July 22, 2012

Prisoners In The Lord

Passage: Ephesians 4:1

“I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

In 1990, I had the privilege of spending three months touring five countries in northern Europe for the purpose of studying drug & alcohol prevent programmes directed towards young people.  During this sabbatical, I visited elementary and high schools, youth conferences and even had a meeting with the Temperance Committee of the Finish Parliament.

Although it wasn’t included in my study, I manage to squeeze in a quick trip to Berlin over a weekend.  This was a critical time in the history of that city.  The first serious cracks had appeared in the wall separating the Eastern and Western sectors of the city.  On the day of my visit, most of the wall was still in place, but it had been breached in several places.

Recognizing this as a pivotal moment in European history, I purchased a ticket for a tour of East Berlin.  Although hostilities between the East and West were beginning to subside, there were still tensions in the air, because no one knew what lay ahead.

As our bus approached the Vandenberg gate, our guide instructed us not to stare out the window or to take pictures as we passed through security, less we antagonize the East German guards, who were still maintaining their stern, cold-war stance.

Entering the Eastern sector was like stepping back in time.  From the cars on the road, to the appearance of the people and to the condition of the buildings, it was like stepping back to the days just after WWII.

The highlight of the tour was to be a visit to the large museum in the centre of East Berlin.  However when I discovered I’d have to check my camera at the door, I elected to skip the tour and instead, use the time to walk around the community.  My path took me behind the museum.  Turning a corner, I was startled to discover that a large portion of this enormous structure, was still in ruins; a remnant of WWII.  Later, as the tour continued, we saw many other buildings in a similar state of ruin.

Such sites were foreign to me.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  Later, when we crossed back into the Western sector, I let out a sigh of relief.  We were back in a free country again.

Throughout history, walls have separated those with privileges from those without.  Often these walls are physical structures, similar to the Berlin wall, or the more recent Israeli barrier separating Palestinians from Jews.

But other barriers can be used to separate people and nations.  In the past, a rigid class structure separated upper from lower classes in Britain; and a more rigid class system exists in India.

In Jesus’ day, there were barriers in the temple.  Not the kind guarded by barbed wire or soldiers, but just as restrictive.  A mere 3 feet high, made of stone, they divided the Court of Gentiles, from the inner court.  Several gates allowed Jewish men to passage into the court.  Posted at each entrance was a sign warning Gentiles that if they passed through they risked punished by death.

Other barriers confined Jewish women to the court of women.  And at the heart of the temple, at the Holy of Holies, a mere curtain barred all but the high priest from entry, and he only once a year.

Barriers, whether physical, social or religious restrict freedom, forcing those living behind them, to live like prisoners.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he talks about his imprisonment.  He was a prisoner of the Romans, accused of disturbing the peace.  But Paul didn’t consider himself a prisoner in the normal sense, he says he’s ‘a prisoner in the Lord’.  This morning, we’re going to explore what he meant by this.

Many years ago, I heard the Rev. Earnest Gordon, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, speak about his experiences as a prisoner in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the River Kwai, during WWII.

During his imprisonment, Earnest endured some of the worst treatment imaginable.  His guards did everything they could to reduce their captives to the condition of wild animals.

So harsh was this treatment that some men went mad.  It was a dog-eat-dog environment.  Prisoners would attack one another for tiny scraps of food.  They’d steal from corpses of fellow prisoners.  No one cared for the sick or the dying.  Cruelty and selfishness were the order of the day.

But then a miracle began to unfold.  At first it involved only one or two, but gradually others joined in.  Slowly but surely, a bond began to develop between these men; a bond of caring and support that grew into a supportive Christian community amid the horror of that camp; a fellowship which eventually enabled Rev. Gordon and many others, to survive their ordeal.

Earnest’s story was a spell binder, but what I remember most was his comment at the end of his message. He said that when he returned to Scotland after the war; instead of feeling free, he felt more like a prisoner, than he had back in the camp.

Now that may sound absurd.  How could conditions in post war Scotland be worse than a prisoner of war camp?  But Earnest wasn’t referring to his physical conditions.  Obviously, those were better.  What made him feel like a prisoner was the lack of genuine Christian fellowship.  Even in his home congregation, he didn’t feel that deep, sincere caring he’d experienced back in that camp.

Earnest Gordon’s point was, that one can physically be imprisoned, yet at the same time experience the exhilaration of freedom.  That’s exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter.  He was physically a prisoner of the Romans, awaiting trial and eventual execution.  But because of the bond of caring and support he received from fellow Christians, and with the knowledge that the risen Christ was with him, he wasn’t suffering as other prisoners do.  On the contrary, he was filled with joy because he knew he was serving his Lord.

One theologian has said that the big differences between Christianity and other religions, is that Christianity doesn’t begin with a set of moral demands; nor do we have to struggle to find God through religious rituals; because our God is One who has found us, and who has acted decisively on our behalf.

Put another way, we are saved, not by our own efforts, but by the Grace of God.  Though we must always remember, we need to live as those who are truly saved for we have a higher calling.

Like Paul, we also have a higher calling; one which can lift us out of the mire of secular society, and enable us to fulfill our lives as God intends us to do.

Paul offers us four signs of our higher calling.

(a) Humility
The first is humility.  The Greeks really had no word to adequately express what Paul meant.  The Greek adjective from which the uniquely Christian word was developed, meant cringing servility; something to be shunned, not sought after.

But Christ transformed ‘humility’, changing it from a sign of weakness to one of strength; part of the very nature and character of God; something to strive for, not shun.

Paul expressed it beautifully in his letter to the Philippians:-
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (Phil 2:6-8)

Before Jesus, humility was a shameful quality,  but Jesus has turned it into a symbol of Christian witness.

(b) Gentleness/Meekness
The second sign of our calling is ‘gentleness’ or ‘meekness’.  This too was often misunderstood in times past; associated with weakness not strength.

But Jesus powerfully demonstrated that ‘gentleness’ has nothing to do with weakness;  rather it’s a sign of strength; something that only those called by God are able to demonstrate.  Christ showed us true gentleness when He picked up a basin and towel and washed His disciples’ feet, and also when He meekly walked to the Cross.   Both deeds fulfilling God’s will.

Christians emulate ‘gentleness’ in their lives when they aren’t afraid to serve others; and  aren’t angry or upset when other people get  the accolades they should have had.

As Jesus taught:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, don’t sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 14: 8-11)

(c) Patience
‘Patience, the third quality which Paul attributes to God’s higher calling, is the one with which I have the greatest difficulty; - particularly when I’m driving.  It’s so easy to get annoyed at drivers who insist upon driving below the speed limit, or who seem uncertain about where they are going.   I don’t know about you, but I often mutter about such people, particularly when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.

A primary school teacher was almost finished putting the last pair of galoshes on her first-graders; - 25 pairs in all.  She had just finished tugging the boots on the last child’s feet when the little girl looked up at her and said:  “Know what Miss Jones, these aren’t my boots?”

Fighting back her frustration, she pulled the boots off, only to hear the child continue:  “They’re my sister’s; she let me wear them today!”

Any teachers who can deal with a situation like that without losing their cool is demonstrating patience.

Jesus referred to patience in his parable about the good seed falling on good ground, saying that those who are like the good seeds are those who “having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”   Luke 8:15)   You see, it takes a good measure of patience to scatter the Good News of the Gospel, and then wait for results.  And often, Christians become too easily discouraged when they don’t see immediate results from their efforts.  But it takes time for the Word of God to change lives, and we need to continue sowing the seeds even when we don’t see immediate change.

(d) Love
The last, but by no means least of the virtues of our Christian calling is ‘love’.  In his now famous passage on love, (I Cor. 13)  Paul demonstrated that love surpasses all other gifts; concluding his chapter with these words:  “now abideth faith, hope, and love,  these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

If we want just one word to describe the nature of God, that word would surely be ‘Love’.  It’s the Love of God, demonstrated in the life, death & resurrection of Jesus that distinguishes our faith from every other religion in the world.  There is no other religion that portrays God as ‘unconditional love’.

Is it any wonder then, that when describing the virtues which Christians should demonstrate in their lives, love should heads the list.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:  “You have heard that it was said:
‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’”  (Luke 5:43)

On June 27th of this year, the world was shown an historic handshake.  Queen Elizabeth shook the hand of the former IRA guerrilla commander, Martin McGuinness.  Our Queen has probably shaken the hands of literally millions of people during her long reign, but this particular hand shake stands out because she was shaking the hand of the man responsible, not only for the deaths of hundreds of her citizens, but more personally, that of her cousin, and her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, in 1979.

I can’t tell you what was going on in her mind as the Queen reached out her hand, (although I sensed that Prince Philip was having some difficulty with it), - but in making this gesture of good will, the Queen was demonstrating her willingness to forgive and to express love for, not only Martin McGuinness, but all the other Irish republicans who attacked her empire in times past.

As the head of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth was expressing the greatest of Christian virtues, love for your enemies.

Having recently returned from Ireland, I’m pleased to say that I saw many other examples of love and forgiveness, as the people of Northern Ireland determine to put the past behind them, and get on with their lives.

It’s often not easy to express love for our enemies, but if we are to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God, there is no better way to pursue this goal, than to show unconditional love.

My prayer is that each of us may be granted the strength of faith to allow us to follow our Queen’s example in our own lives.