Sermon preached by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold at St Cyprian’s North Adelaide on the occasion of their Patronal Festival.

Seeking Cyprian’s vision for an imprisoned humanity

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Thank you for inviting me once again to preach on the occasion of your patronal festival for St Cyprian. I very much enjoyed delivering the Patronal sermon back in 2008.

St Cyprian was, in his own time and the century thereafter, an immensely influential figure in the early church, particularly in Africa. Sadly, over the centuries, he has been less understood and appreciated. J Patout Burns, author of “Cyprian the Bishop” has written this about Cyprian:

Cyprian’s understanding of the church and its sacraments set the terms of debate between Catholics and Donatists and laid the foundations upon which Augustine was to build much of Latin Christian theology. Some of Cyprian’s more important ideas and practices, however, seem to have remained behind in the third century, or at least not to have been so widely taken up in other times and places. [p174]

Cyprian was deeply involved in robust theological debates within the early church which was itself at the time suffering cycles of severe repression interspersed by increasingly brief periods of tolerance by imperial Rome. The issue of those who, in the face of the threat of torture, recanted and became known as lapsists, tested the early Christians. Martyrs were easily fitted into a coherent theological schema, but what of those whose human frailty failed them at the time of their own personal crisis of faith? In particular, how should they be treated when repression eased? Should they be welcomed back into communion, especially if they had participated in pagan sacrifices? If so, what conditions of penitence should be set? If not, would there never be the prospect of grace on either side of the grave?

Cyprian, who earlier in his life as a Christian would seek refuge with other Christians away from persecution, would end his life imprisoned and executed for his faith. During his time as bishop he would support, in the face of considerable opposition, a somewhat moderate stance to those who had lapsed. This set him at odds with two contending camps – those who would demand very little of the penitents and those who would offer them nothing.

However, it was not only his involvement in theological debates and the tussles of church politics for which Cyprian should be remembered, but his vision of Christian community. At this time that, as a diocese, we are in the process of choosing a new Archbishop, it is interesting to reflect upon how Cyprian saw the relation of bishop to community – Patout Burns writes:

Cyprian not only insisted that the church is in the bishop and cannot be separated from him but also that the bishop is in the church and cannot act independently … He observed that the bishop must be prepared to learn as well as to teach … [pp174-5]

In this context, Cyprian had an intense view of the church as a temporal touch of the eternal. Patout Burns writes:

(Cyprian) believed and led others to believe that the local communion of the Christian church was actually, though not exclusively, the enclosed garden, the fruitful paradise, the bride of Christ, the earthly reality of the kingdom of heaven. [p176]

From my reading of some of his work, it appears to me that Cyprian could be a very expressive writer – perhaps sometimes a bit too earthy. His description of the impact of an attack of pestilence that struck the community, seems more in the spirit of a lurid medical almanac of the nineteenth century. He wrote:

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing obstructed, or the sight darkened. [from ‘de mortalitate’ – ‘On the Plague’ … though it is be noted that it has been suspected that Smallpox was the pestilence about which Cyprian wrote.]

But for someone who would find his episcopacy tested by arguments about how to deal with those whose faith was found wanting, I find this piece by Cyprian not only less lurid and visceral, but moving and profound. This was what he wrote about the time of his own coming to faith at the age of 35, a time of intense turmoil and tussling in the spirit of Jacob’s pre-dawn fight with the angel of God:

When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, I used to regard it as extremely difficult and demanding to do what God’s mercy was suggesting to me … I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe I could possibly be delivered, so I was disposed to acquiesce in my clinging vices and to indulge my sins … But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of my former life was washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart … a second birth restored me to a new man. Then, in a wondrous manner every doubt began to fade … I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly. [from ‘Epistola ad Donatum de gratia Dei’]

I had cause to reflect on these words last Friday, when I took part in a day-long meeting on the subject of recidivism amongst ex-prisoners. Our task at that meeting and over the months ahead is to recommend to the Government ways in which recidivism amongst ex-prisoners could be reduced from its current figure of 46%. At our meeting we heard professionals in the field relate both statistics and stories. The statistics were sharp and disturbing – though the rate of crime today has dropped markedly over the past twenty years, yet there are more people in our prisons now than ever before; indeed there has been an increase of 86.5% in prison numbers since 2006, and three quarters of those prisoners have served time previously.

But it was the stories that had even more impact. First there was the story of a 26 year old man, who had only been out of custody a pitifully small number of days from the age of thirteen until his juvenile status ceased at 16; and upon becoming an adult, apart from a couple of months in 2007 and a couple of weeks in 2010,has spent the rest of his life thus far in gaol. The awful conclusion drawn by the person telling us his story was that “custody has been the most stabilising force in this young man’s life”.

Then there was the story of the man, married with children, who had been released from his umpteenth prison stay and provided with both employment and housing, yet he would become a recidivist once more, ending up back in gaol. The professional who told us his story said that he interviewed the man to try to understand how such promising opportunity had failed. The man spoke of a time when he had been in his new home, washing the dishes, with his children playing in the other room; as he stood there participating in his new start, tragically he was overwhelmed by a feeling “I’m undeserving of this new start.” The professional spoke about the phenomenon that this man was exhibiting – self-sabotage, struggling to overcome latent issues of lack of belief in himself through latent issues of loss, trauma and grief as well as what he called the ‘return of bad objects’ in his life. He spoke not only of the problem of extrinsic labelling – “you’re nothing but a crim” – but also that of intrinsic labelling – “I’m nothing but a crim”.

All this reminded me not only of Cyprian’s struggle of worth before the purity of Jesus, but of an observation I felt when I participated once in a celebration ceremony at the end of a Kairos program at Mobilong prison. I am not sure if you are aware of the Christian organisation, Kairos, but it runs four day courses in prisons using volunteers who follow a set curriculum to introduce Christianity to groups of prisoners who volunteer to participate. Participation in the program will not reduce their sentence and, apart from four days separation from the daily routine of prison life and the opportunity to enjoy the home cooking sent in from outside the prison during breaks in the program, would give them no other earthly dividend.

On this occasion, when we had been invited to be part of the audience from beyond the prison walls to watch the closing ceremony, I recall how moved I was as the prisoners, the criminals, participating in the program came marching in to the tune “When the saints come marching in”. And then, when they took their seats on the left hand side of the podium, with the volunteers on the right hand side, and then all of us free men and women from the outside facing them, a profound thought struck me – “What difference is there between us from the outside and those in prison garb on the podium?” There they were, breakers of human laws for which they had been caught facing us, who may also have broken human laws for which we have not been caught. But the ‘them and us’-ness of the moment was swept aside by the abiding thought – “But we are all guilty before the throne of Grace; and not one of us can do anything else than rely on the salvation offered by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection.”

Our reading from the Epistles this morning – 1 Timothy 1 – is relevant here. In particular:

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. [1 Tim 1:15]

And Paul made this statement, knowing two important things about himself and his past:

I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. [v13]

And our gospel reading confirmed the wonder of Jesus’ grace in the Parable of the Lost Sheep:

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. [Luke 15: 6b-7]

On the other hand the reading from Jeremiah, ominous and threatening, sometimes seems to speak much more to our spirit of self-sabotaging and self-doubt, exampled as much by the story of the ex-prisoner washing the dishes as by Cyprian’s insomniac fears:

They are stupid children

They have no understanding.

They are skilled in doing evil,

But do not know how to do good. [Jeremiah 4: 22]

The Gospel message, and that of the Epistle is one of new starts through redemption by grace, that of Jeremiah a message of judgement. What do we want from our prison system? Redemption and rehabilitation or simply punishment with no concern for outcomes? If it is the latter, even at a pragmatic level, prison numbers will continue to grow with first time prisoners more than matched by returning prison alumni who get trapped in a cycle of release and return.

The Reducing Reoffending – 10 by 20 project aims to reduce recidivism by 10% by the year 2020. The strategic aim of the project is stated as:

A reduction in the rate of reoffending in South Australia will create a safer community with less victims, less crime and less money spent by taxpayers on prisons.

Solidly pragmatic, but how can we as Christians, motivated by the Parable of the Lost Sheep amongst many other messages from Scripture, seek a more spiritually profound outcome that would see fewer ex-prisoners returning to custody and more embarking on sustainable new starts in life. The Quaker prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, gave voice to this when she wrote that:

Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.

You can have your say. I encourage you to consider offering your opinions either on the website discussion page at or by e-Mailing . Public comment will close on October 28 this year.

Not only prisoners but their children, who have an alarmingly higher risk of going to gaol at some stage in their lives than other children, may benefit by your visiting their dilemma. But there will be much wider benefits as well, for those who are at risk of being victims of those who commit offences will also be helped. I am Justice Advocate for an organisation called Second Chances whose name is as it suggests, assisting people to have a second chance after imprisonment. The organisation strongly believes in a concept called Restorative Justice which has as its foundational principle that:

Justice requires that we work to heal victims, offenders and communities injured by crime.

All of this implies wholeness of both individuals and community; so that the ‘enclosed garden’ of the church community that Cyprian sought as ‘an earthly reality of the kingdom of heaven’ might come to pass.

When I gave the Patronal sermon back in 2008, I closed by quoting from Cyprian’s Treatise on Works and Alms; it seems apt to do so again:

For whatever is of God is common in our use; nor is any one excluded from His benefits and His gifts, so as to prevent the whole human race from enjoying equally the divine goodness and liberality. Thus the day equally enlightens, the sun gives radiance, the rain moistens, the wind blows and the sleep is one to those that sleep, and the splendour of the stars and of the moor is common. In which example of equality, he who, as a possessor in the earth, shares his returns and his fruits with the fraternity, while he is common and just in his gratuitous bounties, is an imitator of God the Father. [p9]

This not only gave voice to Cyprian’s vision of the community of the faithful here on earth, but also, especially as he would finish his life in prison, invited the compassion that Jesus identified when he said:

I was in prison and you visited me. [Matthew 25:36]