According to William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, the book of Hebrews was written between two periods of persecution. The first persecution was undoubtedly the persecution by Nero which began in A.D. 64. The second persecution was undoubtedly the persecution by Domitian which began in A.D. 85. Barclay says that we know this because it is clear from internal evidence that, at one time the leaders of the congregation had died for their faith. And it is clear from internal evidence that though members of the congregation itself had suffered, they had not yet suffered to the point of shedding their own blood. Never-the-less, at least some of them had already been put into prison, and/or suffered ill treatment and torture. No doubt every member of the congregation knew someone who was a prisoner; and every member of the congregation knew that—prison and torture was a very real possibility for themselves.
Therefore when the author of the Hebrews found a ready and sympathetic audience when he exhorted his readers to:
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; (and) those who are being tortured, as though you were being tortured.
No doubt many people to first read and hear the Epistle to the Hebrews did go on to suffer prison and torture.
1st Peter 4:12 was right when it warned Christians not to think of the fiery ordeal that was coming upon them to test them, as though something strange were happening to them. Indeed, over the last two millennia Christians suffering has been all too common. Christian suffered under Nero, and Domitian, and Diocletian. They suffered under the Ottoman Empire, under Hitler, and Stalin, and under dozens of other tyrants. Of course, Christians have also suffered at the hands of Christians. On March 8, 1782, in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, 90 Christian Indians of were forced to kneel over a stump while their heads were burst open like pumpkins by members of the Pennsylvania militia. Likewise, over the last 2,000 years many Christian slaves have suffered like the prisoners they were their Christian masters
Let me give you a single example of Christians persecuting Christians from the Inquisition. In his history of the Reformation, Will Durant tells the story of a traveler who was arrested in Spain by members of the inquisition. The man had what the inquisitors believed to be a consecrated communion wafer in his travel bag. He was charged with heresy, imprisoned and tortured. Under torture, he admitted he was a heretic, and confessed that he and a dozen other heretics and a dozen Jews, had killed a Christian child, and used his heart to perform magic rights that were meant to kill all orthodox Christians and destroy the Catholic Church entire. Following his confession, though no child of the community was found missing, and though there was not a single shred of evidence against any Jews, four Jews were arrested and burned to death, two of them only after being slowly roasted and having the flesh pinched off their bodies by super heated pincers.
Using this story as a jumping off place, we could also speak of the vast amount of suffering and death Christians have inflicted on non-Christians over the last two millennia. However, our theme is Christian suffering, so we will return to it. Over centuries Christians have been burned at the stake, killed with the sword, sawn-in two, torn by wild beast, pulled apart on the rack, and simply shot. This “fiery ordeal” is not yet over. According to Open Door USA, an organization that tracks Christian suffering, between October 31st 2017 and November 1st 2018, more than 245 million Christians in fifty countries have endured significant suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ. In that period more than 1847 churches were burned; more than 4,300 people were killed for faith related offenses, and more than 3,100 were detained, arrested and jailed.
Today, in the United States, things are different. With the exception of terrorist suspects, who can be held without trial, most of the people in our prisons have at least been charged and convicted with crimes against others. As of 2016, we had more than 2,298,000 people in jails and prisons all over the United States. To put that into perspective, we are home to 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Of course, our local jails receive additional millions of men and women over the course of a year, mostly for crimes related to poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction and the like.
Now here in my point. Though most of us know someone who is in prison, most Christians in the United States, never even consider the Possibility that we ourselves might have to go to jail or worse. Perhaps, if suffering loomed larger, we would have less time to fight over the Bible and the minor doctrinal differences. Perhaps, we would be less inclined to keep people out of our pews just because they are poor, or have a different skin color, or happen to be born with an attraction to people of the same sex. If we Christians suffered more, every other Christian, no matter how different, really would be our sister, and brother, and friend. If we suffered more, the test of discipleship would be the willingness to be a part of a congregation! I just hope I would not fail to pass the test!
But—we aren’t suffering, and we often manage to forget those who are in prison. We need people like Robert Landry, Margie Lamb, Jeff Carter, and Rodney Stillwell to remind us of our responsibility to “remember those who are in prison as though we were in prison with them, and those who are tortured as though we were tortured.”
The gap is just to great between prisoners and rest of us is just too great. How then shall we close it?
1. We narrow the gap between the prisoner and us, when we remember how much like us they are. Many prisoners are first offenders who are truly sorry for what they have done. They want nothing more than to finish their sentence, and return to a normal life. The problem is, not everyone in prison with them feels the same way.
2. We narrow the gap between the prisoner and us, when we remember that people are often a product of their environment. Few of us were born poor and homeless. Few of us were raised by people suffering an addiction—though some were. Most of us never had to choose between flipping burgers at McDonalds for minimum wage, or selling marijuana and to YUPIES so that we could break out of multi-generational poverty. My third grade teacher, use to tell our class that when she considered the lot of someone less fortunate than herself, she always said to her self, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” In 1679 my ancestor, John Green, was given the choice between going to Jail in the British Isles or Pleading Transport, and becoming an indentured slave in Virginia. I don’t know what John did; but I suspect he did it so that things would be better for his family. He chose Virginia, and in a generation John’s son owned more than 600 acres of rich farmland in North Carolina.
3. We narrow the gap between the prisoner and us, when we remember that many crimes are “crimes of passion.” In a murder investigation, detectives invariably look first for those who are close to the victim, especially those who live under the same roof. Civilization is a thin veneer. It takes numerous generations to build a civilization. Yet, today, that same civilization can be destroyed in weeks, days, hours or minutes. It is the same with individuals. Our civility is a thin veneer, laid atop a pre-history that is as red with blood as any other wild animal. This can lead to tragedy. On March 3, 2019, Carolyn Tiger, 26 of Greensboro, was involved in a minor traffic accident. The man she bumped, stopped his car, took a rifle out of his trunk and shot into her car. She was hit twice in the head, and died at the scene. Mrs. Tiger’s two small children were in the car at the time, but they were uninjured. On April 21, 2019 a Mt. Airy man was arrested after he shot into the car of another driver, wounding both of his children. On August 23, 2019 a Florida man—licensed to carry a concealed weapon, was convicted of manslaughter for shooting another man for unlawful using a handicap parking place.
You know that I am a hunter and a shooter. Bob Sellers and I have spent many happy hours hunting deer in the Green Swamp. I know many of you are licensed to own and carry a concealed weapon. Even though I am a former military officer with hundreds of hours of weapons training as a student and as an instructor, and even though I am a Christian, I don’t trust myself to carry a weapon because I don’t trust myself to contain my anger and fear when put into a threatening situation. E. Stanley Jones, a 20th century Methodist Missionary and Evangelist wrote that most of us have Christian actions, but we have not fully developed our Christian re-actions.
4. We narrow the gap between the prisoner and us, when we remember that we are all guilt before God of something. The Psalmist and the Apostle agree:
10 “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands, no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” .
Elsewhere the apostle says that one who breaks God’s law in one point, is guilty in all points. Often the difference between us and the prisoner is that the prisoner has caught, charged, tried and is being punished. Apart from the grace and forgiveness that is ours in Jesus Christ, we would still be fugitives at large, with the heavy weight of God’s justice still hanging over us.
5. Finally, we narrow the gap between the prisoner and us, when we remember that Jesus meets us in the prisoner. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written at about the same time as the Epistle to the Hebrews. In Matthew 25 Jesus himself remembers the prisoner. He says:
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Matt. 25:31-40
Jesus then says to those on his left, that in failing to do these things to the least of these, they have failed to do them to him. Some say that, when Jesus spoke of “the least of these” he was speaking only about his disciples. I disagree.I do not believe that Jesus wants to let us off so easily. In putting himself in the place of the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner and the like, Jesus seeks to close the gap between those who are in need, and those with the power to meet the need.
I confess that I don’t respond well to people who licensed to beg at street corners. Many are professionals—as can be seen from the license they wear. I fear that many of them are among those the apostle had in mind when he wrote, “If anyone will not work, let them not eat.” However, when I see a homeless person, ragged and dirty, standing or sitting outside of Starbucks, though I am at a loss as to how to do more—I have a hard time not buying them a coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I am always a little afraid that if I pass them by, I am passing by Jesus himself. If we believed that Jesus was downtown at the Benton Convention Center, those of us who are diseased, sick, sad or lonely, would be as eager as eager to seek him out as the crowds in Jerusalem who once flocked to the temple to see him. Jesus does not say we can come to him at the Convention Center. He does say, “I was in prison and you came to me.” These are bold words. Perhaps we should put that claim to the test more often?