|Mercy Street Church of Christ
A PARTY IN PRISON
In this missionary letter from Paul to his fellow Christians in the city of Philippi, he includes an odd little line that I would frankly tend to dismiss . . . except that just a couple of weeks ago, some of us got another letter almost exactly like it. First, here's the Bible statement, and this is found in verse seven of chapter one.
"Whether I am in chains," Paul writes, "or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me."
Now, as you probably know, this guy Paul did a fair amount of both of those things. He was the master defender and confirmer of the gospel, of course, the greatest preacher in the New Testament. But he also put in his time in chains, as you can read in the book of Acts, and then again in a kind of iron-man litany over in Second Corinthians 11. But he's telling the truth when he says that he's able to bask in the hardships of prison, as long as he's united with his brothers and sisters through the miracle of grace. As long as he knows he's a saved man, redeemed by Calvary, he can actually be happy in San Quentin.
Now, here's the newer missionary letter, and I'm telling you the truth: this came in by way of e-mail. It really did. This is several years old, and it was sent to us via the Internet with this title: Letter From a Friend in Honduras. Two incredible Christians, Ernesto and Sheree, serve a church in El Progresso, Honduras, and sent out a late-breaking e-mail report regarding the horrors of Hurricane Mitch down there. And this document is really the most brutal thing you can imagine. Even the writers confessed: "It is a national disaster. [We] can't even begin to express the tragedy."
And they go on to describe — as best human language can — how terrible things were. A whole 20-mile stretch from where they lived over to San Pedro Sula was completely underwater. Hundreds of people drowned; thousands were homeless. People and kids and orphans were stuck on rooftops for three, four, five days with no food or drinking water or sleep.
No hope of rescue. Dead bodies everywhere. Garbage floating by. Robberies and black-market entrepreneurs and crime. Doctors and nurses staying up 24 hours, trying to save a life here and a life there. There was infection and head lice and fist fights. It's a story you and I just cannot comprehend. You can hardly read these words without turning away for a bit, switching off your Outlook Express and looking in another direction, just to get the lump down in your throat.
And yet somehow, part two of the file, dated November 2, starts out like this:
"Good morning! It is so wonderful to see the sun out. We are thankful we can feel your prayers and our hearts are strengthened to continue in what is before us."
And they talk cheerfully about digging their way out, about their gratitude for the prayers and the care packages slowly arriving. They even make a joke about their dilemma:
"Today I am going to start cutting hair on all the children and checking for lice . . . sounds like fun, huh!" Sherree writes.
And maybe you and I cannot comprehend their cheerfulness, their optimism in the midst of mud and crime and death. But somehow these two remarkable Christians are reading from the same page of the Bible as Paul. They have God's grace! They know fellow believers are sharing in that grace, praying for them. And so their testimony is that they can react with joy.
Back to the Apostle Paul now, and this business about rejoicing in prison is a very real testimony even right here. Because Paul is actually writing FROM jail! That's right. This is a jailhouse epistle, written from the penitentiary. A believer named Epaphroditus carried this letter from Paul to his friends in Philippi.
But notice how Paul discovers yet another silver lining about being a ward of the state. Here's verses 12-14.
"Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly."
So Paul is a celebrating cellmate for two reasons. One: all of his fellow Christians are emboldened in their own witness, seeing as how he's in jail for his faith. That's a tremendous example. But secondly, all the guards in the joint, the men in the machine-gun towers, know that he's a believer. They're all getting exposed to the gospel message, hearing bits of it in the yard, hearing his prayers before lunch in the cafeteria. Prison is a whole new mission field for Paul, and he's actually loving it.
You know, a paraphrase of this chapter, Philippians chapter one, captures that almost childlike joy as Paul writes about how God works through adversity. Here it is:
"My imprisonment for Christ," he says, "has been instrumental in taking the gospel right into Caesar's palace" — not the Nevada model, although that's not a bad idea — "and into many other neighborhoods in Rome."
And you know, this kind of bad news-good news scenario happens all of the time within the Body of Christ. Chuck Colson, who heads up the evangelical ministry known as Prison Fellowship, writes about an inmate named Danny Croce, who murdered a police officer while driving under the influence. So of course he was put in the slammer. Guess what he's doing now? He's a Christian prison chaplain at that very same jail where he served out his sentence. He's chaplain to some of his former prison pals, and these guys know he's for real because they used to share a cell with him. His witness is multiplied more than anyone could measure because of his jail experience.
Maybe you remember the classic old bad-news story at the very beginning of the wonderful book, The Cross and the Switchblade. This skinny young Assembly of God preacher from Pennsylvania drove to New York City with his youth associate to try to intervene in the murder trial for a bunch of teenage boys, gang members. He got into the courtroom, and of course, he didn't know how to get involved, how to help. He was an ignorant bystander, a babe in the woods in big, bad New York City.
And when the trial abruptly ended, he made an incredibly stupid blunder. He just began shouting out, "Your Honor, Your Honor! Can I talk to you?" Well, the bailiff and the cops in the courtroom just went crazy. I mean, this was a gang trial, with death threats and tight security, and this Bible-waving preacher looked like some kind of a nut. All the press took pictures of this wild-eyed, lunatic preacher, and they escorted him firmly outside and told him to get lost. And Wilkerson was in tears out in the parking lot. How could he have been so stupid? Where was God's leading anyway? Why didn't the Holy Spirit help him to keep his own flapping, stupid mouth shut? He could just imagine all the New York papers with this picture of an idiot preacher on the front page.
And he drove home to Pennsylvania with his tail between his legs, feeling so ashamed. Now he had to explain to his church members, who'd scraped together the gas money to send him to New York. By the time he got home, they'd all seen the papers. It was an embarrassing, agonizing experience, and it certainly seemed like there was nothing to rejoice about.
Well, here's the amazing conclusion. A few months later the Holy Spirit began to bug David Wilkerson again: Go back to New York. And he was aghast at the thought. "No way, Lord. Leave me alone. Not a chance." But he couldn't fight that voice. Finally he went to his church, heart in his throat — and incredibly, they gave him the money to drive back to the Big Apple and the neon and the prostitutes and the gangs. And he got out of the car, not knowing where to start, where to make contact with these hurting, broken kids.
Well, he'd walked something like half a block when he heard a voice. "Hey! Davie!" And he looked around. There was no one else on the street. And some kid was shouting out at him. "Hey! Davie!" "Are you talking to me?" he asked. "Yeah," the gang member said. "Aren't you that preacher who was kicked out of the Michael Farmer trial?" "How'd you know that?" Wilkerson wanted to know, incredulous. "Are you kidding?" the kid snorted. "Your face was in every paper in New York. All the gang kids know who the preacher is: Davie."
And David Wilkerson wanted to just fall down on his knees right there in Times Square and weep for joy. What an amazing God, to turn his stupid courtroom blunder into this rendezvous moment. And this leather-jacketed boy, Tommy, president of the Rebels, took Wilkerson around and introduced him to all of the gang members. Of course, him getting thrown out of court by the cops, the hated enemy, made him a hero in the eyes of the kids. Within the hour he'd met every single Rebel, and even the GGI's, the Grand Gangsters, Incorporated. At that very moment, the ministry known as Teen Challenge was born. All because of a mistake in a courtroom, the divinely-ordained blunder of a man waving a Bible and shooting off his mouth about a God who loves teenage kids.
So friend, if you're living in jail, or maybe just trying to live DOWN some "dumb" mistake, just sit tight. Just like for Paul, and for Davie, God may be setting up something very, very interesting.
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