The first sermon I ever preached I preached behind bars.
While I was a student at Princeton, before I ever worked in a church, I served as a chaplain at Trenton State, a maximum security prison in New Jersey.
I had no idea what I was doing when I began my ministry there, but by the time I left there I’d learned that the freedom of the Gospel, what St. Paul refers to today as the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, is a message best heard- maybe, only heard- by those who know they’re in captivity.
My first sermon-
I’d only been there a couple of weeks. It was a morning service in July, and it was held in a prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans. Greasy strings of dust clung to the blades as they kneaded the thick summer heat.
I counted them as they shuffled into the sanctuary, some bound hand to foot. Out of about 75 worshippers only 3 of the faces were white, and 1 of them was mine.
No one wore their Sunday best in that congregation. The men all had their state—issued beige jumpsuits. “We all look like Winston that worthless Ghostbuster in these,” Barone, one of the inmates who worked in the chaplain’s office, had joked to me when I met him. Barone was a heavyset Italian chef doing time for dealing cocaine out of his kitchen.
Sister Rose, the nun who was the Chaplain Supervisor, wore not a habit but her order’s plain gray pants and plain white shirt. No one wore their Sunday best that morning.
I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet and, at that point in my life, still had some serious misgivings about ever being one. So I wore a suit with a pink shirt and a flowery pastel purple tie.
Let me just say that again so I’ve set the stage clearly: I was going to preach to prisoners (some in for life, some on death row, all hardened criminals) wearing a pink shirt and pastel purple tie with flowers).
My wife that morning had said I looked “handsome.” When the inmates saw me, they said I looked “pretty.” At least the word “pretty” is how I chose to translate the kissy noises they made.
“Do we have two lady preachers this Sunday?” one of the men asked from the back row.
It went downhill from there.
Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing.
I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player (children, you can ask your parents what those are later) and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly believed that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more “contemporary.”
It’s not easy to do something even more white than a pink shirt with a flowery pastel purple tie, but Sister Rose managed to pull it off, insisting that we all do what looked like jazzhands as we mumbled our way through “Trading My Sorrows.”
The Hispanic innmates who all spoke perfect English when bartering cigarettes, snacks, and Playboys all pretended, suddenly, not to know a lick of it.
So, despite being prisoners, they were about the least captivated audience I’ve ever seen at the start of a sermon.
Because Sister Rose was a Shiite Catholic and insisted that I preach from the lectionary, the readings assigned according to the Christian calendar, my passage that summer morning was this morning’s text from Ephesians 3.
I was both a new preacher and a new Christian. I hadn’t yet taken any homiletics classes so I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to talk about the scripture straight away. I hadn’t learned that I was supposed to sneak up on my listeners, slant-wise, with a personal story, disarm them first with humor, and thereby trick them into giving a crap about the text.
So I tried to keep it simple and give it to them straight up. I took it from the top.
“To understand the reason Paul is praying here, I said, you have to go back to what Paul said before this in chapter 3 and before that even in chapter 2.’
“I thought what you read to us was plenty long already, preacher,” one of the inmates joked.
I could feel my skin blushing a darker shade of pink than my ill-chosen shirt.
What prompts Paul to pray, I doubled down, is what Paul calls the Mystery of Christ.
“Mystery?” a 40-something inmate in the front said, “Speaking of mysteries, what’s this Paul got to say about the mystery of why I’m in here when I’m an innocent man?!”
“Amazing, everybody’s innocent here,” Barone laughed and others followed.
I looked up from my notes and, with the zeal of a recent convert, I said to them: “Actually, Paul does have something to say about it. He said it earlier in chapter 2.
He said that in the supermest of supreme courts not one of us is innocent, and the sentence we all deserve is death.”
And I flipped back in my bible to the chapter prior and read it to them: “You who were dead through in your trespasses and sins…by grace you have been saved.”
Then I turned the page: “You who were once far off from God in your trespasses and sins have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
“Amen!” some of them responded.
“Preach it! Preach it!” some others encouraged me.
“That’s the mystery that makes him pray,” I said. “That’s the mystery: that the Judge has been judged in our place, that the sentence gets served not by us but by a substitute, by the very object of our sin.”
“Come on now,” a few listeners shouted. I was finding my stride.
“The Mystery of Christ is what makes Paul pray. The mystery that by his bleeding and dying the Son has purchased peace between us and the Father.”
“Amen” an elderly inmate covered in faded out tattoos yelled from the back. “Shush!” Sister Rose whispered with a finger over her lips, “Inside voices!”
“The Mystery of Christ is what prompts Paul to pray.
The mystery that we are justified before God not by any good work we do but only by the work of Jesus Christ in our stead- even the best good works done by the very best people do not justify them before God- and this is ours soley through the gifting of God. By grace- alone.”
I noticed then that those who’d refused to show any rhythm at all during the singing were nodding their heads.
“By grace, your rap sheet is Christ’s now and his perfect record is reckoned to you as your own.
By grace, though not one of you is innocent or pure all of you are counted as such on account of Christ.
By grace, you are reckoned in the right by the only Judge that ultimately matters.
All of us, every last one of us, religious or not, it doesn’t matter because God has gone and done it for us entirely apart from religion.
God has gone and done it by the most irreligious means possible, by a cross.”
Some of them were squinting at me now, not sure if they were following me.
“In fact,” I said, “the mystery that makes him pray is that God has gone and done away with religion altogether.
Religion- what we do to get right with God; what we do to our neighbors to get God on our side- God’s gotten rid of all of it. He’s forsaken it in his own forsaken body.”
I still have the moleskin in which I wrote this sermon all those years ago. In it, I’d double- underlined the next part of my maiden sermon.
“The Mystery of Christ, Paul says, is that God has abolished the very commands God gave to us.”
And then I read to them the money line from Ephesians 2: “Christ has abolished the Law and the commandments that he might create a new humanity in himself.”
“It’s like what Paul tells the Galatians,” I said to them, “If we can be made right with God through good works or commandment-keeping then Christ came and died for absolutely nothing.”
“You shall love God with everything you are, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall care for the poor and the stranger among you, forgive 70×7, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for them…
All of that- Christ has abolished all of it, all of the Commandments, even the commandments he taught us; so that, all those do-good pious types who secretly insist on thinking God will grade them on a curve- they’ll have no where else to turn but to him and his mercy.
Like Jesus tells the rich young ruler, the only works of ours that are truly ‘good’ are the ones that come as a consequence of knowing that not one of those good works is necessary; otherwise, the bible says, even our best deeds are no better than filthy rags.”
I looked around the room at these men more acquainted with their bad deeds than their best deeds.
“That only sounds harsh if you think you’re free,” I said, “but if you know what the bible says about you to be true, that you are a captive to sin, then it’s the very best news you’re ever going to hear.
Because it means the Law is now and forever a rap sheet that the Judge refuses to read because Jesus Christ, by his perfect faithfulness, has fulfilled the Law for you and, by his bruised body, he has born for you your failure under the Law.”
All the Law talk was losing them, I could tell.
So I said-
“Look, this is what it means: everything God commands you to do in scripture has already been done for you by Jesus Christ and every sin you have done has been undone by his death for you.
Christ has set you free from any anxiety or burden you might feel over keeping his commands or following his teachings and if you but trust this news you might be behind bars but, trust me, you are more free than almost everyone outside these walls sitting in churches this morning.
They’re all in cages they can’t see.”
But they looked confused, like I’d just told them the opposite of everything they’d ever heard about Christianity.
So I changed tack.
“Hang on,” I said, “what’s Paul doing praying on his knees? Jews like Paul didn’t pray on their knees.”
“Except, after Job loses everything, he kneels down to pray. He gets down on his knees and, on a heap of ashes, prays.
And Stephen, before he’s executed, he bows down on his knees and prays.
And Jesus, before he’s arrested by the authorities, he gets down on his knees and prays.
Prayer was done standing up except when you were at the end of your rope.
Paul’s on his knees, praying, because he’s behind bars.”
And notice what he prays for in prison- he prays that Christ would dwell in your heart by faith so that you may comprehend the scope of his love.”
I got some amens.
“The Mystery of Christ, your redemption from sin and your reconciliation to God, it’s yours,” I said, “if you just have faith.”
“It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith.”
“God’s gift of grace. It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith, if you invite him into your heart.”
“Hold up, preacher” one of the inmates, Victor, raised both of his hands.
Victor’s wrists were bound together and chained to his ankles. His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.
“What do you mean if?”
“Um…I don’t follow…”
“You said everything’s already been done by Christ,” Victor said.
“But it sounds like there’s more to be done if I gotta have faith in it.” Now everyone else was nodding, even Sister Rose.
“I mean, Jesus- he said ‘It is finished,’ right? But how is it finished and done if you need faith first?”
“Uh…umm…look, I’m not a real preacher…”
“And you said that Paul says we’re justified by his work of grace not by any good work we do.”
I nodded, nervous knowing that Victor liked brag about representing himself in court.
“Well, if the gift isn’t really mine until I have faith in it doesn’t that make my faith just another good work?”
“Maybe we should sing another song,” Sister Rose suggested.
“No,” this is good, Barone laughed, “Look at the preacher sweating it like a defendant.”
“Say it again,” I said to Victor.
“You said we’re saved by grace, by the gift of God, but how is it a gift if we gotta do something to get it?”
“Yeah,” someone said, “grace isn’t amazing at all if we’ve got to earn it with our faith. And how is that a mystery anyway? There’s nothing mysterious about that. Everything in the world works by earning and deserving.”
I’d lost the room completely. It was distracted chaos, like when Peter preaches here. They all turned away from me and towards the middle to each other, talking out the scripture themselves:
If God doesn’t grade on a curve then why is faith the one test we gotta pass?
If you have faith- that sounds like a plea deal not a promise. And some of them laughed.
Yeah, it sounds like a negotiation not news.
If it has conditions it’s a contract not a gift.
And it ain’t free either because it puts the burden back on us to believe.
“Look at the bible passage,” Barone said, “It doesn’t say Paul’s praying for them to get faith so that they can invite Christ into their hearts.
He puts it the other way around. He prays that Christ will dwell in their hearts and the way Christ will dwell in their hearts is through faith. In other words, faith is what Christ does. We’re not the ones getting faith. Christ gives us faith.”
Someone from the back row jumped in:
“Then that means whatever faith we have, whether it’s a lot or a little…” his voice trailed off, puzzling it out.
“It’s Jesus’ work in us; it’s not our own,” Barone finished, “That’s how it fits in with what Jason was saying before he messed it all up. From beginning to end, it’s Jesus’ work- that’s what Paul means by height and length and breadth and depth. Every bit of it is Jesus. Faith doesn’t change anything but our perception. Faith is just what Christ gives us so we can see what’s already true.”
“Is that right, preacher?” the inmate named Victor asked me. He sat up straight in his metal chair and put his chained hands on his lap, suddenly serious. “Is that true?”
“Um, well, yes.”
“So, if there’s nothing we need to do for this to be true for us, then if someone asked you what they had to do to become a Christian…what’s the answer?”
I thought about it. I thought about how to put it without using any ifs. “I guess I’d tell them just to enjoy the gift.”
“Enjoy the gift?” Victor said, “How do you start doing that?”
“Well, I guess you’d start by receiving baptism.”
“Ok,” he said, “That, I want that. I want to be baptized.”
“Alright,” I said, “Sister Rose and I can talk and look at the calendar and talk to a pastor…”
“I want it now,” Victor said.
“Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing,” I said. “I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.”
“Your bishop would never even know,” Sister Rose giggled. “Besides, you just said Jesus freed us from the Law.”
“Um, okay,” I said.
“You know how, right?” Victor asked.
“Sure. I mean, I’ve seen it done.”
“You’ll need water,” Sister Rose pointed out.
“Right, water- can you get us some water?” I asked one of the guards.
“And a bowl,” Sister Rose said.
The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a big clear bowl from the staff salad bar and a dripping water pitcher.
Sister Rose pulled an old donated worship book off the wheeled cart of worn bibles and, as Victor shuffled forward, his chains clinking quietly, Sister Rose turned to the baptismal prayer.
Sister Rose handed me the prayer book. I didn’t ask him any questions.
I just poured the water into the bowl like the italicized directions told me, and I read the prayer on the water wrinkled page: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and Victor who receives it to clothe him in Christ’s righteousness that, having died and been raised with Christ, he may share in Christ’s victory.”
After the amen, I used my hands and I poured the water over his pony-tailed head.
The congregation all hooted and hollered.
“I never got baptized before because I didn’t think I could live the Christian life,” Victor said. “I didn’t think I could have that much faith, and I knew I wasn’t very faithful.”
“Dude, didn’t you comprehend anything we just said?” Barone laughed:
“There’s no such thing as the Christian life.
There’s just getting used to the mystery that his life has been credited to you.
And Victor beamed and Barone laughed some more, one of them in chains but both of them free.
I never got to finish that first sermon of mine.
It got interrupted by a question and then a baptism, and by the time Victor had shuffled back to his seat Sister Rose had started the cassette player for a closing song.
It was all for the better.
The conclusion I’d written- I’ve still got it in a moleskin; it’s as embarrassing as an old yearbook photo- It was all about you coming to Christ by having faith. But that just made faith another work. And it turned the Gospel back into the Law. Or, at best, it muddled the Gospel and the Law into a kind of Glawspel.
The Gospel is not exhortative: here’s what you must do to come to God- have faith, give to the poor, stand against injustice, serve the church.
The Gospel is declarative: here’s what God has done to come to you in Jesus Christ.
And God comes to us not with a prescription of what we must do for him- that’s Law (which Christ has abolished).
God comes to us with the promise of what he has done for us.
Christ is not a New Moses, I would’ve said if I’d gotten the chance. Christ is not just an example, teacher, or law-giver. If Christ is just another Moses then his life is no different than the saints. His life is his life, and your life is still in its sins.
Thinking of Jesus as your example or your teacher or law-giver, in the end, will just make you a hypocrite not a Christian because only he can fulfill the Law and live up to its demands.
Before Christ is your example or your teacher or your law-giver, he must be your gift.
He’s not a New Moses.
He gives himself for all your failures to obey Moses and with his perfect love he fulfills the Law of Moses and that fullness of his love is poured out on you at your baptism and it’s fed to you in wine and bread.
I never got to finish that sermon, but it’s just as well. I was just a student. I didn’t have the authority to end the sermon the way I should’ve ended it: with an invitation.
Come to the Table.
Come and receive the One who has come to you.