This is Tuesday in our Holy Week, and we are reminded of an event that took place after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” – John 12:20 Their request and desire to see Jesus has been repeated by men and women for centuries. Here’s one story.
My friendship with James began ten years ago at Bay State Correction Center in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The parish where I was serving as rector made a commitment to visit a particular prisoner once a month and to provide the tuition for his college courses. I made the first visit to establish the relationship. I had previous experience visiting a parishioner who had been convicted and served a short sentence in a minimum security prison, but Bay State was for violent offenders. After learning not to wear anything metal, since I would have to pass through a metal detector, I wore no religious jewelry and a black shirt, but no white plastic collar, since the collar buttons are metal. I also could not bring anything with me – no Bible, no Prayer Book, no Communion kit. Without the symbols of my priesthood and the tools of my trade, I could only present my faith in God to a man who had already served 25 years of his life sentence, without parole. I was nervous about meeting him, but it was an incredible experience and we have continued writing to each other for ten years.
The first time we met we talked about all sorts of things, but because I am a priest, he was especially eager to talk with me about his newly discovered faith in Jesus Christ. When he mentioned, “And then I came to know Jesus”, I asked him to tell me more about that experience. He said that during the first ten years of his sentence he had been an angry and defiant prisoner who did not cooperate with guards or follow the rules. He told me all the rules that the prison enforces to keep peace in the prison, and to control the behavior of the prisoners. Prisons are built to protect the public and there isn’t much of a plan to rehabilitate prisoners, except through work, Anger Management classes, and AA groups. But one day an older prisoner told him that if he wanted to make it in prison, he’d better go to Bible study classes, which he did and it changed his life.
What changed James’ behavior and softened his heart of stone was “coming to know Jesus.” He said it happened after he listened to the chaplain talk about how “we are given life so that we can glorify God”. The chaplain told him, “Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also”. So he asked the chaplain, “I want to know Jesus.” There is so much more I could tell you about James, but what caught my heart was his statement, “Now I plan to glorify God in this place, in prison. God has a plan for me here.”
Each time I visited James, I thought of the irony of our visits. Here was a man who once had no faith in God, who asked to know Jesus, and his faith grew to the point that whenever I visited James, and in every letter that he writes to me, I encounter Jesus in him. The priest comes to the prisoner to see Jesus. Charles’ wish to see Jesus resulted in other’s knowing Jesus through him. Charles now leads worship and preaches in the prison chapel, and helps the new, angry young prisoners to find Jesus in their lives. Isn’t God clever? Our request to see Jesus results in others seeing Jesus through us.