The Authority of Prisoners

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

In Ephesians 4 Paul begins a sustained account of the shape, nature and practices of life in Christ. He calls on the Ephesians to embody a vibrant unity based on their common faith and baptism. He uses the metaphor of “walking” to describe how believers are to embody a common life in Christ.

One of the most striking things about the epistle reading for today is that it begins with a personal plea from one who is a “prisoner in the Lord.” In the NRSV Paul is said to “beg” the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. In this light, it appears that Paul the prisoner is begging the Ephesians.

This certainly is an appropriate posture for one who is a prisoner, but it is not a very good translation of the Greek. Other English versions use verbs like “urge” or “entreat.” They are less idiomatic, but convey appropriately the sense Paul’s entreaty conveys a presumption of authority. Paul is someone to be listened to.

Ironically, this presumption of authority comes from the same person who identifies himself as a “prisoner in the Lord.” As in inmate of one of the empire’s jails, Paul had no power. There was little he could control about his life and circumstances. He was under the authority and control of others. Nevertheless, from this posture, Paul, a prisoner in the Lord, begins to admonish and entreat the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling.

When Paul the prisoner in the Lord launches his extended admonition to the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, it seems as if Paul is actually embodying that idea that he first posed to the Corinthians that God’s power is perfected in weakness. Although surviving a stay in a Roman (or an American) jail took a measure of physical and psychic strength, Paul is clearly in a position of weakness. He cannot control his situation. He could easily be victimized by the authorities. As his letters indicate, he depends on help from brothers and sisters on the outside in order to survive.

Moreover, both in Paul’s world and our own we grant little if any authority to those in jail. Instead, we treat them with disdain, contempt, indifference. This is despite the fact that visiting the imprisoned is one of those acts that Jesus commends as a form of service to himself in Matt 25.

We don’t know what the Ephesians as a congregation thought about Paul’s imprisonment. I am sure feelings varied quite a bit. Nevertheless, Paul assumes that the bonds of baptism are stronger and more compelling than either the bonds that kept him in jail or the distance between him and the Ephesians. Thus, he is able to “entreat” the Ephesians even though he is also a prisoner in the Lord.

Of course, being a “prisoner in the Lord” may be different than simply being a prisoner of the empire or of the state. From Rome’s perspective, Paul was rightly imprisoned because he was a threat to the stability and security of the empire. We can assume that his jailers were largely indifferent or hostile to his claims on behalf of the risen Christ. They would have cared little about the justice or merits of the case against Paul.

Of course, miracles such as those in Philippi can change a jailer’s views, but Paul does not seem to anticipate such an event as he writes to the Ephesians. From the empire’s perspective, Paul could call himself a prisoner in the Lord or anything else. In their eyes he was a prisoner of the state and that is all that mattered.

For the believers in Ephesus, Paul’s assertion that he is a prisoner in the Lord makes two important claims. First, Paul’s imprisonment is tied to his apostolic work. In this sense, Paul is really Christ’s prisoner rather than Rome’s. It is his obedience to Christ rather than his active disobedience to Rome that has landed him in jail. He has landed in jail in the course of walking in a manner worthy of his calling in Christ. In this way, it really is God’s power that is perfected in Paul’s weakness.

Secondly, being a prisoner does not separate him from being “in the Lord.” Jesus himself was a prisoner. Being in chains is not incompatible with, nor an insuperable barrier to, being “in the Lord.” Moreover, it is from this place that Paul feels perfectly free to entreat the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Indeed, he implies that walking in such a manner might make them prisoners in the Lord, too.

The news of recent months has directed our attention to questions about who gets arrested, why they get arrested, what happens after they get arrested and why we have so many people, especially so many African American men, behind bars. In the past weeks a sitting President has visited a prison for the first time in American history.

Since our attention has already been directed in this way, perhaps in addition to these important questions, believers might also ask whether we have brothers and sisters in the prisons in our communities. If so, are there ways in which we might come to see them as “prisoners in the Lord”? Can we hear their voices in our congregations? Might they be able to “entreat” us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling?

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