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BREAKING FREE By Jacquelin Stoner

Read: 1:3-11

Reflect: As Sharon approached the leprosy colony, the foul odor wrapped around her. She struggled to control her gag reflex. When she entered the colony, a smiling woman greeted her. She only had three of her fingers and four of her toes. Half of her nose was gone and large rough lumps dotted her face. White sores on her arms oozed puss. When Sharon shook Mya’s hand, it was sticky. Mya’s leprosy was doing its nasty work. Leprosy is a chronic, progressive bacterial infection that produces skin ulcers, nerve damage, and severe disfigurement. Even though Sharon knew it only spread through sneezing and coughing, her stomach churned as she watched Mya prepare a salad that she suspected was for her. Of all the ministries that her late father had left in her care, Sharon doubted she could ever truly love these people. However, she stood there telling the lepers that Jesus was a God of love. Mya continued to add ingredients to her salad. Sharon’s skin began to tingle and she thought ants were crawling all over her body. Silently she prayed, “Please God, give me courage and don’t let me throw up.”  After Sharon taught her prepared lesson on love, Mya brought Sharon the salad. The lepers all gathered around to see what she would do. Everyone rejected them. If Sharon ate the salad, it would prove that she loved them. Sharon brought the food to her mouth, trying not to show the disgust she felt. She swallowed and took a drink of the water. She forced a smile and everyone clapped. She passed their test. She must love them. (https://advancingnativemissions.com/missionaries-in-myanmar-care-for-lepers-by-eating-with-them/)

Sharon loved them. As in her account, she sometimes found it really difficult, challenging, and a struggle to get beyond her own fears. However, she obeyed God and she loved them. That’s the kind of love the Apostle Paul demonstrated with the Philippian Church when he wrote: 8” For God is my witness how I long for and pursue you all with love, in the tender mercy of Christ Jesus [Himself]!” I love the wording “pursue you all with love”. Synonyms for “pursue” are “run after” and “chase”. This is a linchpin in what Christian love demonstrated between believers really means: actively pursuing in love. 

Part of this love was also expressed when Paul was driven to prayer for the believers he knew in Philippi. 3 “I thank my God in all my remembrance of youIn every prayer of mine I always make my entreaty and petition for you all with joy (delight). [I thank my God] for your fellowship (your sympathetic cooperation and contributions and partnership) in advancing the good news (the Gospel) from the first day [you heard it] until now.” This was an active relationship. He was not distracted by his own difficult circumstances (being in a prison cell was one of them), but he reached out anyway. He was compelled to pursue them in love.

Recently I encountered a believer I had not seen for quite awhile. In the course of the conversation, I asked if she was helping with VBS at her church (since she always loved ministering and caring that way). She was horrified that I would ask her that question. She told me she had not been in church since COVID began and she was not going to attend till they took more precautions. My next question was, “What are you doing for Christian community and ministry, are you meeting regularly with even a few believers to share in the faith and grow together?” 

I’ve posed this same question to a lot of believers during COVID. Who are you investing your deepfelt prayers and your love in during this time which has been isolating? For Sharon, the paralyzing fear was leprosy. In the Apostle Paul’s case, it was actual prison bars. Sharon had to let go of her fear. For Paul, he had to be creative while in the prison cell. However, he understood that the Body of Christ is believers investing in one another, getting to know each other deeply, and praying like crazy and encouraging each other to grow in Christ.

Apply: There is a saying that you can’t enjoy the water till you jump in. You can’t be part of the delights of Christian community until you are in the midst of it. What is holding you back from having deep friendships and fellowship with other believers, even if it is just a few. What are your prison bars? Can God break you free?