17 Trinity 2008

The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity
September 14, 2008
Verse 1 of Ephesians 4:1-6
“Lessons from Prison”

As time allowed, I watched portions of both the Democratic and the Republican conventions. I had read previously of Senator McCain’s imprisonment and the torture he endured in prison while in the hands of his captors, the North Vietnamese. But I had no idea of the extent, immensity and horror of the torture he endured until it was related in a documentary, then by various speakers and finally by the senator himself. It was worth noting that at one point while imprisoned he had considered taking his own life. But in the end he outlasted his interrogators, endured the torture, and endured being isolated from his fellow soldiers, separated from his homeland and family ties, and eventually returned home to a hero’s welcome having served his Country with honor and valor.

In every war there are soldiers, airmen and other members of the military that get outflanked, or shot down or become trapped behind enemy lines and are eventually taken captive as prisoners of war and eventu-ally transferred to P.O.W. camps or prisons. They serve out their days in the harshest of conditions until either an armistice, or peace treaty or some international humanitarian organization is able to procure their release from prison.

Of course people may ‘do time’ in prison for criminal reasons, as a result of their personal involvement in the committing of some criminal act: Armed robbery, theft, graft, inside trading, conspiracy, extortion, counterfeiting, money laundering, internet fraud, identity theft, kidnapping, rape, murder, child molestation – these being the most prevalent forms of crime these days.

But many decent folks have ended up behind prison bars simply because they were serving their country and had the misfortune to be captured by the enemy. In the annuls of time, other decent folks have spent time behind prison bars for serving their God for which they have been arrested and imprisoned, many times with-out benefit of due process, simply because of their commitment to God and to their Faith.

There are many examples of this given us in both the Old and the New Testaments. Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, after being sold by his brothers to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, and subsequently sold into the service of Potiphar the captain of the Egyptian guard, was later falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of making unwanted advances upon her person, and was consequently thrown into prison, essentially because he remained faithful to the God he believed in and served.

Samson, finally being cajoled into disclosing the secret of his great strength to Delilah; she then cut off the locks of his hair, allowing him to be easily subdued by the Philistines in waiting, who then gorged out his eyes and threw him into prison. But in prison his hair began to grow, as did his renewed strength in the Almighty. Imprisoned also for his faithfulness to the Lord was the prophet Jeremiah.

The Apocraphal Second Book of the Maccabees records the imprisonment and excruciating torture and martyrdom suffered by seven brothers and their mother who were severally killed for their unbreakable and resolute faithfulness to the Lord.

Thrown into prison for his faithfulness to the Lord and for pronouncing Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias as adulterous and unlawful, was John the Baptist, who was later beheaded in the prison at the whim of the revengeful Herodias.

Imprisoned too for their faithfulness to the Lord and for preaching and healing many in his Name were some of the Apostles. Chapter five of the Book of Acts does not tell us whether this mass arrest and imprison-ment included all of the Eleven of simply some of them. But we are told that while in prison the angel of the Lord came and appeared in their cell and released them and instructed them to return to the temple and to resume preaching to the people.

Later Herod had James killed with the sword, and because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to arrest and incarcerate Peter also, whom he put him in prison and (this time) delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him. While in prison earnest prayer for Peter was made by the fledgling Church to God. The very night Herod intended to bring him forth, an angel of the Lord appeared to Peter, struck him on the side to awaken him, told him to get up at which point his two chains fell off, told him to gird himself, led him past the first and second guard, took him to the main gate which opened of its own accord and left Peter standing awestruck in the street, a free man! Peter who had been arrested and imprisoned by Herod for his persistent faithfulness to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, after being ordered to desist.

Later, Paul and Silas while in the city of Thyatira, encountered a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much money by soothsaying. She followed Paul and Silas about the city, taunting them, but Paul finally had enough and commanded the diving spirit to leave off her possession and immediately it came out of her. The unhappy owners of the slave girl, seeing that their investment had evaporated, seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates. They were stripped of the clothing, beaten and thrown into prison. This was the owners’ retaliation for their faithfulness to the Lord.

Again, as with those earlier apostles and as with Peter, the Lord provided them with an escape: this time not by an angel. But by way of an earthquake all of the doors of the prison fell open, and the fetters fell off from everyone’s hands. In a panic the jailer was about to kill himself, but Paul prevented him from doing so. He saved the man’s life and also his soul, for the man asked Paul what he must do to be saved. He then took Paul and Silas to his own home, washed and dressed their wounds, and was forthwith baptized together with all his family, and then he set food before them.

For their faithfulness to the Lord, Joseph, Samson, the seven brothers and their mother, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, many of the apostles, as well as Peter and Paul in particular, along with the companion Silas, all were faithful to the Lord and all suffered imprisonment for their faithfulness to God.

This morning Paul writes from his prison confinement a letter to the Church at Ephesus. This epistle was written probably about the same time as his letter to the Colossians. In very truth he was literally a prisoner, isolated from the Church by the restriction of being confined in a prison cell: And this, not for the first or only time, but one of several. For example, we know that he was imprisoned a while earlier in Ephesus. (I had the privilege once of viewing the ruins of the jail in which he was held in Ephesus). And near the end of his life, after he reached Rome he was put under house arrest for a period of many months.

In his own words in the Second Letter to the Corinthians he compares his track record to that of the other Apostles: stating that he has endured ‘far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings and often near death.’ Here he finds himself again in prison because his opposition is trying to prevent him from preaching the Word of God by restricting his mobility and accessibility. He is a prisoner for the Lord. Indeed, he is ever risking imprisonment. Whenever he preaches the Gospel he is in danger of being arrested and jailed; and he was, oftentimes.

But in this epistle in his own terminology, he maintains that he is also the Prisoner of the Lord. He became the Lord’s Prisoner when he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road. He would live no longer for himself. He would live no longer to himself. He would no longer travel to round up Christians to bring them back for sentencing and death. He would now risk his own life traveling and evangelizing in order to raise up Christians to put men on the path that leads to salvation and eternal life. Paul is no longer his own: he belongs to Christ Jesus the Lord. He is Christ’s slave and servant, his prisoner. He is bound to Christ for this life and for the next.

If he has any regret, it is that he must wait to go to the Lord. He would go immediately if that were God’s Will for him. But for now he is ‘bound’ to this body; ‘imprisoned’ in his own flesh to serve the Will of God. He put it this way, ‘…We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.’

Do you feel that you are a prisoner in your own body? A prisoner to its many and increasing limita-tions? Do you feel that you are a prisoner to your fears and phobias and fantasies? Do you feel that you are a prison to your appetites and passions? Do you feel that you are a prisoner to your vices and proclivities? Do you feel that you need some kind of divine intervention that will send you to your knees as it did St. Paul, and awaken you to the reality that you’ve been headed in the wrong direction, you’ve been all this time on the wrong path, and that rather than serving Christ you have actually been acting as an obstacle to him?

Two days ago in Chatsworth, there was just such a head-on encounter with the Lord. And many people aboard went on their way to meet the Lord, prepared to do so, or not! All because someone failed to heed the light, that warned to ‘stop’ on the track, immediately. Or else, risk a potential collision at the crossroads and realities of life. All because someone failed to do what was expected and required, and as the result many others paid the price for his tragic mistake.

What we do that we shouldn’t do, and what we fail to do that we should have done, effects the lives of others and those around us, whether we choose to believe it or not. Especially when we fail to heed the warn-ing signs! If we are prisoners to ourselves it is only a question of time before there is a mighty wreck awaiting us up ahead; and chances are it is going to negatively impact others too.

But if we are Prisoners of the Lord we will be careful for the precious cargo for which we are we are responsible, we will be alert and watchful brakemen, staying on the right track, careful of the speed with which we move through life, and watchful for the blind turns and the unexpected challenges along the path of life.

But know, that if we are truly the Prisoners of Christ, it is possible one day any one of us may very well be imprisoned for our faithfulness. Persecuted, tried, imprisoned, some even martyred because they were true Prisoners of Christ, as millions have been martyred down through the centuries, and are being martyred today!

Warns the Book of Rev.: ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested,..and you will have tribulation.’ Jesus warns his faithful disciples, ‘But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you…and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsman and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain life.’

We probably think this could never happen here, living in a free society as we do. But remember the price for living in a free society. And remember the motto, ‘Freedom isn’t free!’

Just this past week one of our bishops sent me a news article indicating that in Brazil legislation has recently been passed that prohibits clergy from preaching on certain subjects that the Bible speaks of as taboo or abominations. If the clergy preach on these subjects they may be subject to arrest and imprisonment for preaching the equivalent of ‘hate’ crimes against society. This is symptomatic of the agenda of the increasingly secularized pagan world.

Consider also that the strength of the Islamic witness in this world is steadily growing: and there is no guarantee that the European world will not over the next decade become a predominantly Moslem world. The beliefs and practices and rights of Christians may be in jeopardy and may well disappear, just as they did under the first Islamic conquest of certain parts of the Western world.

We might well some day find ourselves in prison for the Lord, for being Prisoners of the Lord. Well, as an old saying goes, if you were accused of being a Christian, would there be sufficient evidence to convict you? There would be if you stay on the right track!

‘I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.’