By Nnorom Azuonye
Let me start with stating the obvious. For any society to function efficiently, there are always a set of rules, or laws, that define the way people must relate to one another, and also how they use or not use facilities, or even how they use personal property if it may impact on other people’s lives. It is usual for such rules to also include sanctions or consequences for not obeying them and how those sanctions are to be implemented. The Ten Commandments given to Moses for Israelites and all of God’s people is one such document. Most countries in the world have written constitutions, however in Britain, the constitution is mostly unwritten, but it does exist and forms the basis of governance and legal processes in the country. The Methodist Church of course has the Constitutional Practice and Discipline (CPD) by which we conduct ourselves as Methodists. Many well-intended rules can also be frustrating to us. How many times have you been running late for work but all the roads you drive on are 30mph limit roads and you are tempted to go at 70mph?
You see, the biggest challenge to both the law of God and the law of society is free will. This means that although there are sanctions, people often choose to go against the law and face the consequences, or believe they can get away with it, which does not always happen. If you have had a final warning at work for lateness, you may choose to risk three points on your licence and break the speed limit on that slow road. You may get away with it. You may get caught and be made to pay a fine and get some points on your licence. You may also get in an accident and kill somebody or kill yourself and never get to work.
On more occasions than we can count, the Israelites disobeyed the law of God and many times God punished them, but being a God of mercy and faithfulness, he always welcomed them back when they turned away from their sinful ways. You see, our God is a covenant-keeping God, but we have a talent of breaking these covenants, yet he always finds a way of accommodating us. For example, in the Old Testament passage we read today; Jeremiah 31:27-34, God decided to put in place a new covenant in these words:
“…I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach a neighbour to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs.” (GNT)
By writing his law in their hearts, God was offering freedom to his people, so that they would be a people led by love from within and not people led by laws cast in stone or written on scrolls.
Was this the end of sin and disobedience? No. Despite the oracles of the prophets and teachings from the scriptures, sin has continued to be a part of the human society. Even after God sent his son Jesus to die the death you and I should have died for our sins, we often forsake God and live in disobedience and carry on doing the things he does not want us to do.
The second Bible reading today was from a letters written to Timothy attributed to the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5) through which he is offered encouragement and support in a time of peril and challenges. A lot of people were questioning the veracity of the gospels and the good news that the early Christian apostles preached. It was indeed a tough time. As you know, whoever you are, if what you preach is daily challenged and attacked, teachers of false or misleading doctrines spring up creating confusion and your life and the lives of people you love are threatened daily, there will be those times you feel alone and you wonder what is real or not anymore. At such times, we must rise and support one another with prayers and with the word of God. This is the reason Timothy was encouraged to remember his roots and to remember what he has been taught by teachers before him:
14 But as for you, continue in the truths that you were taught and firmly believe. You know who your teachers were, 15 and you remember that ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful[a] for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, 17 so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed. (2 Timothy 3:14-17. GNT)
This message is relevant to all of us in the Christian church today. In a world that is getting more secular every day and less people are embracing our faith and are turning to other gods such as money and fame. It is one of the greatest paradoxes that the Bible remains the number one selling book in the world and is now available free of charge on the Internet and mobile devices. Many hotels still provide the Bible free of charge in their rooms, yet less people actually read the Bible or hang around the words of scripture.
I will like to anchor this message today on 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful[a] for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living,
because it is Prisons Sunday and as we remember in our prayers and worship the offenders who have been incarcerated in prisons around the world; including the truly guilty as well as those who are languishing in prisons for crimes they did not commit, or victims of political tyranny and intimidation.
As we also remember victims of crime who have to live with scars of criminal activities such as physical assault, rape, or armed robbery, it is important also not to forget the families who are bereaved as results of crime and also remember the communities left shocked and fragile because of the fear that criminal terror has inflicted on them.
Across the different categories I have just mentioned, the common denominator they lack is freedom, and if we are to minister to anyone in any kind of prison today, the scripture must form the basis of our ministry as we seek to teach the truth, rebuke error, correct faults, and give instructions for right living including the need to find freedom in forgiveness.
What exactly is freedom?
Freedom is to be at liberty rather than confinement or under physical restraint, meaning an exemption from external control, interference and regulation.
In the true sense of it, because there are rules in every society that govern how we live our lives, it cannot be said that our lives are without control, interference or regulation. The perceived freedom is only to the extent that we have the freedom to choose to be law-abiding citizens or law-breakers.
This comes with a lot of responsibility.
So when we think about people in prison today, it is important to consider the roads that led them to those prison cells. Did they commit the crimes they did because they did not know any better, or because they were just evil, or because they did not have a choice? Or perhaps did not realise that they did in fact have a choice?
Now I remember the words of Colonel Jessep in the movie A Few Good Men: “We follow orders, we follow orders or people die, it’s that simple. Are we clear?”
It is the same with living in the society. We have to obey the laws of the land or lose our freedom. It is that simple. For Christians, we have the scripture to guide us to a life of freedom not only here on earth but also in the place Christ has gone to prepare for us. And we have the right to choose life or death.
When ministers work with prisoners they have conversations and understand the world of the inmates and try to lead them to a place of peace and love. They help them find comfort when storms of despair rage. It is our belief in the Christian world that if any criminal, regardless of his or her crime, truly – emphasis on truly – truly repents, that very moment his or her sins are forgiven. The person may remain in prison for a number of years after receiving Christ, or even be in there for the rest of his or her life, but those walls and gates will be meaningless because the soul has been saved and set free.
So, you may ask then, what about their victims? The trouble with crime is that many times more than one prisoner emerges from a single crime. The perpetrator ends up in jail, the victim may be trapped in a mental prison of fear and hatred, or if the victim is dead, the bereaved family will go into a prison of grief and anger.
On a day like this, we should reach out and hold the hands of the victims or with love and compassion. We may with caution and sensitivity share with them the extravagance of Christ’s love and charity when even with his last breath, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed to his father and said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. Hopefully they will work through their griefs and forgive too when the time is right.
Practitioners of Restorative Justice have achieved such great results and helped many perpetrators and victims of crime find a path to inner peace and freedom through processes of meetings, discussions, reconciliation and forgiveness. The reconciliation between the criminals and their victims also heals the community at large.
As many of you will recall, following the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to heal the wounds of the brutal regime and build peace. Many people, including me, thought at the time that this was a conspiracy to let the homicidal white apartheid leaders get away with murder. However, one of the stories that came out of that is a truly inspiring story which you can read on the Methodist Church website:
A woman addressed Desmond Tutu to tell him of her son’s savage murder. The police officer who had ordered the brutal killing was present sitting shamefacedly listening to the details of what he and his colleagues had done. Then there were a few moments of quiet.
The Chair of the Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, asked the woman if she had anything to say to the man who had killed her son. She responded, ‘I am very full of sorrow. So I am asking you now – come with me to the place where he died, pick up in your hands some of the dust of the place where his body lay, and feel in your world what it is to have lost so much. And then I will ask you one thing more. When you have felt my sadness, I want you to do this. I have so much love, and without my son, that love has nowhere to go. On turning to the policeman she said ‘So I am asking you from now on – you be my son, and I will love you in his place.’
Friends, this is the level at which we must aspire to live as Christians. It can only be done if we feed our minds, hearts and souls with the word of God, and if we heed the charge of the apostle to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and his love, whether the time is right or not.
It does not seem to me that we have a lot of choice, we must nurture the minds of our children with the word of God and continue to remind all of us that we have a choice to live good lives and do good deeds.
If we live by what the scriptures say, we will have less prisoners – less perpetrators and less victims. But if we do, let us also take the case to our advocate as stated in 1 John 2: 1-2 (GNT):
I am writing this to you, my children, so that you will not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have someone who pleads with the Father on our behalf—Jesus Christ, the righteous one. 2 And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.
May our gracious God empower us to study his word and to know him well through the scripture, and embolden us to preach the good news of our salvation through Jesus Christ that through his great gift of love, all mankind may truly know true and complete freedom. Amen.
[This sermon was preached at Belvedere Methodist Church on 16th October, 2016. ©2016 Nnorom Azuonye]