May 12, 2013

In a prison at Philippi

Passage: Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-21, John 17:20-26

The jailer* called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’


Yelp is an internet company that connects people with great local businesses.  The site is filled with reviews of clients; people use Yelp to search for everything from the city's tastiest burger to the most renowned cardiologist.  Yes, these are even Yelp reviews for a jail.  Michael H. gave the jail at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center (Dallas, Texas) one star and complained, "The 20 hours I spent in this facility would have to be ranked as the 20 worst hours of my life."   Michael K. also gave it one star and wrote, "Wow this is the crappiest place on earth. I have been here twice … and I would like to say the accommodations were dirty, dingy and downright disgusting."  Michael S. responded, “You aren't supposed to like it you idiots! I spent a couple of days in there for traffic tickets I hadn't paid. … (I’m) not saying it didn't suck, it did, but it taught me a lesson, and I decided I was never going to do anything that would get me put back in there.”

I am not sure why all the reviewers were named Michael; perhaps they were pseudonyms chosen for internet postings because it is the Biblical name of an angel.  But Michael S. touched on the prevailing opinion; you aren’t supposed to like jail; prisons are presumably unhappy places on purpose.  I have had occasion to visit prison inmates—just a visit was sufficient for me to know that I would not want to be incarcerated.  While Canadian law guards against inhumane treatment of prisoners their well-being is not high on society’s radar.  It would be a vast understatement to say that across the world the imprisoned do not fare well. Most think that this is just as it should be.  As we consider this story about Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail we do well to remember that this is a very unhappy, purposely-miserable place.

1.  In the church universal, Ascension Day—the day we mark the event of Jesus’ ascension to heaven—is the fortieth day in the season of Easter; in the year 2013 it was on Thursday, May 9th. (It always falls on a Thursday being forty days after Easter).  It is in his introduction of the book of Acts where Luke tells us that Jesus’ appearances to the disciples occurred during the “forty days” following his resurrection (Acts 1:3).  Jesus’ ascension is typically acknowledged in many Protestant churches on the Sunday following Ascension Day (today).

In the sermons of the Easter season this year we have been exploring the theme that the resurrection of Jesus forges its own world of meaning; in it Jesus calls us to submit our thoughts to his thoughts; the gospel writers considered the resurrection a one-off worldview shifting event.  One thing these first followers of Jesus said about the meaning the resurrection of Jesus creates is that it attests that the crucified Jesus, now risen from the dead, is the world’s one true Lord.  Not only attests, the resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the Son of God who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation.  He is the start of the Creator’s new world; its pilot project, indeed its pilot.  Jesus’ ascension into heaven attests to his identity as the world’s rightful King.

You can picture then, that this message about Jesus as the Son of God would not play well in Rome where the Emperor claims such title.  On the Roman coin shown to Jesus one day was the inscription, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus”.  From Tiberius onwards the rule ran like this: get yourself adopted by the emperor, survive plots and intrigues, inherit his throne when he dies, have him divinized in the process, and you will be “son of god”, and a powerful one at that.

Notice in this story of Paul and Silas the clash between the proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ with the lordship of Rome over people’s lives.  Please take note which one of these lords enslaves and imprisons.  Notice how the lordship of Rome leads to people lording it over one another; the very thing Jesus said was counter to his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-30) where the greatest was the servant of all.  Think about this young girl, for example; she gets dumped on by everyone.  She is a slave by classification of the Roman Empire, she is possessed by a spirit of divination and her owners live off the avails of her fortune-telling.  The owners are possessed by the accumulation of money and the power such status brings.  The jailer is captive to the brutal system of enforcement of Roman power that says any failure on his part will be met with a fate worse than death.  Pleased take careful note of which of these two lords enslaves and imprisons people.

Also note Luke’s clear emphasis that the proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ brings liberty.  The world’s true sovereign who demands our absolute allegiance does not dump on people nor tyrannize.  Consider this young salve-girl for example.  Here she is following Paul and Silas around saying “these men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Which of these slaves is being tyrannized by their lord?

Many of the people this woman would have had as clients—paying to have their futures told—would be people who asked for a way out of a difficult situation; a way of rescue; a way of salvation.  Which of these two ways liberates; the way of Jesus or the way of the fortune teller—which one leads to liberty?  .

Note that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ liberates this salve girl from the evil spirit and from her captors; liberates the jailer from his fear of the brutal system of Roman rule; and rescues Paul and Silas from the arbitrary whim of local lords in their treatment of those they think are non-citizens.

As a brief aside this word translated “fortune-teller” also meant “to utter oracles;” this word is never used of an Old Testament prophet or New Testament Apostle or preacher.  These are categorically distinct things, the apostle and the fortune teller, according to the Bible.  In our world today, we are confronted by a media that lumps together people who hold religious convictions in an unwavering fashion as “extreme” as if anything extreme were evil.  The resolute conviction that Jesus is the world’s one true sovereign is lumped together, for example, in the same category with religious convictions of those like Hamas who, driven by ethnic hatred,  advocate the slaughter of Jewish people.  Biblically speaking, these are categorically distinct convictions.

2. It all happened like this for the prison guard in the city of Philippi. The guard had been charged with ensuring that his prisoners, Paul and Silas (apostles), didn’t escape. A few hours earlier Paul and Silas had been beaten up by mobs egged on by magistrates; then they had been thrown into jail. The prison guard knew, of course that the apostles were Christians. During the night an earthquake rumbled through the city. The earthquake broke open the prison doors. The guard knew that his Roman overseers would execute him if his prisoners escaped. He was about to commit suicide when Paul spoke up: “Don’t bother killing yourself; we’re still here.” Whereupon the guard cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” The apostles’ reply was quick: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.…”

Were the apostles doing a bait and switch?  The jailer is worried about his future with Roman overseers and the apostles talk about God.  There are many things we perceive we need saving from; bondage, oppression, depression, addictions, boredom, emptiness—all things that destroy me.  Our ability to describe the troubled situation in which people find themselves is astutely observed from a number of angles of vision.  When someone cries to be saved from trouble and we respond with the gospel saying “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the person being taken advantage of; are we being naive?  Humans can describe their situation but we can never perceive our predicament before God.

The gospel of Jesus Christ addresses us all, mired as we are in the human predicament. “Mired” is scarcely a neutral word.  Other words could as readily be used: “fixed”, “bound”, “sunk”, “fastened”, “imprisoned”.  Any of these words would indicate that the human predicament isn’t something humankind can alter.  The root human situation can’t be remedied by human effort. This has to be made plain Sunday by Sunday.  It has to be announced again and again that the gospel uniquely provides deliverance. Worshippers must never be given the impression that “Christianity” merely puts a religious “spin”, a religious interpretation, on the world’s self-understanding, which self-understanding never goes so far as to speak of a predicament.

The world has an unrealistically roseate view of the human situation just because the world’s unbelief has blinded it to its own condition. The world views the human predicament in terms of social problems or in terms of national self-interest or in terms of corporate greed.  But individuals themselves are in fine condition, the world thinks; we are mere victims; we are never perpetrators.  As the Apostles announce to the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved”, the assumption is that all deliverance to all these other forms of bondage find their source, their very foundation, in the salvation that is relationship with the world’s one true sovereign, the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. I read recently a story about another prison; Angola is the Louisiana State Penitentiary, USA.  The story was posted in the online magazine Comment a publication of Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. The article was written by John Rottman who teaches preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan. (Dr. Rottman is a Canadian citizen, by the way).  For the last three years Dr. Rottman has taken three groups of seminary students with him to spend a week at the prison.

Rottman writes: (April 12, 2013) Prior to changes there, life in Angola, the home to more than 5000 maximum security inmates—most of whom would die in prison—was nasty, brutish, and violent.  One inmate, looking back, told me, "This place was completely hedonistic; it was the survival of the fittest."  In 1971, the American Bar Association described the conditions at Angola as "medieval, squalid and horrifying." … Angola was hell.

Eighteen years ago, the federal government cut what were known as Pell grants to prisons. Why spend tax payers' money on making smarter criminals?  Or worse, why waste money on maximum security inmates who had almost no hope of ever leaving prison?  The cuts in grants left prisons like Angola desperate for programming.  Out of desperation, someone suggested asking New Orleans Baptist Seminary to offer a Bible class at Angola.  The warden made his doubtful request and to his surprise, the seminary said yes.  That little mustard seed Bible class morphed over the next few years into a fully accredited seminary program behind the razor wire, complete with Greek and Hebrew.  Soon the prison seminary was graduating forty to fifty inmates a year from their fully accredited three-year Bachelor of Ministry program.

Seminary graduates began to plant churches within the prisons and work as pastors in the blocks.  Today there are more than thirty worshipping congregations in Angola that run the gamut from Roman Catholic to Bapticostal, with approximately 400 worship services a month.  Praise bands featuring drums, saxophones, guitars, and vocals employ musical gifts that enrich and bless God and the community.  Seminary graduates staff the prison hospice, conduct funerals, teach GED classes, and run the prison's growing theological library. Violence has dropped approximately eighty-five percent since the first Bible class and the bloodiest prison in the South is now safe, humane, and habitable.  The kingdom of God routed the kingdom of darkness and the power of the gospel began to change prison culture.

In Angola it was not unusual for dying prisoners to die alone.  Nobody cared and the few chaplains were terribly overworked.  Today, with the institution of a hospice program, the dying receive a twenty-four hour vigil as they face death.  Pastors and friends read scripture and pray with them and deliver requested foods.  Members of their prison congregation and friends from the cell blocks visit. There is at present a waiting list of seventy prisoners who have volunteered to attend the dying by serving four-hour shifts beyond their everyday eight-hour jobs.

The new mentoring program is the latest venture.  Warden Cain has tried sending missionary pastors from Angola to other prisons and with some success, but he is always looking for a greater impact.  So when the State of Louisiana moved to close a nearby minimum security prison, Warden Cain moved to secure a thousand of those prisoners. To do this, he needed to ask a thousand of his lifers to endure the hardship of double bunking to open up the needed beds.  I'm told that a request like this made in any other prison would spark riots.  In Angola, followers of Jesus made the necessary sacrifice and the new inmates moved in.

Warden Cain paired up seminary graduates with groups of four newcomers. The inmate mentor spends every waking hour with his four mentees.  They eat breakfast together, go to vocational classes together, eat supper together, and go to evening worship or Bible study together.  As part of the new program, the warden also set up fully accredited programs like the ASE accreditation in auto repair.  The goal of these programs is moral rehabilitation, and the instrument of rehabilitation is the gospel of Jesus.  As Warden Cain sums it up: "Now when they get out, they can get a job and they won't kill their bosses."  His hope is that, through the new program, the revival that has swept Angola Prison will extend and begin to transform the pain and violence in New Orleans and elsewhere. These inmates are learning new habits that will change how they inhabit their cities and neighbourhoods.  And Warden Cain hopes that the cultural change in Angola prison will spill over into cultural change in New Orleans and beyond.

4.  I was struck as I read that story about the change in culture the gospel brings; it didn’t make the prison a holiday destination but it did become safe, humane, and habitable.  As people in Angola began to worship together the world’s one true sovereign change occurred—there was liberation from the dominance of rampant violence.  Consider a concluding reflection.  Approximately 21 hours ago (22 hours at 11:15 service) the light of dawn on Sunday May 12—Ascension Sunday—began to break in places like Samoa, New Zealand, and Fiji.  As the dawn of this day shone its light in succeeding places as the earth rotates on its axis, Christians all around our world have awoken and then gathered in congregations of varying sizes—some in homes, others in cathedrals, many in a sanctuary like this one.  They have together lifted their praises to the world’s true sovereign, our risen Saviour—the Lord Jesus Christ.

The people of this world, according to the gospel, are imprisoned by their sin with no hope of liberating themselves; we have mistaken acquiring power over our fellow-inmates as freedom.  In the midst of such a world are these congregations; outposts of the liberation from sin that is found in relationship with the world’s true Lord; outposts of the rule of the Ascended Lord.  Never underestimate what God is doing in and through his people to render the world safe, humane, and habitable.  As you go from here, endeavouring to live his way in the world in the vocation that is yours, God is working his own purposes securing far more than we can ask or imagine.