Two weeks ago I had the privilege of going to the Morgan County (TN) Correctional Facility to do an Alpha Course. This is a prison which houses over 2200 male inmates in maximum and minimum security compounds within the prison. The team that invited me to do the course is three dedicated individuals who visit that facility every week. I now have a greater appreciation for their ministry and their willingness to “proclaim liberty to the captives.”
Thinking of today’s readings where Ezra reads from the scroll and how the people responded to the words of God has a strong parallel to that weekend. The response of the inmates to the gospel message provided me with some new insights into today’s readings. The people listening to Ezra reading God’s word shouted “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground (Neh. 8:6). Their words and actions sound as though they were unashamed to worship with all their hearts, minds, strength and soul. That same reaction was evident in 17 men as they responded to the invitation to embrace Christ and let him guide their lives.
I witnessed that weekend men who exemplified the body of Christ described by Paul. Paul describes the body as “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons …all given to drink of one Spirit.” No the men that weekend were not Jews or Greeks but they were Catholics, Protestant; some had become involved in satanic cults. They were believers and seekers. They were one body in a way that most communities would like to be a unified body. I saw men who encouraged one another, protected one another, corrected one another and used their God given gifts to help their brothers overcome guilt, harassment, fear and a lack of commitment to become disciples.
I witnessed men who knew “apart from Christ they (could) do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Those men truly were living stones, a church, a body of Christ, within the walls of an institution that controls their lives and yet they had freedom because they surrendered control of their interior selves to someone who set their hearts on fire.
How often have we as church heard these readings today and they have not caused us to reflect on how we respond to God. Why are we so reserved in our response to God’s gift of mercy, of forgiveness? Why are we still beating ourselves up continually tormented by guilt over sins long confessed and forgiven? Why are we so uptight when people worship with holy hands lifted high, sing loudly with tears running down their cheeks while praising God? How can men in prison be free in their worship of God while we who have total freedom get uptight if someone does not conform to a standard of reverence we deem appropriate?
I listened that weekend to stories from men who admitted they were sinners. They know they are paying the price for the wrongs they have done. They also know that Christ has forgiven them even if those they wronged will never forgive them. Many of them have found the freedom and peace offered by Jesus and it was evident faith in Christ’s promises has changed them.
Just as Ezra shared God’s word with the Israelites, those men who have found freedom and peace offered by Jesus are sharing God’s word with others. Living in a place where freedom is restricted, they give witness to what Jesus offers by their words and actions. They are Ezra to those eager to have what they have found. Their bond as a body of Christ is another witness to those seeking a way to live that is different and meaningful. They are truly church and in many ways spiritually they are what we God desires for all of us.
Just compare the verses that follow today’s gospel with the response of those who responded to Ezra. As Jesus read from the prophet Isiah he announces to his home town that he is the anointed one sent by God to set us free. His home town community did not accept what he offered; they rose up and thrust him out of the city intending to cast him off a cliff. The townspeople of Nazareth had a different image of what the messiah should look like and sound like. The contrast of the response of the people listening to Ezra and those listening to Jesus should cause us to reflect on our own response.
The gospels are full of those who were so bound up in their own concept of what is acceptable they rejected the message of Jesus. We see it in the stories of the Pharisees “who held to a form of religion” while they denied the very presence of God before them. We see in in those who said to Jesus “this teaching is hard to take’ (Jn. 6:60). No my brothers and sisters, Jesus does not make it easy for us to become disciples because he desires that we die to self and surrender all to him. He offers us life and we choose to listen to other voices that offer us another path to life.
In one way is easy in prison to surrender to Christ because other choices have failed. On the other hand, surrendering your life to Jesus is harder in prison because survival depend upon your ability in overcoming not surrendering.
The first reading today is a story of a church’s overwhelming joy in response to the word of God. The gospel reading is a clear picture description of what God is offering us, freedom from sin and knowing we are favored by God. The verses of John that we do not hear today are telling a story of people rejecting the very one who offers them all they seek.
We have a choice my brothers and sisters to be bold and give God everything, our heart, mind, strength and soul and tin return receive the joy of becoming sons and daughters. Or we can ignore the reality that the only way to the Father is through Christ.