Summary: Last Sunday of Ordinary Time (Christ the King). Prisoners give us an insight into the special relationship of Christ and the two thieves. Sermon mentions baptism also.
Sermon: Christ the King, 25th November 2001
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
In the name of the +Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Last Sunday, we celebrated Prisoner’s Sunday, and we prayed for all imprisoned, their families on the outside, and those who work in Prisons. It was a day which I always recall gladly, as whilst I was engaged in my Theological training at the College of the Resurrection, I worked on placement for a month in a prison in Doncaster.
It was a placement which I faced with some anxiety, as it was a Category A prison, and I had up until then, little contact with prisoners. HMP Moorlands was a combined Young Offenders and Adult Prison, and characteristically housed a young adult population: virtually the entire prison population was aged between 18 and 25, many serving long-term or life sentences.
HMP Moorlands was, for me, a major formative experience, and I grew to understand how important, no, how essential the Christian mission in prisons is: the Prison chaplain is possibly the last hand of hope to many who have fallen to the depths of society. Young men who have done wrong, and who therefore seek no excuses for their wrong doing, but have come to this desperate situation usually as a result of addictions to alcohol or more commonly to drugs; youngsters usually the product of a breakdown in family life and who entered into successions of short-term, uncommitted and ultimately unsuccessful relationships – it was a sad reflection that those who have the complex family arrangements: multiple children from multiple mothers, breakdown and disaffection, lack of parenting and so on, those who have the complex family arrangements are those least equipped in society to survive them. They are lads for whom society wishes to give up. The reactionary voices of old conservatism or new labour (of which there is no discernable difference) cry that they should be locked up and the key thrown away.
So, locked up they were. Despite what the tabloids may suggest, life in prison is no bed of roses: it is dehumanising, dehabilitating and even a little soul destroying; and this is where the Prison Chaplain comes in, the extend the Christian hand of friendship to people of whom society has little time for, and to see the face of Christ in each individual in prison.
Why speak therefore of prisons and of prisoners, if St Leonard’s Day (the patron saint of prisoners) was last week? For this reason: while I was there I led a bible study for a group of 25 young men, all of whom wanted to be there. We were studying the Gospel text appointed for this morning, and they revealed to me in an almost epiphanious moment, a blinding truth.
I mentioned during the study, that this pericope, this section of a bible story, was the only one where Jesus was directly addressed by his own name, elsewhere he is always “Rabbi”, “Master”, “Lord”. Here he is addressed as simply “Jesus”.
I pondered aloud why that should be. “Obvious” came the reply from the lads, “they spent the night in the condemned cell together”. There was a moment of contact between these lads and the three condemned prisoners, the Son of God and the two thieves, the King, the eternal High Priest, and a group of young men who understood what it meant to steal, to cheat, to murder. They understood the camaraderie that develops between those “banged up together”, and they understood the poignancy of the injustice of it all, for to them justice was both their nemesis and their hope of salvation; and where injustice is noted, their sense of indignity is palpable.
These young men also yearned to be alongside their Lord and Saviour and to ask him to remember them, when he comes into his kingdom and when Christ the King reigns triumphant.
Our Lord’s response is also unique: a clear unequivocal promise is given to the repentant thief – “today you will be with me in paradise”. It is a promise which is made to each of us as we accept the sacrament of Holy Baptism, as Lucy will shortly; for through those healing, saving waters, the baptised can come to be with Christ in paradise.
Today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, but it is a Sunday very far from Ordinary. Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, is not just for Sundays, but is present with us through the sacraments: through the sacrament of the Eucharist, and through the sacrament of Holy Baptism and throughout our whole lives. Jesus Christ is alongside us in moments of joy, such as the birth of a wonderful new daughter and granddaughter, and in moments of despair or degradation – the penitent thief who had shared the condemned cell knew that, and the young Cons in HMP Moorlands knew that Christ was alongside them in their darkest hours as well as their joys.