As I left the sanctuary, I struggled with the gnawing feeling that I was missing something important. Not something that I didn’t hear in the sermon. No, what I was bothering me was something that God kept pointing to; something that was included the morning’s message about revival.
Animated parishioners crowed around the coffee table. There were genuine greetings, inquires about various concerns, smiles. Below waist height, children clutched and clamored for their share of recognition. I shook hands, hugged shoulders and found a cream-filled donut. But I couldn’t get the image of Antonio out of my mind.
Antonio is seventeen. While I was in church, he sat in his cell at the county jail. In a few days he will go before the judge and be sentenced as an adult for the murder of a drug dealer. Antonio will not be able to visit my church for the next thirty-five years. But even if he could visit my church, I am not sure that he would want to. I’m not sure that the church has anything to say to him. In his world, Christians are irrelevant.
I don’t think it is supposed to be like this. Jesus didn’t come to give an uplifting sermon about the need to build a new church so that the community could come to the sanctuary to meet God. Jesus did go to church. It was his custom, says the Bible. But at church he proclaimed a ministry that had no place inside the building. He said that the requirements for service to Him were found where Antonio lives.
“And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, He sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Jesus brought a message. It was for the poor, the captives, the blind and the downtrodden. He told that congregation on that day this prophecy was fulfilled. That day, God pushed open the church doors and said, “Get out there where you find the poor, the captive, the blind and the downtrodden. I have something good to tell them.”
God reminded me of another one of those harsh sayings of Jesus.
“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
I’m beginning to think that Jesus would not be in the front pew on Sunday. I am almost certain that He would not be behind the pulpit. I think if I wanted to find Jesus, I would have to look in the places where He travels. It doesn’t seem to be in the temples. If Jesus points to the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners, my guess is that His presence is among those kinds of people. But when I read the next verse, I no longer have to guess. I am convinced. Matthew 25:37 says, “Then the righteous will answer”. The ones who answer Him, the ones who are surprised to hear Him praise them, Jesus calls “righteous”. The Greek is dikaioi. The justified ones. They are not justified by their actions. They are justified because God has declared them justified. And in response, they spend their lives doing the things that God does among the people that God loves: the poor, the blind, the captives and the downtrodden. Jesus calls these people righteous. Jesus welcomes these people into the festival hall.
But there is another group. They are the ones who expect to be invited. They are there, waiting at the entrance, because they were the religious “right”. The right church, the right family, the right career, the right homes in the right communities, the right declarations, the right baptism. More than anything, their lives are characterized by what’s right – mostly what’s right for them.
Jesus says something to them about their rights. He says, “I never knew you. You will go your way to eternal punishment. You were “right” but it was all wrong. I never knew you because I never met you in any of the places where I did God’s work.”
The first time I met Antonio I was so confident. I thought, “I’m a Christian. I have the answer to life. I know about Jesus and Antonio needs Jesus.” What a fool I was! Sitting there with him, I realized that everything about me shouts that I know nothing about him and that I live my life not wanting to know anything about him. He’s just another boy gone bad, locked away in the jail cell. There are a million excuses why I don’t want to spend time with Antonio. But they all boil down to the same thing. Antonio scares me. Antonio makes me feel that I really have nothing to say to a boy who faces a life without parole. And that makes me question just how stable my own life is. Am I confident in God alone – the only thing I have to offer Antonio? Or am I confident because I have a job, a house, a wife to go home to, a community protected from crime, a life in the suburbs, a sense of accomplishment and a future? Is my God only good when my self-fulfillment is thrown in the mix?
What if Antonio and I changed positions? What would I want to hear about God? What would really matter to me if I knew that I was going to live in an eight by eight concrete room for the next thirty-five years?
Most of the answers we hear on Sunday morning don’t even come close, do they? Most of our concerns about small groups and budgets and picnics and youth rallies don’t mean a thing in a concrete cell. But Jesus says that He came to bring a message of incredibly good news to people just like Antonio. I believe that Jesus did. I just don’t seem to have understood what that message is. My view of Jesus’ message is like homogenized milk – so mixed up with my cultural expectations and “good life” thinking that I can’t communicate what matters most to someone who is far from my reality.
What about you? What do you have to say about God when you sit next to someone who is dying from cancer? What do you whisper when you kneel down with a homeless family at the food bank in Jacksonville? What words do you speak to that child in the Sudan who has no clothes and no parents because of ethnic genocide? What news do you bring to the blind man in Haiti who lost his sight because of polluted water? What do you tell the mother in Ethiopia whose child has died from starvation?
And what do you say to Antonio, who will not see the world outside his cell until 2040?
“Father, forgive me. Forgive my concern with how many channels I get on cable or who will be in the Superbowl. Forgive my anxiety over the look of my car. Forgive my complaints about slow service at the restaurant. Forgive my preoccupation with hair color and make-up, fashion and cell phone features. Forgive me when I think that a bigger building is the answer for a dying world. Forgive me when charity is governed by a budget. But most of all, Father, forgive me for not being where Your Son is, for thinking that He must come to me, when all the while He is waiting for me to show up at His place of worship.”
I’m not through with Antonio. If I am going to offer any hope to him, he and I must become friends. I have every reason in the world to avoid that friendship. But Jesus said, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” If I’m going to hear the words I long to hear, “Well done”, then I’ll need to let Jesus overcome my world too. And if Jesus can overcome my world, then I just might have something worth saying to Antonio.