Twenty three years ago a man walked out of prison, having been locked up for twenty seven years. One of the consequences of that imprisonment was irreversible damage done to the tissue in his lungs by TB and the fine dust created by the rocks that he was set to break. That damage has been one of the factors in the onset of serious lung infections which are likely to end his life soon. One of the things that has been most remarkable about this man, however, has been the lack of bitterness towards those who imprisoned him. He bears the physical scars but seems to be free from emotional or spiritual scars. This freedom enabled him to play a key role in the forging of a peace and bringing of a measure of reconciliation to a country that seemed to be forever bound.
This morning we have heard three readings that have a common theme of things that are bound being released, or not, as the case may be. I will come back to Ezekiel briefly later, but for now we will just focus on the episodes involving Peter. In a chronological sense we heard the stories in the “wrong” order. The first story we heard actually happened after the other one. Jesus has been crucified, buried, and has been raised from the dead. He has restored and forgiven Peter for his betrayal. He has returned to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit. Pentecost has happened, Peter has been preaching and has created such a stir that he’s ended up in prison. The church is praying for him, and God says yes to their prayers, and frees Peter miraculously. God acts, in response to prayer, to free someone physically.
In the reading from Matthew’s account of the good news of Jesus, we have a slightly different take on being freed. This is the turning point of Jesus’ life. Up to now he has been travelling around the country, gathering followers, teaching, and healing. Now he does a focus group test to find out the effect of what he’s been saying. He asks his team what people reckon about him. They feedback that most people reckon that he’s some kind of prophet. To be fair, this matches pretty well with what Jesus has been doing so far. Then Jesus asks a different question, “Who do you say that I am”. Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus affirms this by what he says to Peter, and then affirms it by what he does in the rest of his earthly ministry, by heading towards Jerusalem for his death and glorification.
It is in this context that Jesus talks about Peter having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and being able to bind and lose things on earth and in heaven. The keys that Jesus is talking about are not those to some pearly gates in the sky. The keys to the kingdom of heaven are found in the knowledge and experience of the true identity of Jesus. It is because Peter knew who Jesus was, and would be equipped by the Holy Spirit to share that knowledge that he would be able to release people from the bondage of darkness and into the freedom of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus spoke a lot about bringing people freedom. His first public sermon included the line “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” He called and sent Peter with a ministry of freedom, and has called us also to join him in it. How can we do that?
Firstly we should pray for the physical freedom for people. Just as many of us prayed for many years for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, for Terry Waite, for John McCarthy, so we should pray for freedom for people. Wednesday of this past week was the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. There have been prayer events to pray for those who are in prison, and being tortured. There are organisations such as Open Doors who can keep us informed about the prayer needs of our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters around the world, and help us to pray for them in an informed way. God continues to act today to free people in response to prayer.
Secondly, we have the opportunity of bringing freedom to those who are or have been in prison. For instance, in Telford, over the next few months there is a new project starting called “Yellow Ribbon”. This programme, run by local Christians, has been designed to help people coming out of prison to be released from the patterns of behaviour that led them to be in prison in the first place, and so increase the likelihood of them avoiding re offending. Local Christians will visit them in prison, will get to know them, and then will mentor them when they are released. This project is recruiting mentors now, local Christians who are willing to be part of someone being released from the things that bind them. Could you be one of them?
Thirdly, we should be offering the freedom that Christ brings to all that we meet who are bound in some way. Not many people that we meet will be physically imprisoned, rightly or wrongly, but quite a lot of the people that we meet will be bound by things from their past, by stress, by their wealth, by expectations of family, by broken relationships. For all these, the words that Peter spoke are the keys that unlock the chains. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But the thing is, that like Peter, we hold those keys. Unless we show them to people, give them to people, use them to unlock the chains they will remain bound. We who have been freed by Christ, through the faithfulness of those who used those keys to free us, have a responsibility to offer others that freedom. Some will refuse. We heard of the frustrations that Ezekiel faced in his ministry, of those who would not listen to the words of freedom that God gave him to speak to the people. We may have experienced this for ourselves.
At the moment I’m reading “Empire of the Sun”, the story of Jim, a boy who was caught up in the taking of Shanghai by the Japanese in the second world war and found himself separated from his parents and placed in an internment camp. As the end of the war draws near, he is not sure that he wants the war to end, or to leave the camp – he has found a niche and it is known, and the future is frightening, especially the thought of having to find out whether or not his parents still live. His physical release scares him because of the possible emotional release that might accompany it.
In the film of prison life, “The Shawshank Redemption”, one of the old lifers is released. He has been in prison for so long that he can’t cope in the outside world, and ends his own life. He was physically released but remained emotionally and spiritually bound. In contrast the two heroes of the film, Andy (who had been unjustly imprisoned and escapes by crawling 500 yards through a sewer) and Red ( who is paroled) meet up in Mexico, living truly free lives on the Pacific coast.
Some people will not want to be freed, but we still have the keys and are responsible for offering them to our friends and families, work colleagues and neighbours. As we do that, we will have the immense delight of seeing the change in people as they take their first steps into freedom, and will share in the joy of their release. That was Peter’s joy and driving force, and that is one of the things that will lead to growth in the church here in Priorslee, named in Peter’s honour.