Harrowing Of Hell
August 22, 2021

Ambassadors in Chains

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today we find the apostle Paul in very unfortunate circumstances. He is in a Roman jail with a death sentence hanging over his head. He is literally in chains, and there is a date set for his execution. It had been his calling to carry the message of Christianity throughout the world. That was his Jesus destiny, set when they met on the road to Damascus. And yet, now he finds himself entirely unable to do what he was called to do, and still, he names himself an ambassador;  and still, he sees himself as an active citizen in the Kingdom of God.

On the face of it, this would seem incongruous. Hope, one would imagine, would have been extinguished by the circumstances Paul finds himself in. That is the point of chaining a person to a dungeon wall…  to dash and smash hope.

But Paul continues selling Jesus’ vision. He continues selling the message of hope– hope that is deeply woven into the reality of the Kingdom of God; hope that the world as it should be, will be, because it can be through the person of Jesus. Paul knows that the circumstances that bind him are too weak to diminish his hope. Afterall he is wearing a set of armor, and not the flimsy, ineffectual armor of the Roman soldiers, but an armor that repels the power of empire, with vision and patience, slowly and steadily vanquishing fear through the power of love.

Hope is most powerful when bound in chains to a cell wall. That is one practical lesson that Paul taught the world… it is from a jail cell that hope very often find its most effective voice.

That was a lesson observed in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and currently seen practiced by Alexis Navalny. Navalny is a Russian dissident, who chose to return to Putin’s empire to be put in a cell, knowing, maybe because he knows the lessons of Paul, that from prison, ironically, he may be more powerful than if he were free in Germany. Empire doesn’t believe this to be true, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Empire believes that putting people in jail is the best way to dampen their power and eradicate their hope.

It is just the opposite. It is from the jail cell that Nelson Mandela emerged. It is from the jail cell that Aung San Suu Kyi received her Nobel peace prize. Here’s why. Hope bursts the bonds of isolation that empire seeks to impose. Hope is not held down by space or time. It transcends the limits of the liminal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this lesson. It was from a jail cell in Birmingham that he wrote his most influential letter in response to white clergy’s critic of the nonviolent protests he inspired.

Empire does not understand that it is the chains that often amplify the ambassadors most resonant, authentic voice, with Paul being the greatest ambassador in chains of them all. Not because he was smarter, or because he could sneak letters out more easily, or even because he was the one who coined the term, but because of the kind of hope he articulated. It is a hope that continues to march across a time, revealing with each step, a vision of a world as it could be, as God made it to be, a world of truth and righteousness where peace is the aspiration, underwritten by faith. Where every person is acknowledged for their inherent dignity, which is bolstered and fostered and reinforced by the love of God. That is what Jesus taught us. That is the aspiration of love.

Now the voice of hope is a voice that lives far longer than one’s vocal cords. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great example of this. Though his letters were found after his death, they continue to resound throughout the world as an influential hope through love to repel fascism and racism and autocracy.

Hope pierces the power of empire. It always beats weapons of war every time because it has patience and vision. That said, not all hope reveals the Kingdom of God. Hope is a tool that can be employed for good or ill. Hope is a tool. Vision and patience don’t always reveal the Kingdom of God. Hope can seek empire. Aung San Suu Kyi may be an example of that.

The Taliban certainly are. They lived in hope. They employed patience and vision that beat the empires of Britain, and Russian, and America. The Taliban’s hope, however, is still a hope for empire. Theirs is a vision of man’s power over people. It is a vision of war and armor and intimidation and fear. And so, while it grew strong in the hearts of men chained to dungeon walls, it will not win over time because it is about just another empire…. not love, not based on the inherent dignity of every human being, and dare I say it, not upon the principles of the Kingdom of God.

It is not always clear how to employ the tool of hope. I’ll give you an example from a book I read called After the Fall. It’s a book written by Ben Rhodes who had been an advisor to President Obama. After Obama left office, from time to time, Rhodes would travel with him on speaking engagements. One trip took them to India and included a visit with the Dalai Lama.

At the end of a pleasant conversation between Obama and the Dalai Lama, the former President, who rarely shows how the troubles at home have backed up on him, let his guard down, and asked the Dalai Lama, “How does one retain hope in the world beset by ugliness, tribalism, and strong men?” Obama was genuinely searching, in Rhodes opinion. The Dalai Lama just smiled his beatific smile,  grasped the sides of Obama’s head with his two hands, and said, “You must always remember that we are all one, and that we are all capable of love.”  To Rhodes, at the time, it felt like an anodyne dodge from one of the few people in the world  who was supposed to have all the answers.

But then again, as Rhodes continued to ponder the experience, he came to understand that, if you do believe in a sense of our common humanity; if you do believe there is an irreducible dignity in the identity of every human being, then you cannot succumb to a fatalism that human beings are destined to cast aside their own essential nature for a manufactured package of empire in pursuit of power. (After the Fall, para. Chapter 20)

There he was, Obama, the former commander-in-chief of the most powerful empire in the world, who built his campaign upon a platform of hope, coming to realize, it seems, the futility of empire power as vehicle for hope, and that the real hope can only emerge through the deeper power of love. That was the message of the Dalai Lama, and it is certainly the message of Jesus Christ. And that was the message the ambassador in chains, Paul, was able to spread beyond the cement walls of a Roman dungeon, in a way that continues to resonate throughout the world.

So, what does this mean for you and me right now sitting safely ensconced in church pews? Well, I wonder if you and I aren’t a bit like Paul, chained to some wall that we are called to transcend by using the tool of hope, inspired by the power of love. I wonder if some of us might be following a vision that has been woven into the patterns of our lives that might be undermining hope, and maybe evening adding to someone else’s empire? If so, how would we know?

You see, hope spun by empire is always built on the promise of safety. Not love, but safety; and safety is predicated upon fear. If we fear enough, we will chain ourselves to particular ways of being that we are told will keep us safe… like enough education, enough economic power, the right insurance, and the right health care, and if our kids go to the right camps and schools, and if we live in the right neighborhoods we will be safe and the future secure.

And while these are not bad things, they are not foundational things in the Kingdom of God. In fact, these promises of safety might actually be bricks in a wall that serve to shut us in, to isolate us, limiting our view to a single vantage point, eyes locked to a peep hole through which only danger and destruction can be seen. And while there is danger and there is destruction out there, while the world is brimming with inequity, and ravaged by environmental dereliction; while algorithms do monitor our inboxes, and pandemic does permeate every corner of the globe… as big as all of that seems, it is far from the whole picture.

Jesus came to chip away at the peep hole, to broaden the landscape, to set us upon a vista from which we can gaze across the Kingdom of God. He is the light that enlightens the nations, people, you and me, with faith, hope and love.

Is that too airy fairy a response to the grizzly realities of this world? Is love nothing more than a panacea, an anodyne dodge?  Well, if love were only a feeling, then yes, it is too weak a response. But we know that love is not a feeling, love is an action. It is an action that begins in the heart and radiates out into the lives of our neighbors. Love is a practice that asks the question: “What can I do for you?” Love is an action that derives its energy and power when plugged into its source of love, to God, our Trinitarian, relational God. Love grabs the head of empire, and looks him in the eyes and reminds him that we are all unified, we are all one.          

This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote: there is no Jew or Greek, man or woman, slave or free, black or white, old or young; there isn’t even boundary on time or space there is only love, applied equally because of the reality of every human being’s irreducible dignity.

That is the thought I invite you to ponder this morning. I am not recommending any particular action. I’m only inviting you to reflect upon the core Christian principle that everything begins with love and that leads immediately honoring the dignity of every human being. Hope is a tool of patience and vision that can be employed in the service of love to reveal the Kingdom of God.

Let there be no delusion that when hope works within a system from top to bottom, it is about empire building and not love sharing. But when God works from the confines of jail cells it is from the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, from the deepest well, with a person chained to a wall, that hope springs eternal, bubbling up and then washing its way through the corridors of history, across time, passing through the room in which we are sitting, watering the world on its way to the full revelation of the Kingdom of God.

Paul was that person chained in that jail cell proclaiming a message of hope. Hope that the world as it should be, will be, because it can be through the person of Jesus.