lines. I realized Jesus’ light brown hair was not moved despite the clouds unfurling his cape like a victory flag. Immediately, I wondered if Jesus used a lot of hair product, or was Christ’s perfectly kept hair just one aspect of the miracle? Those kinds of questions drove my youth directors over the edge. I am unsure why I still have these kinds of middle school questions? I wish you were here so I could gauge the laughter to frown ratio. It might improve my preaching.
I only share this image of Jesus, because growing up I kinda understood Jesus like a superhero. I thought I was called to a super-powered faith as well. Verses like Philippians 4:6 or 13 seemed like calls for otherworldly superpower. “Do not be anxious, but pray and peace will come.” In the worst times, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Once upon a time I believed that if I could not do all things, then I let Jesus down. And if after prayer, anxiety or fear returned, I lacked enough faith. Such a theology just adds shame and guilt to anxiety and fear.
The superpower theology is still out there. Maybe you saw on social media the church where the pastor preached, “We will defy corona-virus. You are safe in church. Jesus will protect you. Shake each other’s hands. We are raising revivalists not pansies…. hug each other.”
One of the great sins of American civil religion is our tendency to pick a Bible verse, lift it completely out of its context, and jam it like a magic bullet point into any argument we want to make. Such proof-texting turns the Bible into a magic book filled with laws and incantations, instead of the story of God’s unfolding love for humanity. We cut and paste verses, one from here, another from there, leaving holes in the text. We string together a patchwork personal faith. Such strung together theology closes the text and our souls to true worship. The devil is a proof-texter. We think such cut and paste theology honors God, but it often ignores the prophetic word embedding within the Bible’s stories, parables, rules, and passages. (Matthew 23:29-39)
Such string together theology creates a personal theology unwittingly made in our own images. We use the Bible to reinforce what we already believe. Such theology reinforces our cultural biases. In America, our proof-texting leads us to altars of sanctified wealth, rugged individualism, bootstrap capitalism, and hero worship. Our cultural bias towards “the individual” produces a faith too focused on one’s personal relationship with God. We forget Moses led a people and Jesus gathered disciples. Could it be that “Christ who strengthens me” is Jesus who promises to be with us whenever two or three of us gather together?
Paul opens chapter four, “Therefore, my brothers, sisters and siblings, whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.” Consider this: Paul is not sending a confidential email to an individual Christian. Paul is writing to brothers, sisters and siblings, who he loves and misses. And Paul is not present with his friends. Paul is experiencing social isolation. Paul writes from prison. (Phil 1:7) Twenty of the twenty six New Testament books are letters passed between Christians experiencing enforced physical social distancing. When we name that we “love and miss” we affirm the inherent goodness with this life. Let us remember that as we move through this season.
Listen, for the message of love, sharing and community: Brothers, sisters, (and siblings) whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. Loved ones… Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters…focus your thoughts on whatever is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you (guys) learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
I suppose my rugged individual blinders just framed these verses in terms of private prayer. The context tends towards shared prayers. Paul tells his brothers, sisters and siblings to pour out all their anxieties, fears and worries before God and one another. Get all those requests out into God’s safe and open space! Jesus promises to complete our spiritual connection whenever two or three of us gather! (Matthew 18: 19-21) Paul letters are filled with personal struggles, longings, disappointments, foolishness and even boasts. (2 Corinthians 12) How did we turn these letters to brothers, sisters, and siblings into tracts preaching a disconnected and highly personalized faith? Could our sharing within a beloved community usher in that peace that surpasses understanding? Galatians 6:2 teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ (to love your neighbor as yourself).” Love listens. Listening heals. Love shares. Love reaches out for help. Love listens…
“I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength!” Maybe this is not an individual achievement mantra, but a prisoner’s prayer, reassuring people deeply worried about Paul, that with God’s presence we will get through this together! Paul continues, “Still, you have done well to share my distress.” “Enduring all these things,” and “doing all things” are different translations. Clearly Paul can’t break free of Roman chains and fly over to Phillipi, his purple cape flapping in a holy wind! Listen to the context found in Philippians 1:12-13: “Brothers and sisters, (siblings) I want you to know that the things that have happened to me have actually advanced the gospel. The whole Praetorian Guard and everyone else knows that I’m in prison for Christ. Most of the brothers and sisters have had more confidence through the Lord to speak the word boldly and bravely because of my jail time.” Perhaps, Paul is not saying, “I can do anything through Christ’s strength,” but “I can get through this with Christ and your sharing in my distress brings Christ closer.”
Did you notice how Paul says both, “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions… (and) you have done well to share my distress.” The call to not be anxious is not opposed to feeling distress! Paul calls us to pour out all that stirs up our anxiety, sharing our distress with each other. God’s peace is not otherworldly, but comes as two or three share life, even life virtually. Christ’s peace and presence engages the world in every distressing season. After speaking of not being anxious, Paul names his own distress. When beloved people, crowns and joy, travel with us through distressing seasons, perhaps we find that we can do all things through Christ. In naming our wounds and worries together in prayer, maybe we find God’s peace that surpasses understanding.
Did not most of Jesus’ healings involve conversations? (Matthew 8-9 or 12) Faith is not found within superheros with unflappable hair. Is not our deepest healing found within Christ’s cross? Brothers, sisters, siblings,loved one, who I long and miss, maybe our collective exhaling of healing comes as we share our distress and remember what is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise.
I have been wondering how Matthew knew that Jesus was starving or even spent 40 days in the wilderness? I imagine Jesus just told Mary, Martha, or Matthew about that wilderness ordeal. I imagine Jesus telling how the brown creek stones came to look like loaves of bread. I left that stone at home, but had a geode that looks like grape jelly. Beloved, Jesus never came as superman. Jesus knew temptations and hunger. Jesus came to create a kingdom, a kin-dom, a beloved community, a band of brothers, sisters, and siblings sharing our journey.
Just before the cross, Jesus reaches out for help. In the Garden, Jesus turns to Peter, James, and John and says, “my soul is overwhelmed to the point of death, keep watch with me.” Surely we should follow Jesus’ lead and do the same, reaching out to share each other’s distress. Oh, I hear you skeptics, saying how they all fell asleep while Jesus prayed, but there is deep comfort in friends who love us enough to fall asleep in some uncomfortable chair.
In these isolating days let us remember our longings and missing each other remind us of the beauty of our human connections. Let us bear each another’s burdens and celebrate what is admirable, excellent and worthy of praise. Keep on listening when people are hurting. Love listens. Reach out for help. Jesus did. Love listens. Listening heals. Take comfort knowing Jesus completes fills the connection whenever two or three of gather together by any physical or electronic means! Remember, Paul calls us to share all of our anxieties and walk together through distress. Surely, God’s peace that surpasses understanding arrives in sharing together our distresses. Carry each other! And finally, know that even physically apart, we will get through this together through Christ who strengthens us. Amen.