19 Apr How to face persecutions? – Fr Antony Parankimalil
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! (Phil 4:4)
St Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a letter of joy. The apostle wrote this letter while he was imprisoned, uncertain of his future. Yet, his life and testimony reflect joy and contentment throughout this epistle. This Biblical book has been the cause of transformation of many lives. The author offered up all his deepest sufferings to Jesus, changing his challenges into opportunities for evangelisation. It continues to serve as a guide for all Christians through the ages.
The epistle of Joy
In the short letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions the word ‘Joy’ or ‘Rejoice’ very often—nearly 16 times, and this was at a time when he was undergoing rigorous imprisonment in Rome. The letter exudes the joy of the author in Christ and all that Christ has given him. It is this assurance that helps Paul turn one of the most difficult moments of his life into a transforming experience for the Church. St Paul, like Jesus, leads by example. The first chapter of the letter to the Philippians recounts his prayer life. St Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:3-6). Even though Paul is in prison, his thoughts and prayers are for the Church. He thinks and prays for all people who have come to accept Jesus Christ during his mission. The apostle is filled with love for the communities that he encountered throughout his missionary life. He writes in Philippians 1:9-11, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Paul is concerned about the spiritual strength of his people in Philippi. Often when we pray, we ask for tangible breakthroughs in career, financial well-being and life situations. Paul here reminds us that prayer for love is pivotal. It brings the spiritual breakthrough, which in turn sets our relationships and life in order. He teaches us that love and knowledge of Christ will ultimately lead us to our salvation. The problem is not lack of money or favourable situations but the lack of love. Love can mend a number of broken relationships, families and communities. St Paul highlights that for us to be pure and blameless, it is essential to receive the love of God. Only then can we reflect this love to others.
St Paul writes as a teacher, preacher and elder of the Church. He does not stop with advising people to rejoice in Jesus but he does rejoice in Jesus himself during times of troubles, sufferings and persecution. He not only teaches the community that love is important but also mirrors the love of Christ to those who were guarding him in prison. His zeal for the gospel was so much that he preached the good news of Jesus even to his captors and prison guards.
St Paul is happy that his imprisonment serves as an inspiration for other Christians to ‘speak the word with greater boldness without fear’ (Phil 1:12-14). He used his sufferings to inspire and to transform people. He sought opportunities through his sufferings to bring Christ to those who did not know him. Paul rejoices in this unjust circumstance of his life saying, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel” (Phil 1:12). Be it a happy situation or a sad one, be it jubilation or humiliation, St Paul uses them all for the glory of God.
When confronted with suffering, St Paul started praying. He prayed for the Church, he prayed for his friends and he also prayed for the prison guards. This changed the moments of pain into witness of joy and love. The apostle teaches us that during moments of pain and suffering, we must grow closer to God. We must use them as a chance to pray for others around us. We should pray for those who hurt us, for those in similar circumstances and for all those whom we love. This will help us bring grace into our situation, and through our intercession, grace will flow to scores of others. Just like Paul used his suffering for evangelisation, we should also bring others closer to God when we face challenging circumstances in life. We are also often in prison-like situations in our family life, community or workplaces. During these times, we must not give into discouragement. Rather, we must emulate Paul in being positively charged with prayer and love. Only the love of God can help us turn these sorrowful situations into joyful transformations. It is through this love and hope that St Paul pens this joyful letter allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to the Church through him.
Mind of Christ
Families are breaking up for want of the same mind. Communities are unsettled because of the want of the same mind. People are not able to think alike. They have contradictory views that lead to disruption and conflict. Paul in his letter to the Philippians expostulates on how to live a Christian life. He starts by saying, how important love is in bringing about the unity of all believers. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:1-4).
He proposes a solution: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). What is the mind of Christ? Paul goes on to explain in the following verses:
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)
Christ had the mind of sacrifice. Although he was superior to the human race, Jesus came in the form of man to save the world. He was willing to sacrifice his position for the salvation of humanity. Jesus put on the mind of the servant. He took ‘the form of a slave’. Jesus was willing to be submissive in order that God’s will might be accomplished in him. He did not let his supremacy direct his plans. Rather, Jesus taught humility by being humble himself. During many conflict situations, peoples’ egos are mostly at play. Be it at the office, in a family or in the community, the focus is on who gets to say the last word. Jesus teaches us that being a leader is not about being bossy. Jesus was obedient, even to the point of a shameful and painful death on the cross. The Gospel says, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself” (John 13:3-4). Jesus, knowing that all things belonged to him, chose to wash the feet of his disciples among whom were his betrayer, denier and deserters. He explains his actions to his apostles, setting a high standard for his followers, saying, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Jesus looked up only to His Heavenly Father for comfort and suffered for the sins of the world. He knew that his passion and death would bring humanity closer to God. For that, Jesus took on the mind of suffering. By ultimately giving his last ounce of strength to doing the will of God, Jesus teaches us the precepts of Christian love.
Knowledge of Jesus
St Paul, in all his letters, emphasises the need to denounce sin. In Philippians 3:2, Paul asks the Church in Philippi to “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” He asks them to learn not to boast in knowledge, intellect or theology. He says that an external practice like circumcision is not necessary to be saved. He implies that being a Jew and following the scripture to the letter was not a prerequisite for salvation. “For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). St Paul again points to the source of his joy—confidence in Jesus and not in the world. St Paul goes on to list his merits in the eyes of the world. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and was a law-abiding Pharisee. He learnt from the best and his understanding of the law was scrupulous. But all that changed the moment he met Christ. Paul’s knowledge of Jesus turned his life around. He writes, “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Paul, who once held his lineage and knowledge of Jewish Scripture of prime importance, learnt that the sweet fragrance of knowing Christ surpasses everything else.
Fr Daniel’s testimony echoes St Paul’s zeal for the gospel. Fr Daniel, a priest from Kerala, had a gift for teaching. He had no difficulty in capturing the attention of his students in college. His authority over the subject and his language ensured that his class was always a delight. Students naturally loved his class. However, Fr Daniel said that only while he shared the Word of God was there real conversion of souls. So, he left a career in academics—an influential position in the eyes of the world—to preach the Word full time and to transform people’s lives.
St Paul too who once believed in the righteousness from the law now came to believe ‘the righteousness from God based on faith’ (Phil 3:8-9). This transformed his life and helped him set a new goal—“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3: 10-11). Knowing Christ is an experiential knowledge. It largely lies on the intimacy each person shares with Jesus on a personal level. For this, St Paul says that we should look beyond earthly things and look towards Jesus. Only when we strive for this intimacy with Christ will we be able to fully forgo earthly attachments. He writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil 1:21). He denotes that he has nothing to lose in death. Therefore, his joy comes from this attachment to Christ not from pleasure in worldly achievements. St Paul calls the Church to imitate him in persevering towards ‘the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3: 14).
How to pray?
In the last chapter of the Philippines, St Paul teaches the Church how to pray. He writes, “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” (Phil 4:6-7). Through these powerful verses, Paul reminds us that the fruit of prayer is peace. Prayers with gratitude and confidence in the power of God will bring us the peace of God. This peace in turn will guard our hearts and minds in Jesus. Distraction in prayer is a big problem for many when they sit in the presence of God. One must remember that every distraction is a prayer request. The Book of Psalms is an example of how different distractions in life have been turned into beautiful offerings of prayer. St Paul teaches us that distraction should not be a source of worry. Instead, every distraction should be turned into a prayer offering along with thanksgiving and praise. Then we will be able to receive the peace of Christ to overcome the challenge.
Doing all things through Christ
It is in the letter to the Philippines that Paul reminds Christians of all ages of their greatest strength—their confidence in Jesus. The apostle traverses all difficulties—financial, physical and spiritual—through this great trust. After having faced difficult terrains during his missionary journeys, storms in the seas, shipwrecks and hostile people who were ready to kill him, the imprisoned Paul writes, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:11-13). He calls on all believers to trust in this providence and blesses them, “my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). This is a reminder for all people in trying and demanding situations in life, that we have a God who will love and provide for us through any circumstance. So, rejoice in the Lord always!