Sunday, September 8, 2013

Positive about Faith - Being Free to Do Good

In the movie, “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall plays a preacher who has been running from the law for murdering his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. As he begins what he believes is a new life, he continues to preach the Word of God throughout his travels, eventually settling and establishing his own church in Louisiana.

But the preacher, who calls himself “The Apostle E.F.,” cannot run forever, and the law finally catches up with him. In the final scene, he is arrested from his church, preaching the whole way out to the police cruiser. The final credits roll as we see The Apostle on a chain gang, manually mowing grass on the side of the road. He is preaching to the other prisoners: “When I wall through the valley of death, who is by my side?”

“JESUS!” the men shout.

“And when I wake up in the morning, who is there to greet me?”

“JESUS”

“Who’s our Lord and Savior?”

“JESUS!”

“Who do we love more than anything on this earth?”

“JESUS!”

… and, fade to credits.

It is at that moment that the person of faith who has watched this film realizes what true freedom really is. Freedom is rooted in knowing who one is, as well as whose one is. That firm foundation is what we call Faith.

For Sonny, it didn’t matter how limited he was – even as a prisoner, justly condemned – or where he was, or what he was doing; he was free to preach and recognize where that freedom comes from: Jesus Christ.

We continue our “Be Positive!” series this weekend with a reflection on the positive effect of what we believe – what does faith do for us? Because faith sets us free, and it gives us the positive power to share that same faith with others.

St. Paul brings this same positive attitude to his letter to his friend, Philemon. Paul was just like Robert Duvall in that movie – he would preach to anyone and everyone, whether they were listening or not. Paul would preach to his own guards in prison; he would preach out the window of the jail; and he would preach to his fellow prisoners of the saving power of Jesus. This is exactly what he did to his fellow inmate, Onesimus. There in prison, this runaway slave was baptized by Paul and became a child of the Lord.

Interestingly, as God would have it, Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Paul’s friend, Philemon; and therefore, we have his letter. This is where it gets fun and interesting. Now, Onesimus is about to be extradited back to his master. As a runaway slave, he would expect to be beaten severely by Philemon, probably in front of the other slaves as an example to them.

Paul is fully aware of this, and while he would like to keep this new Christian for himself as a partner, he sees the greater opportunity. Paul is sending Onesimus home to Philemon, not for the slave’s sake but for the master’s. Onesimus’ return, Paul tells his friend, is now an opportunity for him to do the good that God has made him to do. He now has the chance to bring Onesimus back, not with the open hand of a rebuke but with the open arms of a brotherly welcome.

Faith is not something that coerces, but invites the good in others. Paul writes, “I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.”

You see, faith is not about being forced or shamed into doing the right thing. Some people see it that way. And because of that , we rebel against “religion” in favor of “spirituality.” I saw a post by someone once that read, “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who’ve already been through it.” That’s wrong; or, at least, it reflects an attitude that “religion” or faith is meant to somehow take care of a situation once it gets out of hand. However, this is not the faith that we profess; and it is not the faith that Jesus is looking for.

In our gospel today, he is clear that our faith must come first. We must “calculate the cost,” when it comes to living through adversity, since faith cannot come afterward. It must ground us. Otherwise, we are bound to fail.


So, here we are, called together by our faith and offered the opportunity that faith gives us: to do the good for which God made us; to do the good we were created to do. Not because we “have” to; but because we get to!

Imagine the effect that Philemon’s acceptance of Onesimus as a new brother would have on all who were expecting his punishment. The fellow slaves, the household, the townsfolk – all would benefit from the good of Philemon’s faith. So too do we get that opportunity today, because of our faith, to do the good that God is waiting for us to do; and to change the hearts of all who see us too.

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