God's Word for today

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Scriptural reflections on prison ministry (4)

Passage: Philippians 3: 12-16 (NIV)
"Not that I (Paul) have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

How does this passage relate to prison ministry?
Referring to the previous verses, whereby Paul claims no accolades from anything he has done in his own strength but gives all glory to Jesus for what he has become, this passage calls upon us to be humble. None of us can claim to be perfect, but we can strive for perfection in Christ. Paul however does not claim to have reached this point yet.

When it comes to ministering to prisoners, one faces a temptation to become smug in believing that because we may not have committed the kind of acts that has resulted in the prisoners’ incarceration, we are somehow better than them, or at least, “less sinful”. This passage reminds us that none of us can claim to have made it. Irrespective of where we may be on the journey relative to others, we need to be conscious that we are all on a common journey, striving towards the goal that Jesus has set for us. Our attitude should therefore not be as one who has arrived and is therefore pointing the other to the destination, but as one journeying alongside the other in order to reach the destination together.

What relevance does this passage have for ministry?
I was given the nickname “Captain Tupperware” during my Phase One year in 2009 because of a declaration that I made in a sermon one day that a “piece of Tupperware” (referring to my clerical collar) does not make me something special in a “holier than thou” sense. The collar serves merely as a badge of office, in the same manner as the black cap with the “M” embroidered on it identifies the person handing me the cheeseburger and Coke as a McDonald’s employee.

Staying with this analogy, when one goes to a McDonald’s, it is not the employee wearing the black cap that is of importance – the reason one is there is because of the food and beverage. The person serving, as well as the person being served, both have an equal need to eat and drink. Likewise, in a ministry context, the important aspect is to be able to draw closer to Christ, which both minister and congregation need in equal measure. The members of the congregation are there for the message, with he minister’s role being merely to deliver that message.

If one were to apply this to prison ministry, we need to remind ourselves, according to Romans 3: 23, that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The need for love, compassion, and forgiveness is one shared by prisoner and minister alike

How does this passage define serving for Christ?
The main message that comes out of this passage is one of the need for humility. While it is desirable for us to strive towards Christian perfection, this does not give us the right to become arrogant about it. Paul clearly states that he has not yet arrived, and that in fact his spiritual journey up to this point is not because of his own achievements but because of what Christ has done in him.

This brings a mind a story related to me by a pastor some years back. He was at a preaching engagement out of town, and as he entered the lift lobby of the hotel one evening, a man staggered out of one of the lifts, obviously under the influence of alcohol. The pastor’s first thought was, “How disgusting to be that drunk in public”. He then felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit on his heart, as though he was hearing Jesus say to him, “The only difference between that drunken man and you, is Me”. Convicted of his judgemental attitude, the pastor asked God for forgiveness and began to pray for the man.

Paul is clear that the only difference between the “old Saul”, who persecuted Christians, and the “new Paul”, who is an apostle for Christ, is Christ Himself. “Pressing on toward the goal to win the prize” therefore reflects a sincere desire to draw ever-closer to Christ. Our motivation should be to do likewise, journeying alongside others as we become one in Jesus.

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