Final Farewells and wishes of peace

Paul in prisonBy Joe LaGuardia

The following article is reprinted from The Rockdale Citizen.  Please note that although Joe LaGuardia will no longer publish in the Citizen after April 29th, he and a community of Baptists will continue to publish for Baptist Spirituality and other publications.  Please be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep up on our inspiring and thought-provoking publications. 

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Over the last week, I’ve been reading the “farewell remarks” from St. Paul’s epistles.  Although he writes to a variety of communities, each remark sounds similar, such as the one penned in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11).

In others, he includes a challenge for the saints to be an encouragement one to another, to speak with words of wisdom rather than malice, and greet each other with a holy kiss.

As I plan to depart from Conyers and move to Florida next week, I can’t help but keep Paul’s farewell words in mind.  That doesn’t mean I consider myself to be like Paul–he’s a saint for a reason, you know–but I do think his concluding challenges are something to ponder.

For one, he encourages churches to live in peace.  Too often, our communities are so fractured that people cease to speak to one another or get together.  We forget that, like families, churchgoers fight every now and then, but are expected to reconcile.

Reconciliation is not the same as reprimanding.  The world is good at reprimanding: our justice system and courts tell us what we’ve done wrong, and we are reprimanded as punishable by law.

Reconciliation provides the space for people to speak with each other, confront each other, and open a space for repentance.  Without the opportunity to repent and apologize–to ask forgiveness–true reconciliation does not occur.  Our peace may be a false one otherwise.

I learned this the hard way after my father’s death.  The person who shot my father and two other people at a town hall meeting some three years ago was sentenced to three life sentences.  The perpetrator will never get out on parole and he escaped the death penalty only because his state governor put a moratorium on capital punishment.

As I have worked through my grief, I have forgiven the man and moved on.  But that is not reconciliation.  Until he repents of his crime and apologizes (he gave a sort of apology when he was sentenced in court, but refused to take full responsibility for his crimes), he has robbed me (and himself) of reconciliation.

Being the church means being places of peace and peacemaking.  We are to follow Jesus’ example by putting others before self, reaching out with unconditional love, and forgiving rather than retaliating against others.

A second challenge that Paul gives the church is to be people of encouragement.  Christian encouragement does not originate from a “You’re okay, I’m okay” mentality.

Rather, encouragement originates from a deep-seated confidence and knowledge that we are blessed by God and are, in turn, called to bless–and be a blessing–to others.

Encouragement comes from the words we speak.  We are to avoid chatter and gossip, and distance ourselves from those who do. God’s blessing–his love and peace–are to shape our words and actions towards others.

After all, as Christians, we’ve inherited God’s promise to Abraham so long ago, an inheritance to be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 22:18).

Last, Paul challenged the church to greet each other with a holy kiss.

I don’t recommend this action these days any more than I recommend living by all the 600 laws as outlined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.  Nevertheless, there is a truth behind this statement.

We are to make sure that our departure from one another–whether we part permanently or temporarily–is inspired by our willingness to embrace each other the next time we meet.

No matter how much Christians fight, disagree, celebrate, praise and pray, we are to look forward to that next meeting, in this world or the next.

A holy kiss is but a cultural gesture of that embodied peace, a sign that the community is under the lordship of Christ.  It implies that we are family and suggests that we are not saying “Goodbye,” but “See you later.”

It is as the old hymn states, “God be with you ’till we meet again, by his counsels guide, uphold you.”

Enduring through persecution

Paul in prisonSt. Paul had his fair share of persecution.  The book of Acts records how Paul, persecutor–turned–evangelist, founded churches and suffered as a result.  The book concludes with Paul in jail, his fate hanging in the balance.

Founding a little church in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica was especially difficult.  Acts 17 states that he preached about Jesus in the synagogue and won only a few converts; the rest gathered an angry mob and accused him of treason.  He barely escaped to Athens.

The Bible contains two letters that Paul and his fellow ministers, Timothy and Silas, wrote to the new church in Thessalonica. In the letters, Paul expressed concern as well as praise for the church’s perseverance.

He sent Timothy back to the church in order to encourage them “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions” (3:3a).

Paul, however, takes an odd turn after that.  Rather than encouraging them to rebel or retaliate against their foes, Paul reminded them that persecution was a part of what it meant to be a Christian.

“You yourselves know,” he wrote, “that this is what we are destined for…we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution” (3:3b-4).

The church needed reminding that when they chose to follow the crucified Lord, they too promised to follow him even unto death.

Even Jesus did not shy away from this truth: “Those who do pick up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:23).

Over the past year, I have heard many Christians claim they are being persecuted for their faith.  Some say that persecution comes from an over-extended government bent on imposing morally questionable legislation, while others argue that persecution is a result of the loss of Constitutional rights.

Yet, when compared with Christians in the rest of the world–many of whom face exile, death, torture, rape, and exploitation directly due to their faith in Christ–it seems like what we call persecution is merely an inconvenience more than anything else.

According to Halee Gray Scott writing for Christianity Today, nearly 100 Christians are martyred for their faith every month, and two-thirds of the world’s nations discriminate against Christianity as a general rule.

According to Scott, “We’re incensed when a millionaire is suspended from a reality television shows for expressing his faith in a coarse manner…But we turn our heads and avert our eyes when the blood of the martyrs, our fellow Christians, cry out to us from the ground.”

I agree with Scott, and I would add that we spend too much time trying to retaliate against those who seem hostile while neglecting to repent for some of the things we say and do in the public sphere.

In the midst of persecution Christians have the greatest opportunity to reflect the best of the Gospel: Even as recipients of hostility, we share the love of a non-violent Lord who declared that compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion–not exclusion or divisive speech–are holy actions that represent a holy, merciful God.

While rejoicing in spite of hardship, we bear testimony that God’s purposes for us will triumph even over death itself.  We bear witness to a heavenly call in which we are not commanded to fight back, but to forgive and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote that the Thessalonian church communicated “the gospel of faith and love” (3:6).  Theirs was not a campaign using worldly tactics, but of living out the Good News in which Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords.

They exchanged protest signs for faith, letters to editors for planting seeds of mercy.  They included people in their fellowship rather than exclude others who did not share their particular vision of the world.

I’m still not convinced that Christians are persecuted for faith in this great country of ours.  The world is doing exactly what the world always has done, it cannot do any other.  But Christians who claim to follow Christ have the choice to do what is right, say what is wholesome, and advocate on behalf of the oppressed rather than the privileged few.