Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Unchained

Rev. Kathy Donley

10/09/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  2 Timothy 2:8-15

 

The tradition of Christians writing from prison probably begins the apostle Paul, but it comes forward in time through the generations.  There are entire books dedicated to the topic of Christian prison literature.    Some names we might recognize include John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela and Dr. King.

 

John Bunyan, who was imprisoned for preaching outside the official English church, wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678.  It has been translated into 200 languages and has never been out of print.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was held captive by the Nazis for two years, until he was executed just weeks before Hitler’s own death.  Bonhoeffer’s letters and papers from prison were published after his death.

 

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life in prison.  He was allowed to write 3 letters per month. Any reference to political issues would be removed by censors, so he did not mention politics.  He wrote to his family, but also used his letters strategically to encourage his allies and to make peace with his rivals.  From his cell, he was preparing for the new South Africa that might exist when he was released.

 

Martin Luther King went to jail 29 times, perhaps the most well-known being the time in Alabama when he wrote the long letter from Birmingham Jail.  Among other important things in that letter, he said,   “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

 

For today and the next few weeks, we are reading from the letter to Timothy.  This letter is prison literature.  It is a kind of farewell from a mentor. Paul is encouraging his younger protégé to continue the work they have begun together, to remain faithful in Paul’s absence while in prison and even after Paul’s death.

 

Let me digress for just a minute here.  Some of you probably know that many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write 1 and 2 Timothy.  They believe that because they have analyzed the style and theology and language of all of the books attributed to Paul in the New Testament and compared them.  They believe that these books were written long after Paul’s death.  It was common in those days to write as if you were a revered leader from the recent past.  It was not considered plagiarism or fraud, but rather a way to pay a high compliment.    I understand the arguments made by those scholars, although I have not tried to follow the technical stuff very closely.  At this point, I am neutral on the question of who wrote 1 and 2 Timothy.  It was either Paul of Tarsus, who lived a long time ago and about whom we know some things.  Or it was another early Christian who lived within a generation of Paul of Tarsus.  I can’t say that it makes a great deal of difference to me.  Whoever wrote this, we readers are to understand it as words coming from someone in prison.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to him as Paul.

 

Paul is in prison.  Earlier in the letter, he spoke of those who had abandoned him and also of someone who was not ashamed of his being in prison and had offered comfort and care to him.  It is as if Paul wants Timothy to make that same decision, not to be ashamed of Paul, but to stick with him, not only for Paul’s sake, but for the sake of the gospel.    He writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead . . . - that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship . . .”

Paul was willing to suffer for his faith, to suffer when others opposed him, because they did not or could not understand him. In chapter 3 he says that everyone who wants to follow Jesus will be persecuted.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in prison in July 1944, wrote, “It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”

 

And Dorothee Soelle, another German theologian, said that “the cross of Christ symbolizes an understanding of human suffering in which humans may participate in God’s pain, that is love’s pain.”[1]

 

The main thing, Paul says to Timothy, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.  Jesus Christ who suffered unto death, and in whose sufferings Paul is sharing for the sake of love.

 

These ideas about suffering are not especially popular among Christians today.  Perhaps they never have been.   At various times Christians have found it easier to go along with earthly authorities than to take a stand and suffer for the gospel.  But others have always called us back.  In 1934, many German Christians could see no conflict between their faith and Hitler’s National Socialism.  But another group of church leaders was troubled by it.  They issued the Barmen declaration, named after the town in which they met.  It had 6 major points.  The first one was “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”[2]

 

William Willimon is a Methodist pastor and bishop.  Many years ago, when he moved to a new church, he was warned about one member.  “He’s usually quiet,” they said, “but be careful.”  Everyone still remembered the Sunday in 1968, when the preacher was ranting against Nixon and Vietnam war, this man had stood up, shook his head and just walked right out.  So, Rev. Willimon always preached with one eye on his notes and the other eye on that guy.  He hadn’t walked out during a sermon in over 10 years, but a preacher can never be too safe.

 

And then came the Sunday, when everyone else had left, and this man came up to Willimon and muttered something like, “I just don’t see things your way, preacher.”  Willimon said he moved into his best mode of non-defensive defensiveness, assuring him that his sermon was just one way of looking at things and that perhaps he had misinterpreted what Willimon had said, and that even if he had not, Willimon admitted that he could very well be wrong.

 

“Don’t you back off with me, “ he snapped.  “I just said that your sermon shook me up.  I didn’t ask you to take it back.  Stick by your guns – if you’re a real preacher.”  Then he said, with an almost desperate tone in his voice, “Preacher, don’t you ever forget that some days, the only thing saving me from complete despair is whatever word of God you happen to speak in the sermon.  Don’t you dare take it back.”[3]

 

“Remember Jesus Christ,” Paul says.  In the letter to the Corinthians he wrote, “we preach Christ crucified.”  When we get caught up in the business of church --  organizing meetings, monitoring finances, getting announcements into the bulletin, -- remember Jesus Christ.   When we lose our way, trying to make others comfortable, to make them like us, or to accommodate culture, remember Jesus Christ.  When we are tempted to take the path of least resistance, remember Jesus Christ, the one Word of God which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

 

Paul says, “Remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead . . . – that is my gospel for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” Paul is chained, captive in prison, but the word of God is not chained. 

 

I know what Paul means, but I have a contrarian’s mind.  I read these words and the first thing that I think of is the Middle Ages when Bibles were literally chained to pulpits.  This was before Protestants existed, when all Christians were either Catholic or Orthodox.  Later some Protestants would say that the Bibles were chained to keep ordinary people from reading them.  This was commonly repeated as an anti-Catholic statement, but the truth probably is that all books at the time were rare and precious and they were chained to keep them from being stolen. 

 

Paul was not talking about literally chaining books or scrolls.  He was talking about the ideas, the testimony, the love of God conveyed in written words and spoken words and actions, which cannot be bound or suppressed.  As the book of Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”

 

Another way to attempt to bind the word of God is to keep people illiterate. This was tried in our country, when enslaved people were forbidden to learn to read.  But some did any way and they read for themselves and they shared with others the stories of a God who said “let my people go” and declarations like “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.   The word of God is not chained. 

 

In a small Southern town at the time when schools were being integrated, there was a meeting at the white high school to decide what to do to “save the schools” and to preserve the town’s status quo.  One by one, angry speakers rose to call for boycott, resistance, even violence to protect “ours” from “theirs.” 

 

There was an old, half-broken Baptist preacher  in that town.  He had baptized, married, or buried just about everyone in that town at one time or another.  He was old.  His body was tired.  His voice was wearing out.  He arrived late at the meeting.  Stood at the back and just listened. 

 

After an hour or so of the racist tirades, he asked for the microphone.  The crowd made way for him.  He stood in front of the microphone, his eyes slowly sweeping the people in silence.  Then he spoke in measured sure certain cadence: “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white nor black, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  Go home, read your Bibles!”

 

The meeting was over. Slowly people drifted out. The schools integrated that fall without incident.  They still had their chains.  We still have our chains.[4]  But the word of God is not chained.

 

The Word of God has the power to change hearts and minds, to reconcile enemies, to enable sobriety in the face of demonic addictions, to topple tyrants and oppressive institutions, to bring peace from war, life out of death.  The Word of God can empower people to live out their faith in ordinary daily actions or to die for their faith or to stand firm under suffering for love’s sake.  The word of God is not chained.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 


[1] Dorothee Soelle, “Suffering” in New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, ed.  Donald W. Musser and Joseph L Price, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 488.

[3] As told by William Willimon in his sermon The Unfettered Word preached at Duke University Chapel, October 15, 1989

[4] Also told by Willimon in The Unfettered Word

 

 

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