Persistent Prayer in the face of hardship: Biblical Reflection
Readings from Luke 18 and 2nd Timothy 3.
My father was a deeply faithful man, and he used to pray the same prayer every night without fail his entire married life: as we all got settled into bed his voice would ring out from across the hallway ‘Lord grant us a good night’s rest, and a fair share of the bed’. He was a simple man, and on the surface, he practised what the gospel reading tells us this morning- but there is a bit more going on in today’s readings.
Paul's letter to Timothy sets the context. It is (likely) the winter of 64 AD, and Paul sends his final letter to his close friend Timothy. On July 19th, the summer of that same year, a great fire had ripped through Rome for 6 days straight; rumour had it that Emperor Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, had relished the destruction; and as legend has it, he played his fiddle, as much of the city was being destroyed. Yet, sections of the city remained unscathed- notably 2 districts which housed the Christian population of Rome. These early Christians were already viewed with deep suspicion by much of Roman society, their refusal to take part in the pagan festivities of the city and their unwillingness to recognise the deity of the line of the Augustus Principate, which was instigated by Caligula in 41AD, set them apart.
Paul was a high profile ‘ringleader’ of this group and it’s likely this was the reason for his second incarceration; the people of Rome, and Nero in particular, required a scapegoat to make sense of the devastation. Paul was accused of hatred against Rome and therefore, hatred against all humanity. Paul was sent to the Tullianum Dungeon, a place the Roman historian Sallust described as ‘the house of Darkness’, ‘hideous and terrifying in its appearance due to the neglect and stench’.
But this was not to be the final punishment, this was merely a place to hold a criminal before he was punished! Paul awaits a second judicial hearing, but he is not optimistic that he will be acquitted. In his first hearing no-one came to his defence, and he believes he will soon die. He is correct and will be martyred for his faith in perhaps 4 years. This is the historic backdrop to 2nd Timothy.
What seems far worse for Paul is not his death, but the end to his missionary career. He is conscious of defections from the faith, and this is why he writes to Timothy. To strengthen him in his faith. On the surface, he understandably misses his friend Timothy, and he requires his cloak and some documents; he also asks Timothy to bring Mark to Rome, this could be the same Mark that writes the eponymous Gospel, it is unclear; but the real purpose of the letter is its pastoral nature. He wants to remind Timothy to be faithful to the gospel and to be prepared to endure hardship for the sake of it, just like he had. Timothy should not be ashamed to either testify about the Lord Jesus or his association with the Christian religion.
The wisdom of scripture extends through time, and history sadly repeats itself. Arguably, there is an anti-Christian sentiment in this country, but it pales in comparison to other parts of the world: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan; the list continues, Iran, Eritrea, India, Libya, and Nigeria. These are the top 10 places where Christians as a religious minority are persecuted, some 340 million people.
In Nigeria, which is in the Anglican communion, and by attendance numbers is larger than the Church of England, Christians face the most violent persecution. You might remember the Chibok Girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, the world, including the celebrity world, was up in arms with extensive media coverage and the hashtag #bringbackourgirls trended on twitter, without, in the most part, any recognition that those girls were targeted because of their Christian belief. Boko Haram evolved into Islamic State West African Province and despite disappearing from wider media reporting, continue the same tactics; in 2018 they kidnapped 110 girls from Dapchi, which lies about 170 miles Northwest of Chibok. All those girls have been accounted for and subsequently returned to their families: except for one. Leah Shabiru. Leah refuses to recant on her Christian faith, and because of this, her captors have vowed to keep her imprisoned for life. She has had her 15th,16th,17th, 18th , and 19th birthday as a captive. Leah Shabiru lives by her faith in the gospel on a visceral level, that perhaps only Paul writing to Timothy in 64AD would come close to understanding.
You can find more information about Leah, and the people who still fight for her release with the charity Open Doors UK or search for her name.
‘Sending thoughts and prayers’ was a phrase used on social media as a method for people to publicly express, post-tragedy condolence; but after an extended period of natural disasters, gun violence and terrorist attacks across the world, it was ridiculed for its ubiquitous use. Some people felt it was empty of any meaning.
But the gospel writer Luke wants his readers to know that persistent prayer is a hallmark of faith.
In Luke, Jesus is portrayed as praying frequently and especially in times of duress. Jesus teaches those that follow him, that we too, should pray frequently and persistently; in a parable, unique to the gospel of Luke, 18:1 has a preface Jesus’ words: ‘Now he was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not be discouraged’..
Prayer is the way in which we remain faithful in the midst of hardship. In his parable Jesus reminds us not to detach ourselves from the God of the Old Testament, the same God who is teaching us this parable, and the infinitely just God who will vindicate his people in times of oppression. Prayer is the mechanism we use to turn to God. This glorifies Him, as we recognise his sovereignty over us, the need for him to be in our lives. In Luke’s rendition of the lord’s prayer, the disciple first asks Jesus to teach us how to pray.
He urges us to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, because violence and persecution will not be a part of it.
Today’s readings are about Faith in the Gospel and prayer, and they are linked by the gospel writer Luke. In his letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that all his co-workers are scattered in various places, (in 4:11) 'only Luke is with me'.
In the worst of times, we will not be alone either, if we reach out to God in prayer.
As you turn to your own prayer time today, do send thoughts and prayers to God, and do so knowing that its vital work for the kingdom of God; take with you the name Leah Shabiru, remember her, and people like her, all over the world. But remember this too, the Church was birthed in a time of persecution and oppression. The great historic cities of Christianity all were conquered and destroyed at one time: Axum, Rome, Constantinople, even Jerusalem itself. It was through the prayers of the oppressed that the holy spirit remained.