Image: Footprints in the snow
One of the ministries of our diocese is reaching out to those who are in prison. Jim Lynn, our diocesan chancellor, has served for many years as a part-time prison chaplain and we have volunteers that meet regularly at the jail for prayer services on Sunday mornings. I, along with other priests of the diocese, have been invited to celebrate Mass with the inmates and even share dinner with them on special occasions.
The stories that are shared during these visits are often sad and even tragic. Stories about abuse, broken families and lost childhoods but there are good stories as well. One positive recurring theme that often appears is that of faith and how it was belief in God which got them through those very difficult times in their lives.
You have probably heard the term, “jailhouse conversion”. It typically refers to someone who has gotten themselves into legal trouble and, while incarcerated, “finds Jesus” and begins living a Christian life. It can a be cynical term sometimes reserved for those who are trying to paint a nice picture of themselves for the sake of a judge and jury, but not all are so self serving
There are authentic conversions that take place in a jailhouse setting. After all, the point of a prison sentence is not just punitive but hopefully as much about rehabilitation. There is plenty of time to reflect on past mistakes and opportunities for deep soul searching that can lead to honest and lasting change.
The conversion in the reading from Acts, which takes place in a jail, is of a different sort altogether. In this case, it is not a prisoner finding God but rather it is the jailer who has a change of heart after witnessing the miraculous escape from bondage of Paul and Silas.
One might ask whether this is a momentary conversion or of the longer lasting variety. Consider the situation; the guard was prepared to kill himself out of fear that his prisoners had escaped, a sure sign that he was terrified of how his superiors would react if he had failed in his duties. Yet when he learned that everyone was still present and accounted for he did not rush to lock them back up again but rather, without hesitation, he bowed before the missionaries and pleaded for baptism, apparently completely forgetting his fear having now discovered the power of Christ.
This fearlessness, on the part of the guard, is strong evidence of having received the gift of the Spirit, a gift that will last. In the Gospel Jesus talks about the coming of the Spirit as one who, “will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness.” Upon witnessing the miracle, the jail tender knew immediately that the shoe of justice was on the other foot. Those who were imprisoned were innocent before God and those who imprisoned the innocent were guilty and needed the forgiveness found in baptism.
The story is fascinating on its own but is even more so when we consider the meaning it has for us. When we consider the story, which side of the bars do we stand on?
As baptized Christians, we start with a clean slate, even having been freed from original sin. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before we get the first proverbial stains on our white baptismal gown. If we continue through life with the sense that we hold the keys, we will surely find that when the day of judgment comes our pure white garment will be completely soiled and we will find ourselves standing in the line-up with the hardened , unrepentant criminals.
It is much better that we plead guilty and fall upon the mercy of our creator, trusting that God’s Spirit is not about bondage but liberation and that Jesus has already paid the bond that will set us free.