Do not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate

Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate. If you are familiar with this phrase, you’re probably old.

When I was in high school, computers were a very new thing and they were just starting to be used by businesses. Schools were convinced that knowing how to use them would be very important in the future—and it was a complicated business, because those first computers were nothing at all like the computers we use today. They didn’t speak English. I was really good at math and so when my high school offered its first computer math class, they encouraged me to sign up for it. I did—and in the class we learned computer language and then we learned how to write programs. And the data that we entered into the computer was printed out on cards that looked like this. Not printed with ink, but punched into the card.

And as businesses like the electric company and the phone company began to use computers, the bills that they mailed out to customers included one of these punched cards. The card had to be returned with payment—people still wrote checks and mailed in their bills back in those days.

And every card was printed with the words, “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” Usually this was printed on the outside of the envelope, too. Because if the card was not returned in its original condition, the computer would not be able to read it correctly.

So great care had to be taken to ensure that those cards weren’t damaged in any way.

Thankfully, those days are behind us. But what does this have to do with the Bible or All Saints’ Sunday? Quite a lot actually—because I think the idea of “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” has become a part of our American faith life.

Perhaps it’s the default position of the human condition, because it appears that many of the people living in first century Israel also believed that “folding, spindling or mutilating” was not to be part of the life of any good Jew—certainly not any Pharisee.

Then Jesus came along. In our gospel this morning, He’s on His way to Jerusalem—Palm Sunday is just days away. He’s traveling on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem and, as was common in first century Israel, there’s a crowd of people walking with Him. It was customary for rabbis to teach as they traveled, and this is what Jesus was doing. People traveling in the same direction on the road would join the group; they’d drop out as they reached their destination while others join the group as they began their journey. The disciples were traveling with Jesus, but the rest of the crowd would have been continually changing.

In the middle of all this, Jesus stops and pulls the Twelve aside to tell them that when they get to Jerusalem, He’s going to be beaten and mocked and people would spit on Him—and then they’re going to kill Him. But then on the third day, He’ll rise from the dead.

Luke tells us, “But they understood none of these things” (18:33). They were certain that Jesus was the Messiah, but, like all the rest of the Jews, they thought the Messiah was coming to establish a political kingdom—certainly not to suffer and die.

Jesus’ disciples were good Jewish men. They’d been educated in the synagogue and they knew a lot—but they didn’t know enough. They didn’t understand the whole story—and so when Jesus told them, for the third time, that He was going to Jerusalem to die, they just couldn’t even begin to comprehend what He was saying.

They were like most of us today. We think that because we are bombarded with information through the media, that we are well-informed of the facts, when what we really are is simply much-informed. It’s true of us not just in terms of news, but also in terms of our faith. Many Christians in our country today—and maybe some of us, too—think that because we’ve heard some of Jesus’ message, we know who He is and what His position might be on every conceivable matter.

Luke wrote his gospel to clear up misunderstandings that already existed in the understanding of at least some people as to who Jesus was and why He came—and this was only about 30 years after Jesus had ascended back up to heaven.

And what he’s saying here is that “these things,” the things that “they did not grasp,” the things that will be happening in Jerusalem in just a few days—the torture and crucifixion of Jesus—are the most important things. He’s saying that if we don’t understand the message of the cross, we can’t really understand any of the message. This is, of course, why the apostle Paul said that he had “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).

Luke, along with all of the gospel writers, reminds us that if we want to follow Jesus, we, too, must be prepared to take up our crosses.

Because when we forget that the cross is the most important thing, we begin to turn Jesus into whoever we want Him to be. We can say with assurance that if He were alive today, He’s be in support of all kinds of things that seem like good ideas to us. Even people in the church have convinced themselves that Jesus is fine with abortion, with same sex marriage, with alternative life styles, with rebellion against government. A variety of political, social, and religious causes identify themselves with his “kingdom.”

But Luke reminds us that the Christian life isn’t one of ease. It’s not one where we can be assured that we’ll never be “folded, spindled or mutilated.” He wants us to understand that following Jesus—truly following Him—is not easy. He wants us to ask the question: are these so-called Christian soldiers “Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before?”

Because you cannot have a crusade without a cross.

There’s an old Latin saying that says, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

This saying is totally contradicted by most of Luke’s gospel and particularly by this section. The voice of the people is saying one thing, the voice of God is saying something very different.

And then we meet the blind beggar—a man who can see nothing, but who somehow understands who Jesus is better even than the Twelve. A man who, when He’s told that it’s “Jesus of Nazareth” passing by, simply cries out the perfect prayer, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Cries out over and over again, despite the efforts of people around him to make him be quiet. The same prayer we heard the tax collector in the temple pray earlier in this same chapter.

But he’s a blind beggar—and so the crowd assumes that he’s a sinner and that Jesus will want nothing to do with him. Just as they assumed that the rich young ruler was exactly the kind of person Jesus would want to be associated with—so no one tried to keep him from talking to Jesus.

Because despite three years of Jesus reaching out to the poor, the lame, the hungry, the sick, they still thought that health and wealth indicated God’s favor.

But Jesus stops and asks the blind beggar the same question He puts to every one of us: “What do you want me to do for you?” The man asked for his sight—and Jesus gave it to him. And immediately, the man got up and followed Jesus.

Jesus came to heal, to give sight to the blind, to bind up the brokenhearted—and He calls those who follow Him to do the same.

This is not something new—400 years before Jesus was born, a man named Nehemiah is serving in the palace of the Persian king Artaxerxes when his brother Hanani comes from Jerusalem and tells him of the destruction of the city. Now Nehemiah has never been to Jerusalem, but he knows and loves the Lord God, and so his heart is broken at what he hears. He spent days in fasting in prayer before going to the king and telling him that he needed to go to Jerusalem to do whatever he could do to help the people who were there.  The rest of the book of Nehemiah tells of the opposition that he faced when he arrived in Jerusalem, of the poor living conditions and the struggles.

Although the Messiah had not yet come, Nehemiah knew the law—and he somehow understood that the law was created to help us to love the Lord our God and to love our one another. Even when doing so brings with it the possibility of being “folded, spindled or mutilated.”

Nehemiah could make the long and dangerous journey—900 miles on foot—from Susa to Jerusalem and then go about the task of rebuilding the city walls because he knew that the Lord was with him. He could, with the help of the prophet Ezra, bring the Word of God back to the people because he knew that the Lord was with him. And the people, after years of hardship and struggle, were ready to listen.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian church at about the same time Luke was writing his gospel, begins by sharing the extreme affliction that he and his traveling companions have experienced. “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength,” he wrote, “that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

But Paul, who had committed to preaching the cross of Christ only, was reminded in his suffering of the suffering of Jesus Himself. And so, Paul says, there was a reason for their struggles. It was, he wrote, “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

As is often the case, the earliest days of Paul’s ministry went pretty well. But that was not to continue. As we read the Book of Acts, we see that almost everywhere Paul went—Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Jerusalem—there were people who opposed his message. Violently opposed—mobs trying to kill him or at least run him out of town were a regular occurrence for Paul.

Some scholars think that in his letter to the Corinthians, he’s referring to the riots in Ephesus that we read about in Acts 19. Paul faced strong opposition in Ephesus from the silversmiths because they said that Paul was hurting their business. People were being converted to Christianity through Paul’s preaching and so they were no longer buying silver statues of the goddess Artemis—the gospel was causing them to lose income.

Throughout all of Paul’s letters, we see that he’s much more concerned about the people who have not received the gospel with great joy, the people that he knows will be lost for all eternity if they don’t receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, than he is about the hardships he faces. And perhaps it was in Ephesus that he finally realized that the message of the gospel, the message of the cross of Jesus Christ, would never stop bringing opposition from those whose jobs and incomes depended on religious or political beliefs contrary to the gospel. That until Jesus returned, there would always be those who, like the disciples traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus, would be unable to grasp the message in any life-changing way.

And Paul’s heart, like Nehemiah’s 400 years earlier, was simply broken at the realization that there were people in the world who would never give their hearts to Christ. But if continuing the preach the good news included being “folded, spindled and mutilated,” Paul clearly believed that it was worth it.

He also believed, however, that the prayers of the saints were absolutely vital to the success of the mission. And so he tells the Corinthians that “You must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Corinthians 1:11). Paul wasn’t talking about the blessings of a comfortable life; he was talking about the blessing of knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Jesus, who even as He traveled to Jerusalem to face the cross, did not stop sharing the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus, who when He was arrested and beaten and nailed to a wooden cross, demonstrated to all of us what mercy is all about. He showed us what the mercy of God looks like. He offered every one of us an unimaginable alternative. To those of us who, like the blind beggar, have a right to expect nothing, He offered everything. He continues to hold out His arms to every one of us, inviting us to follow Him. To go through the narrow door that leads to an inexhaustible, infinite store of mercy. The door that can be opened when we cry out to Him in prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

And then go and share the good news with all the blind beggars around us—all those people who are so lost and so blind that they don’t even realize their condition.

And to pray continually for the lost around the world. To pray not just for the lost, but also for all those Christians who are, even now, being “folded, spindled and mutilated” for their faith. To have hearts that break on their behalf. Hearts that can not stop crying out to God.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the way that God miraculously rescued Peter from prison—as the church prayed desperately on his behalf.

Paul himself experienced being released from prison in Philippi when he and his traveling companion Silas were praying and singing praise to God.

We see here that Paul places his deliverance and the prayers of the Corinthians together—because through their prayers, the Corinthians are helping or “working together” with God. The Corinthians were hundreds of miles away from Paul in Macedonia, but Paul is saying that he is confident that their united prayers would still be used by God to deliver him from trouble.

Paul wanted the Corinthian church—and us—to know that If God is the source of mercy and comfort, Christ is the channel through whom these things come. It is through Christ that “our comfort overflows.” While all good things have their origin in God, they come to us through Christ.

Think about it—in the gospels, there was never a single time when people did not receive comfort that overflowed through Jesus—if they were willing to receive it.

But Paul also wants us to understand that as believers, Christians are united not just with Christ but also with one another.  He wants us to understand that God’s comfort is never intended to end with the one who receives it.

He wants us to understand that no matter how weak we may feel, God’s power is always mighty to save. It never runs out. This is not a promise of immediate gratification, health or prosperity, but rather comfort in times of suffering and trouble.

Paul’s confidence that God has delivered us and he will deliver us again refers both to God’s ultimate deliverance and also to his day-to-day deliverance from the problems of this life.  At the same time, he realized that God’s deliverances in this life are always partial. We might recover from an illness, but there’s no way to avoid our last enemy, death. We’re tangled up in the sorrow and suffering of this world—only in the resurrection of the dead is there perfect deliverance.

Modern man is so blinded by his technology and his own sense of power that he regards prayer and thanksgiving as weak. But the apprehension that human power is in fact an illusion is a precondition to the discovery, or rediscovery, of the power of God and of prayer and thanksgiving. Paul’s helplessness in the face of strong forces led him to experience, doubtless through prayer, the power of God to deliver him.

People who are being trafficked.

Christians in China who are being used as involuntary organ donors.

People who are being beaten and imprisoned and tortured for their faith.

This is why we pray—it’s why we should never stop praying. It’s why we’re called to pray for people that we don’t know, people that we’ll never know in this lifetime—but people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. People who right now are desperately in need of prayer.

Prayer that people in persecuted countries ask for is that they have the strength to endure.

Monday night prayers.

Last week, Paul’s words to Timothy: “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). His final words of advice to Timothy are: “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Even when is requires being “folded, spindled, or mutilated.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is our calling. It is our purpose for living. When we have completed the work for which God has created us, He will come and take us to be with him—for all eternity.

As He did for Paul. As He did for the apostles and Nehemiah. As he has done for eight of our brothers and sisters during the past year.