There is a certain sense in which I am glad that most people I know have never been inside a jail. After all, people usually end up there because they have done something that in hind sight they really wish they had never even considered doing. It usually means someone was hurt in some way and often becomes one more chapter in a lifetime of sad and tragic events. But on a completely different level I wish that most people I know had spent at least some time in jail. I did that last night and it wasn’t my first time.
Fortunately for me, my few times being in a jail were my own choice and they were in service to someone who was forced to be there. Their time in jail was always the result of some terrible choices they made. My time there has always been the result of a choice I made many years ago to follow Jesus to any place he led. Last nights visit was my second to the Seminole County Jail. The first was a year ago in order to make arrangements for the worship services from Northland Church to be made available, via a web-stream, for inmates who wished to gather for worship. I went to jail last night so I could actually worship with those men and a dozen volunteers who go to the jail every week to serve them. It was an amazing experience and one that I wish every follower of Jesus could have.
The main reason I would hope that every Christ-follower would visit people in jail is because Jesus said that we should. In Matthew 25:36 Jesus said, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came and visited me.” He said those words in a parable that was intended to show us that whenever we serve the outcast, the downtrodden, the sick, even the person in jail, we are really serving Jesus. He made it clear that these are the kinds of things that are to mark the life of His followers. It should also be noted that what Jesus asks of us is a very intimate, personal involvement. He does not say, “I needed clothes and you donated your extras to the Salvation Army”. He does not say “I was hungry and you gave to the local food bank”. He does not say, “I was a prisoner and you gave money to Prison Fellowship”. He says, “You clothed me, you cared for me, you visited me”. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Giving to organizations and ministries that care for the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, and the rest of societies outcasts and downtrodden is a good thing. But it is only a part. The real deal is giving yourself, getting close enough to touch, to smell, to feel, close enough to be uncomfortable. It is what Jesus showed us when he touched the leper, the blind man, the bleeding woman.
The reason behind this need to make it personal is that God is personal and intimate and he makes his ministry to us personal, and intimate. He does not sit on high looking down on our plight, refusing to engage us. Rather, he emptied himself and came into the world, taking on the form of a servant, being made in likeness as we are, serving us to the point of death on a cross. Jesus took on flesh, became one of us. He got up close and personal with humanity in order to demonstrate the powerful and intimate love of God for lost people. If we are going to be like Jesus, then our ministry to others must get up close and personal. It requires an investment of ourselves, not just our check book.
Such an investment can be costly and scary. It is costly because it takes a piece of who you are. It means giving of yourself from the heart, maybe from a place that you have never wanted to give. It is scary because it means dealing with people who are unknown and apparently unlike you. But such fears are not coming from God. They are not the voice of prudence coming from God for our protection. They are more often than not the voice of the enemy disguised as light and reasonableness. Jesus never calls us to take council of our fears but rather to “fear not”.
I mentioned that a reason for our fear is that these are people who are unknown and unlike us. But that is not true. They are not really unknown and they are certainly not unlike us. Last night in the jail, I saw and spoke to one young man who I already knew. I didn’t know he was in jail. He is 22 years old and I have known him since he was 8. There were others there who I had never met, but in just a few minutes of conversation it was clear that I “knew” them. I knew enough of their story to know what they faced, the pain they have, the mistakes they made, the regrets covered over with bravado. In those brief conversations and in observing these men worship Jesus, I also learned that they are not unlike me. They are in fact just like me. Their sins may be different but they are still sinners like me. And as we stood before a holy God worshiping him last night, I knew that God saw no difference. I knew it, because I knew that He saw all of us through the lens of the Cross on which Jesus died.
The reason Jesus came into the world was made clear in the earliest days of his ministry and it is what we have been called to in His name. Jesus said in Luke 4:8 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed”