|Photo by Glenn Riegel|
|Walter Brueggemann preached the opening sermon for the 2012 Annual Conference, speaking about Paul’s message from prison as he wrote the book of Philippians.|
No doubt several in the congregation who listened to Walter Brueggemann in the opening worship service of the 2012 Annual Conference may have visited a prisoner in the local jail, or perhaps in a state prison.
Brueggemann asked his listeners, who he believed were all exhausted from their travels to St. Louis, to join him in an imaginary visit to a jail in Philippi where Paul was behind bars–and to see themselves as Paul sees them. They might be surprised to discover who is the real prisoner.
“Paul is a good citizen of the Roman Empire,” Brueggemann said, in a message titled “Behind Bars: Freedom Uncaged,” based on Philippians 1:3-6 and Isaiah 56:3-8. Paul was jailed, however, because the Roman Empire believed he was dangerous because he preached a risen Jesus. “If Jesus is alive all sorts of power is loosed in the world that the Empire cannot control,” Brueggemann explained.
However, although Paul was in jail he was not a prisoner. “He does not let the Empire or the prison define him.”
Brueggemann suggested that the Paul who looks through the bars, who before the age of Facebook had “friended” all the Philippians, would recognize us as well. And that Paul offers us peace and joy to override our stress and fatigue.
“We are all double-minded,” he said, referring to the human trait of living contradictory lives in two different worlds. We human beings live with compromises, he said. But Paul invited the Philippians and us to be “pure and blameless,” language taken right from Leviticus to describe the sacrificial offerings.
“We are filled with fear,” Brueggemann continued, reminding us that Paul also said to let our love overflow because perfect love overcomes fear.
In a similar way, “we are preoccupied with our moment in history,” Brueggemann said, but Paul in Philippians takes a very long view, looking forward to a harvest of righteousness. We are to imagine ourselves as part of this great drama, Brueggemann preached to the Conference, when with rejoicing the harvesters will bring in the sheaves. The preacher invited us to “soar in Easter freedom.”
Every church denomination is having the same discussion about who the real members are that was reflected on by the ancient prophet in Isaiah 56, and Christians across church boundaries are asking what “real” members look like. In contrast, the prophet says that the outsiders–foreigners and eunuchs–who observe the Sabbath and keep the covenant, are part of the family. All those “others” will become insiders.
Inviting the Brethren to claim the same freedom claimed by Paul, Brueggemann said we are to follow “the God who raised Jesus from the dead and uncaged us.”
Dr. Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and the author of several books including most recently “Disruptive Grace” and “David and His Theologian.”
— Frank Ramirez is pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren