After a severe beating, what gives Paul the strength to sing and pray while shackled to the floor of a Philippian Jail? Is Paul a Super-Apostle? What lifts us up, when oppression, injustice and evil push us down?
“When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them, placing them in the innermost cell and locking their feet in stocks. Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”
If you had been beaten and falsely imprisoned, would you would be singing hymns at midnight? Imagine irons encircling your ankles, eyes swollen, ribs aching, back pounding as you sit on the stone floor with your wounds untended. Paul and Silas were thrown in the innermost chambers of an ancient jail. It is dark with no oil lamps lit. There is no soap, no deodorant, no indoor plumbing nor air conditioning as none of these were invented. It smells of all manner of human toil and suffering. You are chained to the floor with leg irons, the uneven rock or dirt floor as your bed. You can’t roll over due to the stocks. And the mob you preached to punched, kicked, and left you bleeding on the ground. Would you lift up your voice and sing?
Chained inside the stinking dark chambers, did Silas and Paul prayerfully sing, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the light. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home. When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near. When my light is almost gone. Hear my cry, hear my call. Hold my hand lest I fall. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home. When the darkness appears and the night draws near. And the day is past and gone. At the river I stand. Guide my feet, hold my hand. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home. Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand. I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone. Through the storm, through the night. Lead me on to the light. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home”? Was it a song like that the other prisoners heard?
Why does the silenced preacher sing? What brings songs in the night? What prayers tend to our wounded souls and steady us amid oppression, injustice and evil? How can our hearts be free, when our feet are shackled?
Is Paul some kind of Spiritual-Superman? Is Junia, also imprisoned for her faith (Romans 16) some kind of Wonder-Working-Faith-Woman? Do we need super-powers to overcome injustice or the wounds we endure in this life? What drives Paul and Silas to sing?
Paul is no super-apostle-superhero. But do you wonder,l what makes him tick? Do we know Paul? Do we judge him too quickly? Paul is very human. You do not need a seminary course in Pauline mis-steps to see his flaws, Paul openly shares his foibles In 2 Corinthians 11. Paul brags comparing himself to unnamed “super Apostles”, “allow me to be a fool so that I can brag like a fool for a bit. I’m not saying what I’m saying because the Lord tells me to. I’m saying it like I’m a fool. I’m putting my confidence in this business of bragging.”
I wonder if Paul sits up in heaven shaking his head and saying, “If I had known the church was going to put this letter in the Bible, I would have done better work!”? Let us not be the kind of people who criticize Paul but never dig very deep into his context. Let us remember, Paul and Team Paul hold relationships with churches, named in our New Testament letters; Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Thessalonians, Philippians and the like. They wrote back and forth, they knew each other well. However, the early church did not keep the letters that the church at Corinth or Rome sent to Paul’s team. I think it is possible the church at Corinth may have smiled a bit when Paul played “the fool” card. And we might do well to remember we do not know what Corinthian letter Paul is responded to.
“(I’m speaking foolishly). Are these super Apostles Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I’m speaking like a crazy person. …. What I’ve done goes well beyond what they’ve done. I’ve worked much harder.” When I read something like this, I wonder, “why is this in the Bible?” If I wrote a note like this in our newsletter, I would speculate that the Bishop would move me, at your request. Why is this in the Bible? Perhaps, it is because it reminds us of our brokenness, or humanity. God is with us in our least gracious moments. Or maybe there is a lesson in community, for in authentic community, we can pour out our hearts, share our beefs, and get real. If we can lose our holier-than-thou-legalism, we might admit. “I have felt just like that!” If you listened after Annual Conference, you might even hear preachers beefing about modern “super- preachers.” A deeply frustrated, human sounding, Paul complaining speaks of the messiness of our faith. God is with us in the bad moments too. Our faith is in process. It is beautiful when a church does not attack the hurting, but listens through the rant, and helps the hurting find a path back to love, even if we roll our eyes a bit. These passages remind us that Paul is not Jesus- and neither are we. These chapters remind us to put up with each other, bearing each others burdens, accepting each others weaknenss, hearing each other out, and restoring each other in love. That is was love does.
I’m speaking like a crazy person. …. What I’ve done goes well beyond what these super Apostles have done. I’ve worked much harder. I’ve been imprisoned much more often. I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times. I received the “forty lashes minus one” five times. I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea. I’ve been on many journeys (10,000 miles, ½ by foot). I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes. Besides all the other things I could mention, there’s my daily stress because I’m concerned about all the churches. ( Could we make a plaque for our Pastor, District Superintendent and Bishop friends about their daily stresses?)
So, let’s concede Paul’s point… he has suffered much to bring us the good news. Paul worked tirelessly. So what fuels Paul through beatings, arrests, shipwrecks, a 5,000 hike, misunderstandings, and 25 years with his possessions on his back? What keeps Team Paul planting the first churches in Corinth, Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessocanica? What brings Paul a songs in the stockade?
Before we insert some postmodern psychoanalysis on Paul, let us hear Paul out. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul gives us his WHY! “I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body.God knows. I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.”
Paul is no superhero, only someone caught up in the mysterious-indescribable-uncategorizable love of God. Paul, broken like us all, has tasted the depths of God’s love that exceed our understanding and knowledge! (Ephesians 3:19; Philippians 4:7). Paul’s experience with Divine Love unshackled his heart.
Marcus Borg says that the apostle Paul is a Jewish Christian mystic. The trajectory of Paul’s life was forever changed by a mysterious encounter with the Risen Christ on the Damascus road. (Acts 9) He was breathing “murderous threats” infused with hate, and then an indescribable light and love softened his heart and opened his eyes. God’s love is a not a theological concept but a personal force within the soul. Paul’s deep encounter with God’s holiness, forgiveness, freedom, and love fuel his planting churches, absorbing beatings, enduring arrests, hearing criticism and overcoming misunderstandings.
That same Love of God changed the tenor of John Wesley’s life as mysteriously, his heart was “strangely warmed”. Jesus spoke of this holy mystery saying to the woman at the well, “streams of living water will bubble up inside you”.
If you are in the third of Christians, that Marcus Borg says do not like Paul, please remember Paul’s life was defined by “God’s Love”. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul proclaims nothing else matters!. Paul focuses us on the undefinable, boundless, matchless, boundary-resistant theological (for we must use words) concept of “the love of God”, or “being in Christ”. If you have not experienced this kind of deep infusion of grace and love, it is hard to understand. I am not sure that we must experience this love, but I think, we can not understand Paul’s message apart from it.
Listen to Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
The love of God forever alters Paul’s heart and fuels his missionary zeal. The churches in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia, seeing that love lived out imperfectly in Paul’s life and letters, copy the letters, sharing them, and pass them on to other churches. You can see that process in Colossians 4:15-16. In time the larger Christian community put these letters from Paul and Paul’s team into the Bible. So friends, as read Paul’s letters, let us not lose sight of the mysterious and mystical love that God gave Paul songs instead of cursing while he was bruised, battered and chained inside a dark Philippian jail.
Are you tired, weak, lone? Do you need a song, as you feel beaten, shackled, or imprisoned? Imagine, Streams of Living Water washing away bitterness, anger, jealousy, murderous threats and the like?
Julian of Norwich shares God’s love with such beauty: “Our Lord showed me a spiritual sight of Christ’s familiar love. I saw that God is everything which is good and comforting and for our help. God is our clothing, for God is that love which enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us for divine love, which is so tender that Christ will never desert us.” “Our faith is a light…this light is charity… this light is not so generously given that we can see clearly, nor is it shut off from us, but it is such a light as we can live in it meritoriously…so charity keeps us in faith and in hope. And faith and hope lead us in charity, and in the end everything will be charity.” (adapted from Showings)
Oh, that God might unshackle our hearts. If you long for deeper love amid the worst in this life, perhaps Paul has something to offer! If you describe your theology with terms like “God’s love”, remember that Paul helped the world understand that the risen Christ still brings forgiveness, grace, power, courage, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, freedom and love. The Law is never near the center of Paul’s theology- Paul proclaimed a radical love of God.
May the love of God enfold, encircle, clothe, uphold, challenge, guide, and transform you.
Let us pray: We bow our knees before the Creator, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. We pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God will strengthen us in our inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. May we have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.