28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
Though I normally focus on the Gospel reading for homilies and blog posts, it seemed better this time to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and to stay with it for a while. Last Sunday, we saw how he urged us to have no anxiety at all, but to make our needs known to the Lord with faith. Today’s selection from Philippians is from the section of the letter where he elaborates more on this, in the context of thanking the community of Philippi for their generosity in supporting his ministry.
It’s helpful to recall that Paul’s life was hardly boring by any measure. Compare our challenges to his, and it’s easy to see that he would have had more than enough reason to feel anxious. Here is some of his story, in his own words, that he shared with the community of Corinth:
“Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:24-28)
Now consider Paul’s mission. The Lord called him to go to places that had never heard of Paul or Jesus, and to announce that someone who had been executed by Roman authorities not too long before was truly Lord and God. Not Caesar, even with all the might of Rome behind him. No, some unknown man from Palestine who was put to death in a manner reserved for the lowest classes and the worst criminals – crucifixion. Paul’s chances of success, by any worldly measure, were not good.
If this were not enough, Paul had some kind of personal weakness, something he called “a thorn in the flesh”, that he begged the Lord to take from him: “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Cor 12:8-9)
Ponder all of this for a moment. Paul has abandoned everything that would help people feel secure (in the usual sense) – home, community, reputation, among others – to take on a mission that must have felt almost impossible, against constant opposition. He has broken with his own background and training as a Pharisee, thus cutting himself off from the people he knew when he was younger. Paul had no Xanax, either! No one could have blamed him if he had abandoned his mission out of fear or anxiety. Many of us abandon good resolutions we have made, for far less reason.
But what conclusion does Paul draw from all this? He tells the Corinthians: “I will rather boast of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong”. (2 Cor 12:9-10)
Paul makes a similar point to the people of Philippi, which leads into our reading for today: “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” (Php 4:11-12)
The word ‘self-sufficient’ is an interesting one. Some Bible translations have ‘content’. The original Greek can have either meaning.
What does Paul mean when he says that he has learned to be ‘content’ or ‘self-sufficient’? We may imagine that Paul is claiming to be what many Americans imagine themselves to be: individualists, each going our own way, independent from others, able to fend for ourselves. Perhaps some blend of John Wayne and Batman! We often hear people praised as ‘self-made’ individuals. Of course, all we need do is look at how we dress, how we speak, and how we think, and it becomes painfully obvious that our “individualist” self-image is more fantasy than reality. We generally let our patterns of thought and behavior be molded by the standards of the groups to which we belong (or to which we would like to belong). No, Paul has another meaning in mind.
Paul is “content” or “self-sufficient” in the sense that neither worldly abundance nor worldly poverty, neither acceptance nor rejection, neither good feelings nor suffering, can derail him from his mission. And where does he draw the strength to be ‘self-sufficient’? Not from himself! That is the ‘secret’ he has learned: “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” (Php 4:13) Or, as Paul said to the Corinthians, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
Paul can be ‘self-sufficient’ only to the extent that he places himself, in faith, totally in the Lord’s hands. He has learned not to rely primarily on either his inner qualities nor on any outer circumstances. It is his reliance on the Lord that frees and empowers Paul to put his gifts at the service of the Lord and the Church. Neither opinion polls (favorable or unfavorable) nor any inner weaknesses can keep him from his task. Paul has been freed from all the things that cause us to pull back into ourselves out of anxiety or fear, and freed to share the joy of the Gospel with all who are willing to listen (and even those who may not be).
In this context, it is important to note that Paul is not a loner. He has also been freed by his willingness to work with others in his ministry – Barnabas, Timothy, Silvanus, and Titus, to name a few – and by his desire to remain rooted in the Church, the Body of Christ. He cares deeply about the Christian communities that Christ has formed through his ministry. Paul’s union with Christ also includes his union with the Church.
What can this mean for each of us?
Each of us has a certain vocation from the Lord. That vocation includes a series of tasks and commitments that we strive to honor and accomplish. It also includes a series of obstacles that we all face – some coming from without, others from within – that can test our commitment, faith, and love. Those challenges can induce fear, doubt, anxiety. We may feel very tempted to seek some kind of assurance or help in the face of these feelings. At times, we need the assurance and support of friends, family and fellow believers. At other times, we may need some medical help. But none of these, as helpful as they can be, can supply our deepest need. Paul reminds us that we also can do all things in the Lord who strengthens us, provided that we are seeking, in all things and above all things, to discover the Lord’s will and to live it out.
This has been, and remains, a constant test in my own life. At least two things about me are unusual for diocesan priests – my calling to be a hermit and my being on the autism spectrum. I cannot count on a lot of understanding or support from my diocese – not because of ill will towards me, but because of a lack of experience and understanding as to what these realities mean. I am grateful for the expressions of support I have received from parishioners and others who know me. But every Saturday is a little Gethsemane for me, as I face the anxiety that always hits before parish weekend Masses. I know that I cannot count solely on any inner confidence in my own strength. In my own little way, I know what the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is about. I know what it means to feel that I simply cannot do something, but to have faith that the Lord can do it through me. I have to lay aside anything and everything that might make me feel a little secure, throw down every crutch, let go of every teddy bear, and trust in the Lord – even when my heart longs to live a hermit life and only a hermit life. If that is to be, it will be in the Lord’s own time. If not, what will be, will be. I only pray that someone else may be blessed through my yes to the Lord. I pray that I can be merciful even as I long for mercy.
It is not an easy thing, as anyone who walks this path knows. Any other way merely opens the door to disillusionment and bitterness. Yet, Paul would remind us that only a radical faith in the Lord frees us to be both faith-filled and means of faith, joy-filled and means of joy, mercy-filled and means of mercy for others near and far. May each one of us learn to be ‘self-sufficient’ in this sense: not relying on our own real (or supposed) abilities, but placing ourselves utterly at the Lord’s disposal, always leaning on the One who is our true Rock. We may find, to our amazement and humility, that in this way the Lord will work miracles in and through us. Yes, us.