“Criminals on Either Side” – Seeing Christ in our Midst Sermon Series

“Criminals on Either Side”
Luke 23:33
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
July 25, 2021 

Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) – some of you may know it as an online resource for all things films and movies. And for years now, there has been one movie that has remained in the #1 spot on the Internet Movie Data Base list of the 250 Top Rated Movies of all time, based on thousands and thousands of viewer ratings. 

Morgan Freeman was in this movie and when this movie celebrated its 25th anniversary a couple of years ago, he stated in an interview, “About everywhere you go, people say, ‘The________________ —greatest movie I ever saw,’” 

Tim Robbins was also in it, and he stated a couple of years ago that for 25 years “all over the world—wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life.’ ” Robbins even had a chance to meet Nelson Mandela at one point, and Robbins remarked, “When I met [Nelson Mandela], he talked about loving ____________.” 

Do you know what that this movie is? 

The Shawshank Redemption. Who here has seen that? 

For those who are less familiar, this is a 1994 film adaption of a Stephen King novel starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. 

It takes place almost entirely in the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary during the late 40s and 1950s. It is 142 minutes long, it includes some fairly violent and grotesque prison scenes, and the setting, the attire -they are filled with a lot of grays and browns. 

How in the world has this film struck such a universal chord? How has perhaps one of the most famous prisoners of all time – Mandela – and then millions who have never even seen a prison…how have they all alike found such powerful resonance in this kind of film? I wonder if part of the reason isn’t that it assumes a basic truth that all of us do know at one level or another. 

When Jesus first begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Luke, he makes plain his intention by quoting directly from the prophet Isaiah: 

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” 

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… 

When Jesus sees the landscape of humanity, he recognizes there are a lot of prisoners, and those prisons come in every size and shape. Some are quite visible. Some well-hidden. All heavily fortified. 

Karl Barth was a prominent Reformed theologian and public voice of the 20th century. And from 1956-64, toward the end of his career and into retirement, Barth provided regular worship and preaching in a prison in Basel, Switzerland. And one of his most famous sermons there among the prisoners is entitled “Criminals with Him” based on Luke 23:33 (and today’s sermon title and Scripture choice are a direct nod to that). 

In that sermon, Barth makes this comment about these two thieves on either side of Jesus: 

“We are such people, all of us–you in this house which is called a prison, with all the burden that brought you here and with your particular experiences in this place–those others of us outside who have different experiences and yet are, believe me, in the same predicament. In reality, we all are these people, these crucified criminals.” 

We are all these crucified criminals. 

The truth of Scripture and the one that The Shawshank Redemption names quietly and persistently is this: we all know about the walls. About the trap of sin. The things we keep doing – or not doing – even as we want to do and be better as a people. Or a person. We know about addiction. We know about the weight of wrongdoing done against us…and the weight of carrying wrong-doing we have done to others. 

In one way or another, we all know what it feels like to be boxed in. Condemned. Trapped. 

And the Good News of Jesus Christ is this: “They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him.” It is to such people and among such people, that Jesus situates himself centrally. Elsewhere Jesus is clear that he came not for the healthy, but for the sick. Not for the righteous, but for the sinner. 

Jesus dwells with, stands condemned with, the criminal. The thief. The imprisoned. 

More, Barth goes on in his sermon to declare this: (Jesus with these two criminals) is “the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.” 

“Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. These may hear that everything he is, he is for them, and everything he does, he does for them. To live by this promise is to be a Christian community. The two criminals were the first certain Christian community.” 

Jesus not only dwells with the criminal, the thief, the imprisoned, these are the ones among whom he creates community. This is where church happens. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that one of these criminals mocks Jesus and the other acknowledges Jesus for who he is. And both alike find Love has dawn near. 

How does Paul famously it put it in the letter to the Romans? He doesn’t say, “Once we were on the road to being better….once we showed signs of getting our lives together…While we were yet sinners…Christ died for us.” 

It is at the cross that Jesus makes abundantly clear that it is with and for and alongside the prisoner that he abides and offers life. 

How often we have known ourselves cornered or walled in or having those thoughts again or crushed by our past, or crushed by their action toward us or beholden to our guilt… 

In our looking to our left to our right, have we ever, in the midst of that condemnation and failure…have we ever seen Jesus? 

“They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him.” 

  • This is where he dwells. 
  • These are the people with and for whom he dwells.
  • And these are the people, then, to whom his body on earth today, dwells.

“I was in prison, and you visited me.” 

A number of years ago, I was serving a congregation in Atlanta, and a congregant there was sentenced to prison. 

I went online to fill out the required paperwork and application and so forth for making a visit. Once eventually approved for a visit, I then set a date to make that happen – which required working with his family because a prisoner was only allowed one visitor per week, at a time. I then make this two-hour drive outside of Atlanta to this large, remote prison. 

Once I went through the doors, I needed to ensure everything was removed from my pockets and hands – so things like wallet, keys, phone – those were taken out and then remained with security for the duration of my time there. I then went through a long hallway with tile floors and thick, off-white walls and absolutely nothing on them. 

I get into a very heavy elevator, take it to the fourth floor, and eventually arrive outside of two large doors where I pick up a phone to let an official know I am there for a visit. 

The two doors begin to open, I walk through, and I am told I can take a seat at this chair 

in front of a thick piece of glass with a phone on either side: one for me…and one for this congregant once he came out. 

Now, I know prisons differ in terms of security and protocols, and so forth, but what struck me about arriving at this particular seat is how much sits between the visitor and the prisoner. 

Assuming you can get past some of the very real stigmatizations that we have about prisoners and ‘those people over there…” so assuming we do have a sense of what Barth talked about where we come among prisoners as prisoners… 

…even so, there is still the front-end paperwork, the coordinating of schedules, the long drive, the high security, the long hallways, the thick walls, the thick glass, and then the strict timeframe given for visiting itself… 

  • no matter how right or just a punishment… 
  • no matter how good the restorative justice program within those walls may be…
  • no matter how many prisoners there are (and the US is number one in the world for both the number of prisoners we have and prisoners per capita)…

No matter all of that, one of the more fundamental things about being in prison – it is really easy for the rest of society to completely forget about you. There are so many layers, so many walls – within and without. 

And yet what was the singular request of that second criminal next to Jesus? 

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Remember me.” 

Who is the Holy Spirit nudging us to remember? Who this day is behind so many walls – deserved or not or both? Literal or otherwise? And how might we communicate that remembrance? 

In his book Saved by Faith and Hospitality, theologian Joshua Jipp observes this about those behind literal walls: “One should not underestimate the importance of simple but consistent face-to-face visits with those who are incarcerated (or correspondence through phone conversations and writing letters) as a form of Christian hospitality. Our prison system successfully transforms its population into stigmatized, marginalized strangers.” 

“They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him.” 

Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell is a professor of theology at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, and a few years ago, she was offered a chance to do a year or two professorship at Yale Divinity studying ‘joy.’ 

And very soon after beginning this position, a close family member died by suicide. Less than a month later her father died from opioid addiction, and then quickly thereafter her 22-year old nephew died of sudden cardiac arrest. 

She writes about all of this in a recent book of hers, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of being Lost and Found. And a key part of the story is that during this season of intense grief and disillusionment (while studying and teaching about joy), she began volunteering to lead a Bible study at a maximum-security women’s prison where they assigned her to the section of women on suicide watch. And she does not sugarcoat how hard and hardened some of the realities she faced there were. 

But also, at one point she reflects on how she is also learning joy through these same women and hearing their hearts and their offerings. 

“Joy is circumstance agnostic. Things could be going really well, or things could be going really poorly, and joy can still reside in that space. Joy can breathe the same pungent air as grief. Joy can reside where suffering is, whereas happiness can’t really do that. Joy is able to live in close proximity to sorrow and suffering. Joy has grit.” 

“For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross…” 

Joy hangs between two criminals. 

Joy is what Dr. Gorrell will tell you she encountered through the women at this prison. And are we surprised? 

“I was in prison, and you visited me.” 

Part of the gift in remembering the forgotten is that in doing so we find ourselves also remembered. For we encounter in the face of the forgotten Christ himself ever-abiding with the prisoner. 

Perhaps another reason The Shawshank Redemption has endured as such a beloved, life-impacting movie, perhaps the most fundamental reason, is that not only does it declare the truth that we all face prisons of some form or another, it is also a story of an unlikely friendship between these two main characters, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. 

Which to say, it is a story where you discover in a very forgotten, terrifying place – the gift of being remembered. 

“Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

As a people who pray fervently, “thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” – what if God’s answer to our own prayer is us? Remembering the forgotten and the condemned as Jesus has done for us…and so bearing witness to a wholly different kind of kingdom on this earth. 

Who shall we remember? And what if in risking such remembrance, we discover just how remembered we are. 

I was in prison, and you visited me.” Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert