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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

The Incarcerated Church

For many weeks now we have been taking a look at the book of acts and what this account of the early church held for us as the modern church of today. Of course there is much we can learn and the power of scripture still speaks to us in the same holy spirit language that it did in those days, and socially too there is much that we share with the early church, as it was affected by religious zealotry and misunderstanding, and the effects of idol worship and empire.

As we have been following since September we’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in the church restoring and resurecting, causing disruption and disturbance, establishing leadership, calling martyrs, performing miracles and creating paths through which we could love our enemies.

If you don’t read ahead in the bulletin and catch the title of the sermon today, a lot of the liturgy might have seemed like it was taking an odd leaning. Well set aside the lessons on accepting worship as a whole meal, intended as a unit, and dependant on every part, and just move on to accepting that our service together today takes a definite note toward the themes of incarceration and freedom. We’ve been on this journey through Acts, and I feel as though there is one final realization to make about the book that is very important, and necessary to really get what the author of Acts and the gospel of Luke was trying to accomplish. That is, the whole story that the Holy Spirit is telling that ancient church and our modern family is tied to this idea of incarceration.

First let's look at Luke’s primary book, the Gospel, which focused on the human interactions and relationships of Christ. “Son of Man” is used as much in no other Gospel, and only in Luke do we realize that the woman bathing Christ’s feet in oil is hamartōlos that is, someone guilty of crime, someone who is still wicked. Only in Luke do we see conversations with thieves on the cross. Only in Luke does Jesus tell Zacheus that Christ’s purpose was to come and “seek and save the lost.” Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that the book of Acts, Luke’s second book, is also mainly concerned with how the church treated one another. It is again the story of human interaction that drives the narrative through the many initial structures and events of this burgeoning faith, this new way of being faithful, that the world had never seen before.

We know from Paul in Colossians [4:14] that Luke is a gentile, so it is no wonder that the way in which the church opened itself to the people who were once thought of as abhorrent and unclean, should be a passionate focus. Also, if we notice in the gospel of Luke, there is a elegantly written subtext. Luke, an educated gentile, is no stranger to literature, and employs those same techniques if we are able to see them. The Gospel begins and ends with Birth. In Chapter one, immediately after an introduction, we have the heralding, the foretelling, of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. To end his first book, Luke concludes with the heralding of the church, yet still to be born in the book of Acts, as they are at the Jewish temple praising God, not yet in the fullness of what the Church would be. Luke is a fan of this style of writing.

So, as we finish Acts, what I see is another similar bookending. In Chapter 2, the followers of Christ are in one room. An upper room after having concluded the business of electing a new person to replace Judas, they have no further direction. They are waiting. Isolated. In essence, locked away. Other Jewish folks are celebrating Sha-vo-ut, the Jewish name for Pentecost, the 50th day after Passover. Yet they were not. Shavout should have them reading from the Hebrew Bible, and hanging greens, and harvesting wheat. Yet they sit together, incarcerated. But the story of the church arrives in full force driving them out into the world and to the ends of the earth. Similarly, at the end of Acts, we have Paul, the creator of the widespread church and the gentiles coming to an understanding of what it was to have a community, to have faith, to have an interwoven love and dependance, Paul is heading to prison. The story of Acts, this incredible fiery event. This legacy of the church that is found in the death of faithful people unwilling to recant their belief, this painful story of sacrifice and terror, this earth altering explosion of belief that was passionately caring for people who had nothing. It ends with the incarceration of Paul in Rome. In four years Paul would be dead.

We might well ask what the ancients thought of prison, because it was different from what we have now. Largely in the time of the Old Testament prisons were simply underground dungeons, or empty wells. Think back to Joseph who was imprisoned by his brothers. They were wholly dark and miserable places. Jeremiah was put in “a cistern house” for many days. When he was let go for interrogation, he begged that he not be returned to his cell afraid that he would die there. The psalmist several times writes of “prisoners in misery and in irons”, captives who “groan” and are “doomed to die”. Job considers Sheol to be the better choice to imprisonment if we recall. Things were no better in Jesus’ era. For the most part the Roman prisons were dark, disease-ridden and overcrowded. It was very common for prisoners to die in custody, either from disease or starvation, brutal torture, execution, or suicide. In accounts, ancient historians and authors refer to prisons as a “fate worse than death.”

So why is Luke using these themes in Acts? Not because of what prisons were, or only partly that, but more because prisons serve principally as holding tanks where offenders could be detained prior to trial or to the carrying out of the sentence of the court, such as execution, exile or enslavement, or until debts or fines had been paid. Prison, is where they waited, for debts to be paid. Much like the early church is waiting on the day of Pentecost. And how in Ephesians 3:1, Paul describes himself as a “prisoner of Christ” for the sake of the gentiles. Incarcerated in a fairly miserable place, expecting execution, yet working until the debt of the world was paid. That’s Paul’s understanding of being a prisoner. That the debt of the world needed to be paid in exchange for his freedom, and not just paid because Paul did believe that of course, but known. Even as a prisoner, Paul was serious about going after the least of these.

Many Christians in the early church languished in prison, awaiting their sentencing. Mostly because in the ancient secular world, that is everyone else, Jews and Gentile pagans, could not understand the new Christian belief systems. It was for the non-Christian, as the famous Churchill saying goes, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

The ancient world had never seen anything like this before. Which follows, since Jewish leaders had never seen anything like Jesus as a teacher before, and since, in fact, we know the singular uniqueness that Christ has in all the universe. The ancient world didn’t have regular communal meetings. The ancient world was not so inspired by their faith that they sought to draw others into their beliefs. The ancient world largely didn’t have a system of belief, but instead just a loose gathering of ritual practices tied to family gods, city gods, and gods of the ruling state. The ancient world did not find morality or the insistence to care for the sick and poor and fringe people of their society from their system of belief. There are letters written from Governors of the Roman empire back and forth on what to do with this Christians, who, at different points, are accused of eating children, since we take part in consuming the flesh of God’s son, and drinking blood, and of having incestous unions, since we called each other brother and sister. The ancient world did not know what to make of Christians. And yet, the number of people who were cared for and communicated with kept growing. Yet this fantastic story... ends with Paul preaching with under the eye of Roman guards, pleading his death sentence with the Emperor of the world.

Yet there is a difference in Act’s bookends of incarceration. Just as the expectation of the birth of 2 babies is different from the expectation of the fullness of the Church while worshiping at the Temple, this incarceration post-”Holy Spirit” is vastly different from the one we see at the beginning of Acts. The church is imprisoned in fear and wonder at the future before the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost, but here Luke is explicit in telling us: Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” Incarceration at the end of Acts, no longer holds the isolation and fear and weakness that it once held. Nothing in all the world can stop the Holy Spirit.

As we heard this liturgy this morning, inspired by the poems of incarcerated people, I hope we can connect a little bit more with the prisoner. I hope that we see with new eyes, the view that Paul had on his own life. I hope that we can deepen our understanding of the book of Acts, as the story of the incarcerated church. We are still prisoners of Christ, willingly taking on this imprisonment to find true freedom. Absorbing the unstable and less than ideal conditions of Christianity so that we can minister with deep love to those who are sick, who are strangers in our land, who are thirsty, who ache to be invited in, who are hopeless and alone and in need of our visits.

To “do” for the least of God’s people, we have to take on a portion of their stories in empathy. To truly hear Christ call people brothers and sisters, to hear the insistence of the divine family in those people who have no status. To give humanity back to people who have been dehumanized. To give our power over to those people in our family who have no power of their own. To be counted as sheep instead of goats. We are to be incarcerated. We are to know hopelessness at times. We are to know starvation and time in the darkness of the cistern.

Yet, we are not prisoners without hope. We are, and will continue to be, as Zechariah says, “prisoners of hope.” In the Old Testament reading God is going to set the prisoners free from the waterless pit, the cistern, the darkness that was without end. Luke’s companion to Acts, the Gospel, spells out why Jesus is here. The messiah that Zechariah’s people longed for, has come. The very first thing that Jesus does publicly as an adult in the Gospel of Luke is tell people that the Lord

“...has anointed (Christ)

to proclaim good news to the poor.

God has sent (Jesus) to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free...”

That is the story of the Church in the book of Acts. For Luke, the ministry of Christ and the true and faithful “shepherding” of the Church, is to live into incarceration in the name of the one who comes to give freedom to those who are shackled in the cisterns of our world. If they are fearing for their lives, or simply dealing with the loss of loved ones, they are the same, and they are a part of family. Our lives have been altered by Christ and will continually be altered by the work that we are drawn into. We will weep and be martyred but that will not stop us, because we will also do miracles and be set on fire by a mighty wind.

Because that is our story. The Holy Spirit has gotten a hold of us now, and even though we are imprisoned by our own short sightedness and trauma or the mightiest governance in the world, as Paul was in Rome, we will proclaim, “with all boldness and without hindrance.”

This thing called church, much like in ancient times, still seems like a crazy idea on a lot of days. If we truly desire the righteous eternal life, if we want to shine like jewels in the land, if we want to flourish and be full, then we must be prisoners. Incarcerated together in this work, knowing what real freedom looks and tastes like, and bringing that Good News to ends of the earth.

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