I Went to Jail Last Night

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”

Provocative Bible Verses: Jesus Never Knew You!

You can’t read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats without being just a little bit nervous about your eternal destiny. Now without a doubt, the Bible teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ and even that is not our own doing but a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8-9 is about as clear on this as possible. We are not saved by our works. Yet, there is a incredibly important role that our good works play in relation to our salvation.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells of sheep and goats who are separated at the judgment. The sheep are welcomed into eternal life and the goats are sent to eternal punishment. When they ask why one group goes to heaven and one does not they are told that one group, the sheep, visited the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked. As a result, the really did those things for Jesus. The other group, the goats, failed to do so and as a result failed to do so for Jesus. What is amazing is that Jesus said to the goats, away from me, I never knew you. Incredibly, these goats called him Lord in the story. They claimed to know who he was, but he denied knowing them.

So what are we to make of this? Is Jesus teaching that we are saved by works? Is he saying that we can earn our way to heaven when other parts of the Bible clearly say otherwise? Is he saying that we can loose our salvation if we don’t do enough good works? The answer is going to be found in understanding the less clear parts of the Bible, in light of the perfectly clear parts. We have to use Scripture to understand Scripture.

We have already taken a look at Ephesians 2. The next place that will help us is James2:14. “What good is it brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The answer that James gives is no, it can not. What we need to be clear about is this, James is talking about a certain kind of faith, not saving faith. In essence what he is saying is this, can a faith that does not manifest itself in a changed life, that shows no evidence of doing the works of God, that does not forgive people, serve people, love people as ourselves, really be a faith that saves? True saving faith will demonstrate itself by how we live or more precisely, how we LOVE. If we love God with all we have and all we are, we will love our neighbor. We will serve them and care for them. That is what Jesus says the sheep did. That kind of faith will save you. Faith that does not show up in loving others is really no faith at all. That kind of faith will not save you.

That is the issue with the sheep and the goats. The goats thought they had faith. They thought Jesus was their Lord. But their faith was pure lip service. It was not people service. They talked a good game. They did not walk the talk. What the Bible teaches is that if you have a faith that is guided by loving God and loving your neighbor, then you will show people your faith by how you serve them in their time of need. Those good works do not save you. They are evidence of the faith that you have that saves you. Failure to love your neighbor and love God would be an indication that saving faith is not present. People who show no evidence of loving God by serving others my be shocked to find out that Jesus does not know them as his sheep.