You may remember that Jesus once proclaimed, even before He died on the cross, that if people wanted to believe in Him and follow Him they should “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Me.” What does that mean during this virus situation? Well, one piece of what this saying means is found in the reaction of Paul to his final persecution – his arrest in Jerusalem and imprisonment and death in Rome. We have several accounts of this time period in Paul’s life from his own letters and from the last few chapters of the book of Acts, which, together, make our nineteenth “Boost from the Bible.”
A few years before the end of his life, Paul had written to the Christians in Rome, letting them know what he believed and hinting that he would one day like to visit them in Rome on his way to Spain. That trip would have been Paul’s FOURTH missionary journey. But, instead of arriving in Rome as a free missionary as Paul had planned, when he DID arrive in Rome it was to be imprisoned, to await his trial and eventual execution for being a Christian.
Of course, Paul, in that ancient day, was used to threats of death all around him. Speaking of death…we who are facing COVID today are not used to having a death-threatening disease around us that we have no defense towards – but that “no defense” situation was a situation humans earlier lived with for most of human history, due to the then-deathly diseases of smallpox, malaria, cholera, typhus, diphtheria, mumps, measles, polio, yellow fever, the bubonic plague, and influenza, just to name a few. At one point, while chained in Rome, Paul wrote to the Philippians that he was sending them his fellow missionary Epaphroditus who had recently almost died from illness. Paul said to them that Epaphroditus “was indeed so ill that he nearly died, but God had mercy on him, and not only on him, but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.”
Now, on top of all these diseases, Paul also had to deal with the constant danger of death due to his own daily missionary efforts. He once told the Christians in Corinth that he had suffered many imprisonments, “countless floggings…often near death.” He later recounted: “five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.” He added later that he was “in danger from bandits, in danger in the city, in danger in the countryside, in danger at sea” – his list goes on and on.
So Paul knows how to help us through this time – how to make the best of it. We see in the Bible how Paul, a possible death sentence hanging over him, reacted to being chained and somewhat isolated. He always made the best of it, whatever he was going through. For instance, on the way to Rome the ship Paul was in got caught up in a huge storm; Paul calmed the sailors and, later, when they went aground on a coral reef, he kept them from killing himself and all the other prisoners. When they all landed, shipwrecked, on the island of Malta, Paul cured several sick people there.
Now when Paul then arrived in Rome, Luke tells us that “Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” Experts tell us that in Rome at that time prisoners in good standing, as Paul was, were allowed to rent small houses as they awaited trial. In Acts Luke writes that people came to hear Paul preach at Paul’s own “prison house,” and “in great numbers. From morning until evening,” Luke adds, “Paul explained matters to them, testifying to the Kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets” in the Old Testament. You see, Paul saw every situation – even situations where some would say, “Oh no, Paul is losing!” as a winning situation because it was a situation in which one could, through words and actions, share Christ and Christ’s love with others – and with even more spiritual power in the midst of distress. The same is true for us today!
Paul, in writing to the Philippians, put his imprisonment this way: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually HELPED to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the WHOLE IMPERIAL GUARD and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” He also mentioned the effect of his strong witness on the other Christians around him: “Most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the Word of God with greater boldness and without fear.” May we be the same way!
At this point in his life Paul talked a lot about being “in chains.” We, too, are a little bit chained these days – chained to our homes, venturing out only on certain occasions, always a bit cautious, of course, about giving or receiving this disease. And yet, even in these times, we have many opportunities to witness to Christ and Christ’s love, and to show the fruit of the Holy Spirit working in and through us: showing others God’s love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul, again writing from prison, put it this way to the Christians in Ephesus: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saved. Pray also for me, so that, when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, FOR WHICH,” Paul adds, “I AM AN AMBASSADOR IN CHAINS.”
Every day in our lives, no matter how we may characterize each day, is an opportunity to grow in faith and to show, by our words and deeds, the love of the Lord. Even when times are rough – well, and perhaps ESPECIALLY when times are rough – we have the opportunity to, as Jesus put it, “deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow” Jesus. By serving others out of love for them, we not only follow Jesus, we REVEAL to others the living Jesus who loves and wants to care for them SO much! During this coronavirus time, let us see this as a special opportunity to be Christian. Paul made a strange journey to Rome; we are in the midst of a different kind of strange journey today. But both kinds of journeys offer situations in which, as Paul put it, the gospel of grace is more able to spread. Amen!
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