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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Behind Bars

Acts of the Apostles, a 5-week sermon series for the Easter season, preached on April 24, 2022, at the 9:30am worship


Last Sunday was a big day for the church. It was Easter. We processed a cross of flowers and poured water into the font again after leaving it dry all Lent. We shared communion. We told the story of life winning over death. We had the most people and most kids in worship we’ve had in a few years. We got to hear Caitlan’s wise and insightful voice after coming back from the first half of her sabbatical. We unburied alleluias. We hunted some eggs. Yep, Easter Sunday was a big day for the church.

This Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, never feels the same. It’s like the day AFTER a wedding, or AFTER a birthday.

But here’s the thing. The days AFTER Easter are really big for the church. This Easter season, Caitlan and I are reading and preaching from the Acts of the Apostles, amazing stories of what those first disciples and apostles were sent to do to birth the church after that first Easter.

Today, let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…

Scripture Acts 5:17-33

17 Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the sect of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life.”

21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.

When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to.

25 Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.”26 At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to God's own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey God.”

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

This is the word of the Lord… (Thanks be to God)

Sermon Behind Bars

The first time I went to prison… as a visitor, not an inmate… was to see the grown son of an elderly member at a previous church. We had buried the wife and mother from cancer, and the son took it pretty hard. He lost his job, his marriage, his house. He got into some big trouble with the banks and credit card companies, then with alcohol and other substances, and then with the law.

I checked in at the front desk of the prison during the tight window for visitation, with the necessary prior appointment. They had me put my valuables, wallet, keys, phone, and watch in a bin and locked it away behind their reception desk. Then they patted me down to make sure I wasn’t concealing anything else. Finally, they gave me a visitor badge, opened the first secure door off the lobby, and my escort walked me through.

I heard it shut behind me, the electric buzz of some switch, and the clunk of thick metals as the door locked into place. I felt it in my body, all over. My heart rate changed. It took my breath. I had a chill. I realized I was behind the bars now, and the only way I get out is if someone lets me out.

The disciples were in prison for talking about the new life. What new life? Well, Jesus died, was buried, and came back to life. The disciples were surely talking about that. But as students of Jesus, they also talked about the new life we ALL have, here, now, in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of Heaven life, one of peace, truth, justice, and love. The new life is not about money and power, but about sharing and service. It’s not about security but about vulnerability. It’s not about us versus them. There’s only us. It’s not about life or death. There’s only life and new life.

That kind of talk had them in prison. I imagine they felt a similar chill when the doors locked into place behind them. There was no way out unless someone let them out… and someone did. In the night, a voice, a messenger freed them from that prison and sent them back out into the world to keep telling others about the “new life,” yes the resurrected life of Jesus, and also the new Kingdom life that is available to all right here, right now.

As soon as they are free, they head to the temple, in the midst of the religious and spiritually curious people, and begin describing the New life. They are attracting some curious folk, and are being ignored or questioned by others. See, the new life is a great interest and comfort to those who don’t have much to lose. But the new life is a problem and threat to those who think they already have life in accomplishments, the admiration of others, money, or power.

Jesus taught us in his Kingdom success is love, loving God, loving neighbors, loving self, loving enemies and no other work is equal. Jesus taught us in God’s community, the center of attention is the weak, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans, and immigrants. Jesus taught us in the Kingdom of heaven, how foolish it is to hoard away more and more for ourselves and called us to use our resources today in generosity toward others. Jesus taught us in the great Kingdom how wrong it is to want or to hold power over anyone, and how the greatest in the kingdom is the one who humbles themselves and serves. All of that is new life.

The disciples keep talking about this new life, and the ones with something to lose use the police to separate the apostles from the ones hungry for new life. They know the hunger of the hungry people. They are afraid if they were too violent with the apostles, the people might rise up and stone them all to death. If they are so aware of the desperate hunger of the people, then why aren’t they serving them, helping them? They aren’t interested in a fair and just community. They are interested in maintaining their income and position. So they grill the apostles, “Why do you keep teaching about the new life in his name?”

The apostles' response is unexpected to the Sadducees, but obvious if we think about it. They say something like, “Because it's true. We’ve seen it with our eyes. We didn’t believe it either, until he rose from the dead and forgave us, and told us to feed his sheep. We talk about the new life because we’ve tasted it, and like it much more. We talk about the new life because it's not just for us. It's for everyone, those people gathered in the temple, and for you too. It's already here, and it's coming someday in all its fullness. When? We don’t know. But we know all Israel, all the world will see and believe and be set free. And if we can help anyone, anyone see it and believe it today, by sharing and serving and telling others, then we must. You can tell us to stop, for fear of these new life-changing things but we will not stop. We must obey God over any human authority.”

Easter is a big day. Easter is the revealing of new life, new possibilities for how God’s children can do life together without domination over, without fear, as one great, diverse, just, and peaceful family. Easter breaks open the tombs of our hearts and lets us feel everything but with way less fear than before. Easter lets us laugh at silly rules meant to keep us complicit, and inspires us to radically follow the way, truth, and life of Jesus, the risen Christ, no matter the consequences. Easter makes forgiveness real and soaks the world in grace that makes us smile and cry at the same time. Easter cracks open the mind to possibilities we once thought naïve or impossible, and inspires us to work for them with renewed passion. Easter is a big day.

And then, those moments after Easter are also so big, for the church and for the world. People who see and believe Easter, new life, God’s promised community, cannot ever unsee it, and desperately desire to live it and share it. They work for it. They change the world. They buck any unjust systems or structures. They challenge any human authority that does not stand for truth, justice, and peace. They feed the hungry in body or spirit. They clothe the naked. They set the prisoners free.

What to you on this side of Easter feels like the old life, instead of the new? What is your prison? What has you feeling locked down, or locked away? Is there a relationship that you simply cannot reconcile, but also cannot let go? It’s not quite dead, but it's also not alive. Is there a situation in your personal life that has you feeling you have no options as if you cannot move and your choices seem so limited by others beyond you? Maybe it's something in your career? You’re going through the motions, but it feels so small sometimes like it doesn’t really matter much to the world beyond those walls. Or maybe it’s just something inside you, a habit of thoughts, a distorted self-image that has you feeling trapped, unworthy to truly live a full free life? What is your prison?

Hear this voice, as if it’s a messenger to you in your prison in the middle of the night on this side of Easter. In Jesus Christ, you are free. You may go, go live the new life of peace and wholeness. Go seek and do justice and love. Do not be afraid of human authorities. Obey God. And tell others all about the new life, until all the world is living together beyond the walls of our prisons.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forevermore, amen.



Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.

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