Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’
A prisoner once told me that the day he became a Christian was ‘the best day of my life but also the worst’. He had spent seven years in prison before he came to faith and thought of it as ‘part of what happens in my line’. When he became a Christian he told me ‘I understood all the pain and hurt I had caused others, that will never go away now, but I also know that I can lead a different life’. Now he was approaching the end of his time in prison, seven years on in his faith, he was given an opportunity to become a chef in a Church café on release. In many ways he could be described as someone who had woken up to things and would not go back to sleep.
But I have to wonder about Paul in this passage. What if there were no prison chaplains or others to step beyond the perimeter fence to engage with the people who find themselves behind bars? I am very reluctant to say ‘step into the darkness’ because in my time as a prison chaplain I have seen a lot of light in prison, as well as many who are in the darkness of despair and hopelessness.
However. Paul talks elsewhere about being ‘ambassadors for Christ’. As ever, Paul is speaking into a particular context in this passage. Chaplains – of whatever sort (hospital, industrial etc) are precisely that, people of faith – here I include my fellow Muslim, Sikh, Jewish etc. colleagues as well – who go to where people are and remind them that where they are right now need not be where they are tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.
But we also are reminded of the Church who decided to employ this ex-offender on his release. They had woken up to the possibility of helping people back into society and into Church-life on release. Could your church community do the same?
‘When I was in prison you visited me’ says Jesus to the sheep.
Loving God today we pray for all those in the criminal justice system. Those who work and those who are imprisoned. We pray for the victims of crime and their families and friends. We ask that you will be in all the dark places of our world and that there may be ambassadors of light and hope to make your presence clear. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen
The Rev’d Hilary Collinson is a minister in the Tees and Swale Pastorate