Subtitle: On Condemnation & Redemption: A Lenten reflection-series based on Romans 8
Paul assures us that nothing and no one can condemn us, not even ourselves.
But how does this work? Where do we see it? Where can we see it and, therefore, know it?
At the heart of Paul’s testimony that Christ Jesus is our divine attorney, there is one and only one thing: I am convinced that…(nothing can) separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.38, 39; my emphasis).
Here is where we can behold and believe. Love. How simple. How profound. And how true not only about the Divine nature, but, as importantly, how true, how real to our human experience.
When we give and receive love demonstrated in the kindness that, making no (refusing to make any) judgment about another’s deserving, offers a helping hand with no thought for itself and without desire or need for repayment…
When we give and receive love manifested in the patience that does more than merely tolerate, but genuinely accepts and celebrates the human dignity of another, no matter how different…
When we give and receive love revealed in the forgiveness that, conscious of one’s own suffering, seeks to soothe a contrite heart, counting no past wrong as an insurmountable barrier to God’s mercy…
Here is where we can behold and believe.
In all of this, I recall an encounter many years ago through which Paul’s words (perhaps for the first time and most memorable time in my experience) were more than inked on a page, but became incarnate, written in human flesh, thus, bearing living, breathing witness.
I was a part in an ecumenical team of laity and clergy who were to spend a 4-day period in prison on spiritual retreat with an equal number of inmates. It almost didn’t happen. Six weeks before, there had been a riot, involving injuries to inmates and correctional officers and extensive property damage. The library, which was to serve as the main meeting space, had been set ablaze. Remaining, a burned-out shell of a room; the concrete floor and ceiling and cinderblock walls scarred with black soot.
The warden, after the investigation, discerning that none of the inmates who had been chosen to participate in the retreat had taken part in the uprising, graciously, amazingly allowed the planning to go forward.
On a late spring overcast afternoon, the team, each of us, our identification confirmed and our persons searched, was granted entrance. The library had been scrubbed, yet the tell-tale, nearly overwhelming stench of fire and smoke remained. And, bare of carpet, bookshelves and books, and any furniture, save for makeshift seats and benches of brick and plywood boards, there was an unexpected benefit, indeed, a blessing: The walls literally sang with the echoes of our voices.
For my role, I offered biblical meditations, the principal one based on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son; the story, the reality of God’s unconditional love. As I spoke, I heard, first, a sniffle, then another and another, then muffled sobbing. The room dimly lit, I looked up into the faces of the inmates, our newfound brothers in Christ; some, their eyes awash with tears.
Later, I sat with several of my brothers for one-on-one tête-à-têtes, designed to offer confidential opportunity for them to say, to share whatever they desired…or not.
One, I vividly recall. Peter. Our conversation became his confession.
Peter, with a vigor that felt to me to burn with truth’s necessity, recounted the nature of his crime. The details – both of his offense and of his life before his offense – were gruesome. Although shaken to my soul’s depth, I sought to betray no outward evidence of shock, which Peter well may have perceived (and rightly!) as my judgment. For time on end, we sat silence. Finally, Peter, his head down, his elbows pressed hard into his knees, his hands tightly clasped, looked up.
“Can I call you Paul?” His voice was almost a whisper.
“Yes, of course.”
“Peter and Paul.” He sat up. “They were friends.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “they were.”
“Are we,” he stared squarely at me, “friends?”
“Yes,” in earnest, I leaned forward, “we are.”
“You mean that?” His tone was terse.
“Yes, I do.”
Slightly, he turned his head, looking at me askance. “How can you mean that?”
“Because…” I paused, searching within, struggling to find a word, any word that might make some, any sense, “of Jesus’ parable.”
Smirking, he sat back. “I know that story, but I never thought it applied to me.”
“You really mean that?”
“I’ve never known,” he shook his head, “either receiving or giving it. That kind of love. Any kind of love. And you’re telling me…you want me to believe that God gives it to me? To me?” With an open palm, he slapped his chest hard.
Silence, again, for a time, and then for a time more, descended upon us. Then, slowly, Peter wiped away a single tear running down his cheek.
“You know, I’m sorry for what I did. I mean, really. I am sorry. And I know I won’t ever get out of here. This prison. Not one way or another. And anyway, not alive. But if God loves me like that prodigal son, and I’m taking your word for it, then I’ll take it. Because it means that no matter what happens to me, I’m finally free.”
Who can bring a charge against us? Who can condemn us when Love intercedes for us?
Not even ourselves.
© 2021 PRA
Footnote:  This is a partial account of the events during a Kairos Prison Ministry retreat at the Lieber Correctional Institute, Ridgeville, South Carolina, in May 1986. The dialogue, though long ago, is true to my recollection.