The second reading is taken from a letter written by St Paul to a Christian community he’d established in the Greek city of Philippi, not many years after the time of Christ. Paul was concerned that the people he was writing to were at risk of becoming discouraged in the practice of their faith; being Christians in the pagan city where they lived was not easy.
At first, those Christians were barely noticed, but as time went on they began to stick out more and more, and they were starting to feel vulnerable. They were misunderstood by the people in their city. Their citizenship was regarded as less than fully enthusiastic, because their final loyalty did not lie with the state, but with their God. They had the habit of praying to their God that his Kingdom would come, and that wouldn’t go down too well with the Emperor of the only legitimate kingdom: Rome. On top of that, rumours were circulating to the effect that these Christians were into strange practices. They certainly seemed a bit secretive: not everyone was welcome to their meetings. They were disloyal to the pagan gods: they had the nerve to insist that there was only one God, and that all the others were fakes. It was even being suggested that the Christians were into cannibalism: some of them had definitely been overheard speaking about eating someone’s body and drinking his blood.
The upshot of all that was that the Christians Paul was writing to were misunderstood, suspect, and despised. Very often, their pagan neighbours didn’t take the trouble to find out what the Christians were really like, what they actually believed. It was easier to stick with prejudices, to regurgitate opinions that had been uncritically swallowed.
It’s not all that hard to pick out a few parallels between those early Christians and ourselves. Increasingly, in our time, Christian faith is misunderstood, suspected and despised, by people who really aren’t all that interested in finding out what it’s actually about. For many people, it seems easier to run with the prejudices, to swallow the views of opinion-makers. And even among people who continue to ‘practice’ their faith, sometimes there’s a grudging presence, with an anger barely below the surface, a sense of disgruntlement with ‘The Church.’
We’re not all that different to the community to which St Paul wrote his letter, no more than thirty years after the time of Christ. What is it in Paul’s letter that can speak to us, today? In the face of never-ending caricatures of their faith, in the face of misunderstanding, in the face of the sadness and cynicism these things can cause, Paul says to his parishioners: ‘Keep before your minds, keep in your thoughts, whatever is good and true and noble and lovely and honourable. Think about what is pure and praiseworthy and virtuous.’
In our time, we have more stringent regulations than ever for the purity of food, water and air, yet there’s little or no thought about so much else that we consume. More and more young people are becoming virtually imprisoned by pornography, yet it’s almost taboo to mention that. Violence and fear are standard parts of entertainment. Cynicism is par for the course in journalism and broadcasting. And it’s against this background that Paul’s words are addressed to us: think about what is good and true. Fill your minds with what is noble. ‘Think about what you are thinking about’ – don’t just uncritically think the thoughts of others.
Many people imagine themselves to have broken free from what they regard as the though-controlling reality of faith, when all they’re doing is uncritically swallowing the thoughts and agendas of others. To them, too, Paul would want to say: Think about what you’re thinking about. What are you filling your minds with?
This is not a matter of standing in judgment over the world. It’s a matter of simple realism, of being aware of what is going on around us, of what is in the air, of what the challenges are. And St Paul is not merely saying that we should think happy thoughts instead of sad ones. What he’s saying is that there is a difference; there is a difference between true and false, between good and bad, between honourable and dishonourable, between conduct that is praiseworthy and conduct that is not. It’s not all the same. The difference truly matters.
St Paul wanted his people to be wise to the times. That’s what we, too, need to aim for. And the starting point for us, as people of faith, is not to swallow, uncritically, all the toxins of our times, but to think about what we’re thinking about, and to seek to think more and more about what is true and good and noble and praiseworthy.
Fr Chris Hayden