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Frustration – and its Aftermath

 

Philemon 12, 16 

     Colossians 2:9        Philippians 3:8       Ephesians 4:10

 

“The most difficult thing to do in life is to have to do nothing”, said Dr. James Wilkes, psychiatrist and my former teacher; “The worst stress that anyone can undergo is the stress of powerlessness.”  In reflecting upon myself and upon those for whom I am pastor I’ve pondered Wilkes’ statement many times.  I think Wilkes is correct: the stress of powerlessness, helplessness, is unequalled. Frustration is a terrible burden. Like so much of life, frustration is easy to understand but difficult to cope with.

All of us have seen the 2-or 3-year old child who becomes frustrated and has a tantrum. We consider the child to be maturing when he can withstand frustration without exploding. When we adults (possessed now of even greater maturity) control ourselves in moments of speechless frustration, we are still controlling our temper. The rage is still there, but of course we’ve learned to disguise it or deny it until it’s safe for us to “let fly.”

For a long time now I have observed someone who strikes me as genuinely “mature in Christ”, as he himself put it, rather than merely “keeping the lid on.” His powerlessness, his frustration, has been of a sort that everyone would acknowledge as most frustrating: imprisonment.  For a long time now I have marvelled at its aftermath, under God, and what blessing the aftermath born of frustration has brought to the world.

 

The apostle Paul was a “doer”, a “goer”, always on the move, travelling ceaselessly on behalf of the gospel, cheerfully sustaining shipwreck, assault, hunger, fatigue and slander.  The Lord who is the light of the world burned so brightly in Paul himself that Paul had undertaken three lengthy journeys, establishing new congregations or ministering to established congregations.  He had always wanted to go Rome , the capital of the empire; after Rome he wanted to move into Spain and declare the gospel where it had never been announced before.  He got as far as Rome . He didn’t get there in the manner hoped, for when he arrived in Rome he was in chains. A few months earlier Paul’s preaching had precipitated a riot.  He was charged with disturbing the peace.  Roman officials were obsessed with keeping the peace, and anyone who provoked a riot was in huge legal difficulties.  Paul knew he was never going to get a fair trial in Jerusalem ; he thought he might get one in Rome . Since he was a Roman citizen, he had the right to be tried in Rome . Awaiting trial in Rome now, he couldn’t travel. Frustrated?  We can’t imagine how frustrated.  Not only was he in chains, he was fastened to the guard whom he couldn’t be rid of for a minute. He was allowed pen and paper, however, and managed to jot down four brief letters. These four letters are known as his “prison epistles”: Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians.

We must notice that the aftermath of Paul’s frustration wasn’t violence or tantrums or lament; it wasn’t even depression.         The aftermath was four small letters that the church of Jesus Christ will never be without.

Today we are going to look at one feature only from each of the four. We are going to do so trusting God to bless to our edification the frustration of the man who had surrendered his frustration to God.

 

I: — PHILEMON      Paul’s letter to Philemon is written not to a congregation but to an individual. This little letter didn’t end the institution of slavery overnight; at the same time there’s widespread agreement that what this letter embodied, working quietly like yeast for years, caused the ferment that helped the world renounce and denounce slavery.

And now to the story itself.   Onesimus was a runaway slave.  Having escaped, Onesimus fled to Rome where he lost himself in the crowded city.  While in Rome Onesimus met Paul.  Through Paul’s witness Onesimus came to lively faith in Jesus Christ. Paul loved Onesimus.  He spoke of Onesimus as “my child”, meaning, “someone dear to me whom I fathered into faith.”  So dear was Onesimus to Paul that when Paul sent him back to Philemon he wrote, “I am sending back my very heart.” Since it was such a wrench for Paul to send Onesimus back, why didn’t the apostle keep Onesimus with him in Rome ?

There were 60 million slaves throughout the Roman Empire at this time. If they ever revolted, the revolt would be massive and the bloodshed colossal.  Therefore Roman officialdom sought to ensure that no slave escaped. Anyone who counselled a slave to escape was executed.  Anyone who harboured a runaway slave was executed.  When a runaway slave was caught, a white-hot branding iron seared the letter “F” in his forehead; “F” for Fugitivus, “runaway.” The branding itself was torture, and it was followed by greater torture: crucifixion.  Paul loved Onesimus and wanted him alive.  Little wonder he sent Onesimus back.

But back as what? From the perspective of Roman officialdom, as a slave.  But from the perspective of the gospel, as a free man.  When Paul sent Onesimus back he asked Philemon to receive him as a “beloved brother in the Lord.”         Fine. To make his point crystal clear, Paul added, “Receive him as a beloved brother in the flesh.” To receive anyone as a brother in the Lord ought to be enough to overcome within the church all the social differences and distinctions that riddle a society. Ought to be enough; but, sadly, a congregation can think itself sincere in claiming to receive everyone as brother/sister in the Lord while all the while (perhaps unknowingly) maintaining the social standoffs that curse a society. For this reason Paul added, “Receive Onesimus as a brother in the flesh.” In other words, Onesimus the slave and Philemon the master were henceforth to be looked upon, and to look upon themselves, as blood-brothers without distinction. Right here Paul undercut the practice of slavery.  To be sure, it would take decades before slavery was abolished in the empire; still, it was undercut here.

Then Paul added something more.  “You and I are partners, Philemon; receive Onesimus as you would receive me.” Philemon was to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul, his partner in the gospel – yet more than this. Paul was a Roman citizen. Yes, he was in prison awaiting trial; still, a Roman citizen could never be made a slave. Then while the Roman government would continue to look upon Onesimus as a slave, Philemon was never to treat Onesimus as a slave.  The slave who was not only a brother in the Lord was also virtually a brother in the flesh and also virtually a Roman citizen.  Philemon would never look upon Onesimus as a slave again.

In one of those glorious paradoxes that abound in the gospel, the man who was in chains himself – Paul – did more to unchain slaves than anyone else in the ancient world.

 

II: — PHILIPPIANS    The congregation in Philippi was especially dear to Paul. The congregation was beset with no major problems.  Oh yes, two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were having a “tiff”, and Paul told them they should sort it out.  The tiff was a trifle. Unlike the congregations in Corinth and Galatia , the congregation in Philippi was problem-free. Moreover, the Philippian congregation was the only one that Paul had allowed to help him financially.

Paul’s intimacy with the people there and his affection for them can be read on every page of the letter. “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus”, he writes; “and it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more….” His intimacy with the people was rooted in his intimacy with his Lord.  Never indifferent to the truth of the gospel, never indifferent therefore to the truths of the gospel (doctrine), Paul yet knew that the truths of the gospel serve one luminous reality: an intimacy with the living person of Jesus Christ, an intimacy so profound as finally to be inexpressible.

At the end of the day everything we are about in Schomberg Presbyterian Church serves one glorious end: helping each other to an ever more intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ.  Everything that we struggle for in our congregational life; everything that we struggle against everywhere else: the “bottom line” of it all is what the apostle himself glories in when he sums it all up in six simple words of one syllable each: “For me to live is Christ.”

A few lines later in the Philippian letter Paul adds, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. To know, in Hebrew, is to be so intimately acquainted with something as to be altered by that thing. To know pain is to have had such personal experience of pain as to be changed by the experience.         To know hunger is to have been so hungry oneself as to never to be the same again. To know a person, in Hebrew, is to be so intimately acquainted with that person as to be forever altered by the encounter, the relationship.  What Paul knows of Jesus Christ is simply the difference his ongoing engagement with the master makes to Paul himself.         Everything else in his life pales compared to this.

And then the apostle continues with something we must never overlook: all he wants from life is to know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.  Does this mean that Paul regards his relationship with his Lord as protracted, privatized ecstasy? that all he wants in life is the most intense ecstasy in his innermost self while a suffering world’s suffering goes unnoticed or at least uncared about?  Not for a minute. He insists that to know Jesus Christ is both to know the power of Christ’s resurrection and to share Christ’s sufferings, even to be conformed to Christ in his death. There’s a sense, of course, in which we can’t share another’s suffering.  If your leg is broken it’s your leg that’s broken, not mine. Nevertheless, when your leg breaks, your suffering has a claim on me, a claim that I must honour if in fact I do know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Everyone knows that the parent whose child suffers extraordinarily – cerebral palsy or spina bifida or cystic fibrosis; everyone knows that such a needy child changes the parent’s life profoundly. Not to the same extent, most likely, but in the same way none the less, a world whose suffering rages relentlessly is a world that claims us indisputably and therefore ought to change us irrevocably.

Intimacy with Jesus Christ certainly includes the ecstatic, just as married life includes the ecstatic.  Yet as surely as Luther was right when he said, “It’s when the spouse is sick that one learns the meaning of marriage”, so it’s when the world suffers that we learn the meaning of intimacy with our Lord.

And to be conformed to our Lord in his death?  His death presupposed self-forgetfulness.  Enough said.

 

III: —   COLOSSIANS   Jesus Christ is sufficient; our Lord needs no supplementation.  He doesn’t need an additive or a booster or a corrective.  He is sufficient. Listen to Paul’s ringing reminder to the Christians in Colosse: “In him [i.e., Jesus Christ] the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Col. 1:19) And a minute later, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col. 2:9)  And again in the same letter, “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15) “Image”: eikon.  In Greek, however, eikon means not only image (as in perfect mirror-reflection) but also manifestation. Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God.  As manifestation of God he not only need not be supplemented, he cannot be supplemented. What, after, all could God lack, and what could ever be added to him?

And yet the Christians in Colosse had to be reminded of this truth; had to be reminded inasmuch as they were hounded night and day by religious devotees, “inventors”, who insisted that Jesus Christ needed religious additions, supplementation, of one kind or another.  Then what did they think was needed?  Wherein did they regard our Lord as deficient?

These people belonged to a group called “gnostics.”  The gnostics believed the human body to be inherently evil.         Since the body is inherently evil, God would never have incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth.  Since a holy God would never, could never, identify himself with human flesh, the incarnation had never occurred.

The consequences of this notion were far-reaching.  If the incarnation hasn’t occurred, then Calvary ’s cross wasn’t an act of God, and God hasn’t dealt with our sin definitively and invited us home unconditionally.  The gnostics believed, therefore, that people had to expiate or work off their own sin.

In the second place, if the human body is inherently evil, then such evil has to be lashed out of the body.         Whereupon the gnostics developed the most extreme ascetic practices as they tried to beat their bodies into something that would eventually be acceptable to God. Other gnostics argued that just because the human body is inherently evil, the body is incorrigible. Therefore there’s no point in beating it; might as well indulge it.  These gnostics indulged themselves shamelessly, immersing themselves in whatever luridness they fancied.

In the third place, all gnostics insisted that genealogies and horoscopes provided spiritual sustenance, making up in the spiritual life what Jesus Christ couldn’t supply.

It all sounds like the contemporary church, doesn’t it.  The incarnation is denied (for whatever reason).  The cross of Jesus is no more than another instance of martyrdom.  The body has to be drilled into champion athletic form (even though the only person who looks like a 20-year old in a swimsuit is a 20-year old), or else the body is to be indulged with nary a conscience-twinge. Genealogies and horoscopes are invested with religious significance in view of the deficiencies of the Christian faith.

From his prison “digs” in Rome Paul underlined his letter to the Christians in Colosse: “You don’t need anything that gnosticism offers: Jesus Christ is sufficient. Since the fullness of God, the whole God, dwells in him, since he is God’s perfect manifestation, ‘what more can he say than to you he hath said’? Since the fullness of God dwells in him bodily, the human body can’t be inherently evil. Then the body is neither to be beaten nor to be indulged, but is rather the vehicle of our service to God and neighbour.  And since Jesus Christ is the event of God’s speaking to us and acting for us, there’s no need for genealogies and horoscopes, and no religious significance to them in any case. Jesus Christ is sufficient.”

 

IV: — EPHESIANS           Ephesians is one of the richest documents in the newer testament.  One 20th century minister, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preached through the book of Ephesians Sunday-by-Sunday for eight and one-half years. I have five minutes. What shall I say?  I want to draw your attention to something that Paul says both near the beginning and near the conclusion of his letter.  “Jesus Christ fills all things.” (Eph. 1:23 & 4:10 ) In other words, there is no nook or cranny in the universe where our Lord isn’t.  Even though I had read these two verses over scores of times I was startled as never before when I read them once more in a whorehouse in downtown Toronto . In 1986 The United Church Observer commissioned me to write an article on the housing situation of the chronically mentally ill. Maureen drove me to the Parkdale area of Toronto – where the chronically mentally ill live in large numbers, expelled, as they have been, from scaled-down provincial hospitals in west Toronto . Since it was raining I went to a doughnut shop and sat down with a 25-year old woman who trundled everything she owned in a household shopping cart.  Before the day was out I’d visited several more doughnut shops and asked my newfound “friends” there where I might get a hotel room. I went to one of the places mentioned and booked the room.  It cost $117 per week or $35 per hour.  I rented it for a week. As I lay in bed that night trying to shut out the sound of the footsteps up and down the stairs and the constant flushing of the communal toilet at the end of the corridor I re-read Ephesians.         Then it leapt out at me: Jesus Christ fills all things. All things? The Parkdale boarding houses that “shelve” the wretched and rejected of the city?  The hotel where I was staying?   The rooms adjacent to mine whose occupants weren’t reading the bible? If Jesus Christ does fill all things, what does it mean that he does?  What’s its force? What are its implications? I’ve pondered all of this thousands of times in countless different contexts.  To say the least, because he fills all things we never have to take our Lord anywhere. We don’t take him anywhere; he’s always on the scene ahead of us.  We can only identify him and his work and identify ourselves with it all. The implications of this for my life are so vast that I’ll not live long enough to pursue them all.

Margaret Avison, a zealous Christian and member of Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto , has twice been awarded the Governor General’s Award for poetry in Canada ; two years ago she received the most prestigious prize in the English-speaking world for poetry. Margaret tells me she doesn’t want to write “Christian” poetry, religious poetry. (Religious poetry, she says, is usually inferior and “corny” as often.)  She wants to write poetry so well, so superbly, that her unbelieving poet-friends will have to notice it and query her about it, and therein listen to her. It’s the implication for her and her gift of the fact that Jesus Christ fills all things.  Margaret told me that this was one kind of evangelism she could do. She can do it, however, only because Jesus Christ fills the world of poetry, even though most poets don’t know it and disdain him in any case.

What about you and me? Since our Lord fills all things, what are the implications for us?  What must we be about? What misunderstandings must we henceforth drop?  And what urgency fires us as never before?

 

Frustration.  The man who had always been busier than a water-spider one day found himself chained to a guard who was never out of sight.  It wasn’t the apostle’s first taste of powerlessness, but it would prove to be next to his last.         All he could do was scratch out a few lines to three congregations and an individual. It was all he could do. Still, he was determined to do all he could.

Perhaps you want to say that Paul wasn’t completely powerless, utterly helpless. You are correct. He wasn’t.         He could still write. Myself, I have long noted that when people claim they are helpless they rarely are: there’s something they can do, if only a little. Then what about the situation of honest-to-goodness utter helplessness, complete powerlessness? We must surely be speaking here of our powerlessness in the face of death.  We should all know by now that it’s precisely in the midst of death that God has always done his most effective work.

                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           January 2006