Sunday, May 3, 2020

PAUL IN SELF-QUARANTINE

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 
It is with these or similar words that Paul uses to open each of his prison epistles.
Some of you may be asking, “What are the prison epistles?”
They are the four books of the New Testament that Paul wrote while he was in prison. The books are actually letters, and there are four of them, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Paul was also in prison in Rome under the reign of Nero when he wrote the book of Second Timothy. Each of his arrests were the result of trumped-up and even false charges, but he was detained and incarcerated more than once, and for extended periods.
If we stretch our definition self-quarantine a bit, we could say that like David of last week’s mini-sermon, Paul was also in a sort of self-quarantine. Neither of these quarantines were of these men’s own choosing, so in that sense they were not self-imposed, but both were still a sort of sequestration.
Each one of us are also in some manner of self-quarantine that we did not choose. Certainly our situations are probably all very different. Some may still even be enjoying this time of separation, and to others it may not seem much different than an actual prison. But I suspect that all of us, to one degree or another, are at the point where we would like to return to some sort of normalcy in our former manner of life.
I am quite positive that this was also the case for Paul. I cannot imagine that he actually enjoyed being in confinement. This was a man who was accustomed to being among many people and journeying to many places. Nevertheless, there is very little sense of this in his letters.
It is not that Paul writes absolutely no words of discontentment, because there are a few. I will get to those few words, but from the great majority of the words we read in his letters, Paul seemed to be living a full and rich life during his time of confinement.
Paul was a teacher and a mentor to each of these churches, so naturally, the greater part of the content has to do with instruction in living as a follower of Jesus. Nevertheless, there are also hints or allusions—small indications as to how Paul was able to cope with his isolation.
If we are to learn contentment in being sequestered, listening to the advice of one who is himself imprisoned seems a good place to begin.
Three-fold Blessings in Time
Paul did not allow self-pity to find harbor in his daily life. He instead concentrated on the blessings that he enjoyed. I am quite certain he was thankful for the small blessings that he received every day, but in his writings he speaks of blessings that went far beyond his prison cell, blessings which extended even beyond time and into eternity.
Like Paul, these are the blessings which every follower of Jesus can share in our own hours of confinement. They are blessings we enjoy not only in the present, but which were also ours in the eternity past, and also in that which is to come.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this is found in the first fourteen verses of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul speaks of a time in the unimaginable past when he says, “God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, for He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless.”
These are the blessings that we have come to realize in the present, because it was in Christ that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”
And they are also future blessings, blessings that will also extend into “the fullness of time,” when all things are brought into harmony in Christ.
Blessings of Friends
We also see that while Paul sat in prison, he brought to memory those people in his life with whom he worked and whom he also had come to love. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he wrote to the people of Philippi.
He not only brought his friends to mind, but he also prayed for them: “In every prayer for all of you, I always pray with joy,” he also told the Philippians.
And to the Colossians: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”
“I always thank my God, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints,” Paul wrote to Philemon.
Blessings of Imprisonment
Paul even saw the blessings of his imprisonment. He wrote to the Philippians, “I want you to know that my circumstances have actually served to advance the gospel. Because of my imprisonment, the gospel has also become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else. And most of the brothers, given confidence by what they see by my chains, now dare more greatly to speak the word without fear.”
The Blessings of Faithful Friends
These four letters that Paul wrote are only positive in nature. There is no negativity, no self-pity, no thoughts of depression or even of cheerlessness. We see that Paul, sitting as he did for those long days and longer nights in prison, concentrated on the positive and the constructive.
It was only to his close friend Timothy that Paul allowed himself to voice complaint. As we saw in David’s words last week, Paul also spoke of the injustice of what was happening to him.
“At my first defense, no one stood with me, but everyone deserted me. May it not be charged against them.”
“Alexander the coppersmith did great harm to me.”
“Demas, because of his love for this world, has deserted me.”
Blessings of a Faithful God
At the end of it all, Paul understood the final source of hope. Speaking to Timothy about the injustices done to him, the teacher adds: “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message would be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles would hear it. So I was delivered from the mouth of the lion.
And the Lord will rescue me from every evil action and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever.”
And to emphasize that conclusive statement, Paul punctuates with the exclamation point—“Amen!”
We can learn from Paul as we did from David last week, that even in times of self-quarantine and sequestration, good things can happen. But they do so only if we work at it.
If you spend your time of lockdown posting your complaints on social media, complaining how Trump is handling the pandemic, or how your governor is handling it, you probably will gain no personal growth during this time.
But if like these two men, you concentrate on what can be gained in these unusual days, you will emerge strengthened to face and to thrive in whatever change is required in the days ahead.
In Paul’s letter to his friend Timothy, he writes, “Make every effort to come to me quickly, before winter if you can…and when you come, bring the cloak that I left at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.”
Paul was preparing for a long winter of study and meditation. His final strength and desire for humanity is found in his final words to the Ephesians.
“Peace to the brothers and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. May grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.”

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