Staying Hopeful

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, June 2nd 2019

Acts 16: 25-40; Philippians 3: 2-16

‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them’ (16:25) Well, if they were all chained up, and, if like Paul and Silas, they also had their feet fastened in stocks, I don’t suppose they had much choice about listening to this duo, lustily singing hymns at a time of night when any right-thinking person would be trying to get some sleep. For some unaccountable reason, Luke does not record for the benefit of church audiences the content of any of the encouraging comments made by these sleep-deprived fellow-prisoners.

A small part of me wonders which hymns they were singing. If Paul and Silas were Charles Wesley fans then surely they must have included And Can it Be – my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My larger concern, however, is with why they were singing at all.

They don’t seem to have a lot to sing about. Having deprived her owners of the services of a fortune-telling slave girl, Paul and Silas had been dragged before a hastily convened, possibly irregular, local court, been given a severe flogging, and then deposited in the securest cell that a Philippian prison could provide.

Today, we, very properly, worry about conditions in our prisons. I suspect things were worse in a Roman-administered jail in first century Philippi.

Most people would be discouraged to receive such a reception and treatment, but here are Paul and Silas, singing their hearts out, seemingly without worry or thought, either for their circumstances or for their neighbours. So, although a smaller part of me wonders which hymns they were singing a much larger part wants to know why they were singing in such circumstances. If I can figure that out, then it might come in handy for the times when circumstances are against me and when I might lose hope.

It’s notable that Paul did not lose hope, given that he had lost so many other things. He lost his dignity when he and Silas were stripped of their clothes before being publicly beaten; no small matter at any time, but something huge in a society bound together by notions of giving, receiving and losing honour. He had lost his physical freedom; his freedom of movement curtailed by physical injury after a beating, and further constrained by shackles and stocks. His status as a Roman citizen, which should have protected him from summary punishment and offered him judicial due process, had been disregarded.

All of this came on top of losing the high status he had previously enjoyed within the Jewish community; status which Paul had given up by following Jesus. As he subsequently wrote to the Christians in Philippi, ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ (3:4-6)

This, Paul was prepared to put aside. Also he was ready to risk his Roman citizenship for the sake of (what he calls in his letter) ‘the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (3:14) As far as Paul is concerned, all these marks of status he had previously enjoyed were like items that used to be on the positive side of a financial ledger which had now been moved into the negative column: ‘whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (3:8)

Now, I have not experienced anything like the losses Paul and Silas experienced in Philippi in my pursuit of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. Being a Christian in early twenty-first century North Shields is a much less frightening prospect than being a follower of Jesus in first-century Philippi. And it’s much safer than being one of his followers in several places elsewhere in today’s world.

As I may have told you previously, on one occasion in the 1990s, I was delivering “welcome to your new home” cards on behalf of a Churches Together Group in Liverpool, to houses in a small, newly built estate. The owner of one house, enraged by my unexpected churchly presence on his doorstep, pursued the local Catholic priest and me back down his path, accompanied by much shouting and by his threatening-looking, loudly growling dog. Had they been there to witness it, Paul and Silas’ fellow prisoners might have got some new ideas for vocabulary to direct at the two hymn singers.

Maybe it is something about visitors to your door that brings out the best in people. My experience over a number of years is that door-to-door collecting for Christian Aid Week has become an increasingly challenging business, with a rising number of blunt refusals – “we give to our own” being one of the more puzzling I’ve received. This year’s “I give to my own charity” made me wonder about setting up the Trevor Jamison Foundation – all donations welcome. Still, unlike Paul, and in contrast to countless Christians ever since, I’ve never really had to fear for my physical safety or for my life whilst working or witnessing for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is not to say that there are never times when I am in danger of losing hope. Many of us know what it is to face opposition when we voice an opinion or take an action that runs against the grain of how most people see things. Think of those, for example, who over many years campaigned, and those who still have to campaign, for their Church to ordain women as well as men as ministers, pastors or priests, often in the face of opposition and even abuse. Or consider some of the negative reactions when others speak up for full inclusion of LGTBQI folk in the life of their churches, communities or society.

My previous role as Environmental Chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland was relatively uncontroversial, or so I thought. Yet attempting to persuade not only every Scottish church but the entire Scottish nation to care for God’s creation today and in the future involved times of discouragement. Faced with those who think that care for God’s creation is an optional extra in the Christian life; meeting those who tell you that they prefer to put their efforts into sharing the “real gospel” instead, there were times when I got discouraged. But Paul won’t let you do that. So, if you have had discouraging responses to your attempts to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ in a practical, everyday setting, Paul might have something to share with you too.

If Paul was writing a letter to me to jolt me out of my gloomy, pessimistic outlook, I think he would tell me to keep in mind the big picture of the God of creation and the specific hope that gives Christians hope.

Saint Paul, who was beaten up (more than once), imprisoned (more than once); now writing from prison and in chains (1:13-14) to the Christians in the town where they once saw him imprisoned and in chains, writes about pressing ‘on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’. (3:14) Whilst worried that his Philippian friends might be endangered by enemies who he refers to as ‘dogs’ and ‘evil workers’ (3:2); whilst looking back on his previous high status within the Jewish community (3:4-6); whilst considering all his various losses because of his ‘faith in Christ’ (3:9), Paul keeps in mind that it is a ‘call of God in Christ Jesus’ (3:14) that should be his focus.

In other words, your or my situation, whatever that might be, is not all that there is to reality. This situation that you or I face is something located within a bigger context: creation, over which, through which, in which God is at work. I think that that’s an insight, an experience, a perspective, that we Christians share with some other faiths; this sense of something beyond ourselves which reassures, comforts and empowers us to carry on working for good and right; to do so even in circumstances where we can’t yet see things getting better.

So, a spiritual sense of being part of something bigger comforts us and equips us to live life to the full, even when circumstances constrain or shackle us. Additionally, there is a more specifically Christian hope that Paul shares with believers in Philippi, and so with us today: struggles undertaken, and sufferings experienced as a result of intentionally trying to do God’s will in and for the world have value because they are in solidarity with the struggles and suffering of Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ (3:10-11)

So Christian Aid collectors who risk a rude response, Christians who persist in saying that God calls all sorts of God’s people to positions of leadership in God’s Church; those who continue to speak for fair and equal treatment of all in society, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, belief , life situation or whatever; even those of us who question the legitimacy of a fossil-fuelled lifestyle in God’s world today; all of them and all of us are, Paul suggests, being Christ-like; even God-like!

Also hope does not flow just from the realisation that our difficulties are a sharing Christ’s sufferings. Not only does Paul say, ‘I want to know Christ and … and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,’ but he also says, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection … if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

God works in the world for the sake of the world, part of God’s creation. God has worked in the world in Jesus Christ. Paul retains hope because he is intentionally following in the steps of Jesus Christ, whose situation was so hopeless that it led to his suffering and death. But God has chosen to work in the world through Jesus Christ, not only through his death but also through his resurrection: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’, says Paul.

The Christian Aid collector, the Christian campaigners for fair treatment for all, and Christians calling for us to live well on God’s planet, not only have the comfort of being in solidarity with Jesus, and so with God, but also the confident hope that God’s love and life triumphs over present challenges and difficulties. Ultimately, their hope – our hope – resides in believing that our actions form part of a bigger, divine crucifixion-and-resurrection story where the whole of creation is reconciled to God by the love of God.

It’s upon this basis that we have hope and that Paul says, ‘Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining towards what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (3:13-14) May God grant us the chance to join Paul on this quest. Amen.

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