A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C.
About six years ago, I participated in a crusade in the Forsyth County prison system. My assignment was to preach in a prison block in the downtown Forsyth Detention Center. I remember the occasion well because when I offered an invitation after my sermon, 22 inmates stepped forward to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! To this day I marvel at what God did that night!
A few weeks ago, I was invited to preach in the Forsyth Correction Center off Cherry Street, and this time I took along several deacons and church members. I offered no invitation that night, but our worship team played and sang and spoke before a packed house of inmates, and once again the Holy Spirit moved in a powerful way.
Now the cynics among us might write all this off as “jailhouse religion”, or the spirituality that inmates can conveniently display as they attempt to get out of jail on parole for good behavior. And only the completely naïve would deny that some jailhouse religion is strictly for show.
On the other hand, only the most hardened cynic would deny that God can work behind prison bars. Too many people today have emerged from prison transformed to deny the reality of authentic jailhouse religion. And then there’s all the good jailhouse religion described in the New Testament.
I was raised to think that going to jail was always a badge of shame. But you’d never know it by who gets in legal trouble and/or goes to jail in the New Testament. Number one on the list, of course, is Jesus. And then there was that loud mouth John the Baptist, who was imprisoned and eventually executed. Peter and his fellow apostles were incarcerated on multiple occasions. And so was the Apostle Paul, who wrote his four “prison epistles”—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—while under house arrest in Rome. Some might even say Paul did his best ministry sitting in a prison cell.
Our jailhouse scripture today might seem like an odd selection on the Sunday that follows the pomp and circumstance of Easter. After all, it’s embarrassing to read that Jesus’ inner circle of disciples—the leaders of the church— have been thrown in the slammer.
Until you learn that the reason why is their fearlessness in preaching about the crucified and resurrected Christ. Even though they were previously arrested and warned repeatedly by the Jewish Sanhedrin Court to stop preaching, teaching and performing miracles in the name of their Christ, Peter and friends keep on keeping on. And the number of believers in Jesus grows by the day. So the jealous high priest arrests Peter and company a second time, and this time tosses them in jail for good measure.
Then it’s the turn of the Sanhedrin to be embarrassed, because when it’s time for the temple police to escort their prisoners from jail to the courtroom, they learn their inmates somehow broke out of jail during the night. Now these jailbirds are preaching a message about life, abundant and eternal, in front of the temple! The temple leaders are beside themselves, and order the apostles apprehended a third time for questioning.
Peter and his fellow apostles willingly return to jail, even though they had the volatile crowd on their side. When the high priest asks why they insist on preaching Jesus and him crucified despite strict orders not to do so, Peter offers a response that has reverberated throughout history: We must obey God rather than any human authority.
That’s when the Jewish leaders learn some facts of life. When Christ-followers love Jesus more than their own lives, there is very little you can do to stop them. You can threaten them, incarcerate them, and whip them…and they will not stop until you kill them. And even then you cannot stop the God who is moving through them. One way or another, God will prevail…as he did in establishing his church that exists to this day.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we find two more Christ-followers did exceptional work for God behind bars. One was Martin Luther King, Jr., the black Baptist preacher who 50 years ago this month wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he penned that off-quoted line, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. King would wage his fearless campaign for civil rights five more years until he was gunned down at age 39 by an assassin 45 years ago this week.
Another was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who 68 years ago tomorrow was executed— also at age 39—after spending two years in jail in several German concentration camps during World War 2. A brilliant German pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer steadfastly resisted Hitler’s campaign to exterminate Jews and expand Germany’s power throughout Europe. While most of the German church simply fell in line behind Hitler and his minions, Bonhoeffer privately and publicly protested, to the point that he even joined a secret plot to assassinate Hitler.
If you had asked Bonhoeffer why he engaged in such radical civil disobedience, he would have answered, (Because) we must obey God rather than any human authority.
Many of us know Bonhoeffer best through his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. But during his incarceration he also wrote a number of letters which were eventually collected and published under the title, Letters and Papers from Prison. I want to read a famous passage of that book in Bonhoeffer’s own words, a passage that speaks to the very heart of Christ’s work and our work, that speaks to the heart of this meal we are about to eat together.
“We are certainly not Christ; we are not called to redeem the world by our own deeds and sufferings, and we need not try to assume such an impossible burden. We are not lords, but instruments in the hands of the Lord of history; and we can share in other people’s sufferings only to a very limited degree. We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The
Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.”
Bonhoeffer and King, Peter and Paul…these men did their best work in jail out of commitment to the One who also was arrested, and convicted, and beaten, and crucified. Yes, we’ve learned through hard experience that the work of the kingdom
often involves suffering, even death. But thanks to the resurrection, we know that no
power on this earth can keep Jesus and his followers locked up in jail, or down in a tomb.
And we know one day the kingdom will come on earth, even as it is in heaven.