When I was at Chicago Theological Seminary, there was a conversation about whether the school should perform background checks on prospective students.
It was a sensible question. Here at First Congregational United Church of Christ, we run background checks on anyone who will work with youth. And plenty of jobs require background checks and drug tests. And plenty of employers have the little box with instructions to “check here if you have ever been convicted of a felony.”
And there are big questions about how and whether those things can be done in a way that is just and fair and compassionate and merciful. But I understand the desire to run background checks.
They are a way of protecting ourselves. They are a way of making sure that the wrong people don’t get into the wrong positions. And all it takes is a little information, and a little money, and a little willingness to look into someone’s past… and a little willingness to imagine that they might be the same person now as they were then.
So the seminary had a conversation bout whether the school should perform background checks on potential students. And one of the professors asked, more or less, “So, if someone does not have a criminal record… are we going to ask them to explain that?”
Because our heroes have been arrested. Our saints have gone to jail. Our holy ones have done time in prison. Martin Luther King Jr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer… John Brown and Megan Rice… Brother Paul from Tarsus and Lord Jesus from Nazareth… and so many more.
And I am not saying—and I don’t think that professor was saying—that following Christ means getting a record. I don’t have one. I don’t want one. I’m not planning on getting one. You can follow Christ without facing prosecution.
But… part of being a Christian… part of following Christ… is being a threat to the powers-that-be and the world-as-it-is and the way-that-things-are.
So maybe, just a little bit, every now and then, the guardians of the powers-that-be and the world-as-it-is and the way-that-things-are should look at us… and wonder what we’re up to… and mutter under their breath about what they should do about those Christians.
A couple of weeks ago, we met Paul in prison.
Paul and Silas were in Philippi when they met an enslaved woman who had a spirit who could tell the future. And because that enslaved woman had a spirit who could tell the future, the people who were enslaving her were making a lot of money off of her.
So when Paul told the spirit to leave the woman, the people who were enslaving her had Paul and Silas arrested… and flogged… and thrown into prison… and put in the stocks.
But Paul did what he Paul does. He found a pulpit in prison. And by the time it was all over, the jailer and his entire household believed.
This week, we meet Paul in prison… again.
We don’t know exactly where he is in prison or when he is in prison. Paul got in plenty of trouble with the law: he was imprisoned, he was flogged, he was lashed with whips, he was beaten with rods, he was stoned. But there are reasons to think that he is in Rome… and that this is the last time that he will be in prison… and that by the time it is all over, he will lose. his. head.
And he is writing to his old friends at that church in Philippi.
He greets them. He thanks God for them. And he tells them what has happened.
Paul has done what Paul does. He has found a pulpit in prison. And he’s been talking about Christ… and others are talking about Christ… and everyone is talking about Christ.
Yes, some people are invoking Christ out of envy and rivalry. And yes, some people are invoking Christ out of selfish ambition. And yes, some people are invoking Christ just to make Paul’s life worse. But that’s okay. Because they’re talking about Christ… they’re invoking Christ… they’re proclaiming Christ.
And some of them are even believing.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once asked himself what someone should do if they could not believe… if they heard the claims and the bold claims and the very bold claims about Christ and just couldn’t get there. And he said, more or less,
Fake it till you make it. Act like you believe. Go to worship, sing the songs, pray the prayers, give to charity, do the stuff. At worst, you will become faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, and truthful. At best, you will meet God.
And I know that I’m in the business of making claims and bold claims and very bold claims about Christ.
Claims like, “you are loved and worthy of love… exactly as you are and too much for God to leave you that way…”
…and, “everyone is loved and worthy of love… exactly as they are and too much for God to leave them that way…”
…and, “no matter who you are, and no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here and we are glad that you are here.”
And I know that those are claims and bold claims and very bold claims. I know that they can be hard to believe. And I know that there are times when I make them because I believe them; and I know that there are times when I make them because I want to believe them.
And when I say believe, I don’t just mean just mean that in some abstract and intellectual way. I mean that in an embodied way. I mean that I want to live as though those claims—those bold claims and this very bold claims—are true.
No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are loved and worthy of love, exactly as you are and too much for God to leave you that way, and you are welcome here, and we are glad that you are here.
And there’s more to it, but…
In my highest moments of spiritual ecstasy, I believe that is true. And in the darkest nights of my soul, I long for that to be true. Certainly for you. And even for me.
And the thing is…
Part of how that becomes true—part of how that becomes really real—is that I… I…
I take that little piece of the kingdom that God has entrusted to my care… I put that little light of the world that God has put in my soul… I take that little spark of the Spirit that God has baptized me with…
…and I nurture it… and I feed it… and I help it grow…
…and if you do that… and you do that… and you… and you… and you…
…then this whole garden will grow… this whole light will shine… this whole fire will rise… this whole fire will burst into life and love the likes of which we can scarcely imagine!
We are not in prison.
That is an astonishing thing, because we are threats to the powers-that-be and the world-as-it-is and the way-that-things-are. We are partisans of the kingdom and revolutionaries of love.
And we… are free. To gather and to worship… to sing and to pray… to give and to love. We are free to grow the garden and build the kingdom and conspire for Christ.
We are not in prison. So we don’t have to be who Paul was and do what Paul did. We don’t have to find pulpits in prison.
Because we are a free, we are free to talk about Christ… to invoke Christ… to proclaim Christ… through what we say… and what we do… and how we live.
And yes, some people might talk about Christ out of envy and rivalry. And yes, some people might talk about Christ out of selfish ambition. And yes, some people might talk about Christ just so that they can mutter under their breath about what they should do about these Christians.
But that will be okay, because people will be talking about Christ… and invoking Christ… and proclaiming Christ.
And some might even come to believe.