11 December 2019
Letters of faith that have been written from prison have had a big impact on the church over the centuries. Facing extreme personal danger, the authors focus on what is really essential. From John Bunyan to Bonheoffer to Martin Luther King they have inspired others to seek the depths of faith.. One of the earliest prison letters we have, was written by Paul to the church in Philippi.
Paul is probably in prison in Rome when he writes it. It is near the end for him and Paul knows that it is near the end and so do the Philippians.
A member of the church named Epaphroditus has brought a gift to Paul and Paul writes this letter to say "Thanks".. Listen, "I thank God for you. I am always praying for you and giving thanks for you".
Paul says elsewhere: "Give thanks", he does not grumble, he does not complain, in fact he says "Do not grumble. Do not complain. Do not fill your life with grumbling against God." This isn't theory - He has learnt this through his own experiences and in reflection on the history of Israel.
Today's story for Exodus shows us that the Israelites got a top grade in grumbling. - Good grief! they are actually free but they are also hungry and that clouds the memory " If we had only died in Egypt where we had everything we had ever wanted, but you, Moses, brought us out into this desert to starve us to death". Totally illogical thinking, they have selective amnesia about conditions in Egypt, and if Moses has wanted to kill them he could have easily done so in Egypt.
Let's look at waht grumbling is in these contexts. Acknowledging difficulty, pain or suffering is not grumbling. That is real - part of the human experience. Grumbling is to have a mind-set that assumes the absolute worst, so that when something happens, the mind immediately goes to the negative consequences and focuses on the expected negative outcome.
Grumbling does several things. Grumbling causes us to focus on unbelief instead of on belief, to see what is negative instead of seeing the possibilities for good that exist in the present.
The habit of grumbling is one that can infect the soul. It recreates the past. Israel has escaped from slavery in Egypt, the people are rewriting history by saying, "There in Egypt, we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted." But it wasn't true.
Home sick Immigrants to NZ often really annoy people by telling them how wonderful everything was back home. We all seen them go back home- see the reality then come back and give thanks and appreciate their new land.
Sometimes we are tempted to live in the past and think that those good old days were better than anything that is going on now or anything that might come in the future. Grumbling is spiritually enervating. Grumbling teaches us to distrust God. It is a denial that God is good and God gives us a future.
They did a lot of grumbling on that journey to the promised land. One time they say, "We must choose ourselves new leaders and go back to Egypt." They would rather be in familiar slavery, with leaders they have chosen that will take them backwards, than depend on the leaders God has given. Grumbling can lead us to scape-goating, to blaming, to looking for someone on whom we can vent our distrust and our uncertainty because we are scared of what might happen. Grumbling is destructive.
So Paul , who has got plenty to grumble about, writes to the people who have stood by him through everything [unlike others who have rejected him and tried to undermine him] — thankfully. He keeps his own advice when, like the Israelite in the desert, he seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. "Move from grumbling to gratitude. Do not grumble and be thankful. Give thanks."
"Moorehead Kennedy was a prisoner in Iran back in the 1970's. when the Ayatollah Khomeini held those Americans hostage.
He wrote about his imprisonment. "You know when you are going through a bad moment in normal life, you usually say to yourself, `Well, it could be worse; at least I'm still alive.' Well I was imprisoned in Iran, and all of a sudden I realized that may no longer be true."
In other words, it wasn't a source of hope for him to say, "it could be worse; I'm still alive," because he knew in his heart in that extreme situation that he could die any day. "From that realization came the greater awareness that life is not just for now and here. There is a plan somewhere. You are part of a much larger thing, much larger than one's own life. God's plan, if you will," he wrote."
That's what had happened to Paul. Paul tells the Philippians, "I've got three options now.
First - I can be released and come to you."
He isn't ruling that out.because God is in charge of the future. Paul has got out of jail before. In Philippi, and the Philippians were there and they saw it. An earthquake hit and the jail crumbled around them. Paul and Silas just walked out, and by the example of their behaviour the jailer and his family became Christians. So Paul writes to the Philippians, "I plan to come and see you."
There is another option. Paul knows that he may be stuck there in prison. Paul says, "That's all right with me, because I have already found that I have important work to do, right here." Earlier in the first chapter he says, "I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."
He's in prison, but he's found something to do there. He's been given these lemons and he makes lemonade. Paul is a preacher. The Romans have to assign soldiers to guard him. So what does Paul do? He preaches to the guards. They can't leave. They have to stay there. It's a preacher's dream - they can't go to sleep or they'd be court-martialed.
"I want you to know what happened," he writes to the Philippians. "Bad as it is, it's turned out to be pretty good. Now the whole Praetorian Guard knows about Christ. They're all talking about Christ now. They all want to know more about the Gospel."
I reflect that the early church must have had a good proportion of jail wardens and security men.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 20 years in South Africa. When he was inaugurated as president he invited some friends to witness his swearing in. Two of those he invited were his guards in prison. Two white Afrikaaners, who were won over by the witness of a man being faithful to the best that he knew, in the worst circumstance of his life.
That's option two for Paul. If this isn't what you want, if this isn't your plan, if you're stuck with it, at least for awhile, then look for something good in it, because God may have plans for you right where you are.
But there's a third option. Fred Kane puits it like this. The first is to be released and find a new life. The second is to stay where you are and find a life. The third is to die, and find a greater life. "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
This is the whole secret of Paul's thankfulness
For Paul, the Resurrection was something that guided him every day of his life. Paul always had his eyes on the horizon, where earth and heaven meet and at the boundary, there is an empty tomb. So he not only saw the limit of this life, he saw all the possibilities of another life. He knew that death was not the end.
That is what Paul lives by. It is the horizon that only the eyes of faith can see. It is a horizon that enables you to keep steady in a storm. It is a horizon that keeps you going even when you can't see the future. You keep on going. That is why Paul could write what he did in prison. He could see not only the boundary of this life, he could see the beginning of an even greater life, and that is why he could say: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
And that is why he could give thanks whatever happened.
Paul lived by giving not only his life, but his death to Christ.
May God give us the grace to live and to die with such faith.
And give thanks, day by day for God's faithfulness and goodness to us. Amen.
Reference - Fred Kane -PRCL List
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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