7 April 2020

Isolation and The Apostle Paul

Holy Week in the time of social distancing feels a bit wrong, doesn’t it? We are all learning new ways of living normal life as well as our relationship to church. If we can be real for a moment, we can admit that this new normal is not great. We might live in the age of social isolation through the internet, but we are still communal creatures. When the physical community is taken away from us and is no longer an option, we feel the strain of isolation more. Even if some of us are normally content to stay home and hangout with just our families, to know we have the option of going out into the larger community is a comfort for all of us. It is for this reason that celebrating Holy Week in isolation is surreal and possibly even unnerving to us.

Over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help but think about people like the Apostle Paul. I have especially thought about his time in prison towards the end of his life. Paul was the leader of the early church, and I have often wondered what doing ministry was like for him while he was in prison. I have pondered about his time in this stage of his ministry only now to find myself in an unexpectedly similar, albeit far more comfortable, situation to how Paul was doing ministry in those final years of his life in Rome. I have, along with other leaders in our church and pastors and leaders from other churches, sent out letters and communications much like Paul would have done in his final years.

The interesting difference in Paul’s story is that he was aware of his coming imprisonment. While we were not aware of our social isolation that was to come, Paul did. In Acts 20 the writer describes Paul’s understanding that when he would reach Jerusalem, he would be captured and thrown into jail, and yet he continued in that direction because he believed so strongly that it was God’s will for him to take provisions to the poor Christian community there. Paul repeatedly prophesied this inevitable end. Maybe he had a vision or maybe it was simply the most expected outcome based on his ministries over the years. Whatever the reason, what is clear is that Paul was willing to do what was necessary for Jesus and deal with the consequences.

What stands out most during Paul’s time in prison is the joy that exuded from his continued preaching and teaching. Consider that Paul speaks about joy as a fruit of the Spirit. Joy is not just an emotion but is a deep seated lesson from God that we can experience in both the good times and the difficult times. When Paul was writing his letter to the Philippians during his time in prison, he was able to do so with joy because it was God who was nurturing this joy in him. All of the suffering that Paul endured would seem to be tragic, but consider how much further this suffering advanced the gospel message. This was clearly a source of great joy for Paul and what would sustain him through the most challenging of circumstances.

As we journey through this final week of the lenten season, examine how the current challenges we all face with social distancing has informed our own lives. How has this time provided space for you to reflect more deeply on the important aspects of life? How has this time afforded opportunities to grow your spiritual life? This is not to trivialize the current situation, or to make it seem like the problems our world faces are not of substantial proportions, but to see how God is working in our lives as God did in Paul’s, just as joy in suffering doesn’t not devalue the very real grief and pain that many are faced with everyday through this tragedy that has gripped our world. God used Paul’s circumstances to advance his faith and the good news all around the known world. How is God using our circumstances to deepen our faith and commitment to the beauty that is the peace, hope, joy, and love of Jesus Christ today? Holy Week in the time of social distancing feels a bit wrong, doesn’t it? We are all learning new ways of living normal life as well as our relationship to church.