The cost of faith
May 8, 2016, Acts 16:16-34
Today is the last Sunday in the Season of Easter. This year the lessons in worship have most Sundays also been the main lesson in Kids’ Power Hour. That has been intentional; we hope that families will talk about what the Bible says, what the preacher said and what was taught in the classroom. We really need each other to learn the gospel and grow in faith. And, as I told our 3rd graders this morning, we also need the Holy Spirit as we read and interpret the Bible.
I have never preached on today’s two passages from Acts. I keep records of sermons and about a year ago I sat down with a Bible and my pastoral record book and found that I had only preached sermons on less than 20% of the Bible! And I’ve been preaching more than 25 years! At that point I challenged myself to preach texts I have never preached before. A member pointed out to me that I’m trying to raise my “Earned scripture average.” As a baseball fan, I have delighted in turning the task of preaching into something resembling baseball statistics.
But this effort also means that I’m preaching less and less familiar passages and thus having to do more explaining of the texts, I have to spend more time putting the readings in context if we’re going to leave worship with a challenge or something to think about. Which brings us to these two reading from Acts.
A few weeks ago we learned about how dramatically Paul came to know the grace of Christ and how he turned from being a persecutor of “the Way,” to its most effective messenger. He took his show on the road and traveled in what is today Greece and Turkey and used his Roman citizenship and his deep knowledge of Judaism to present the gospel of Christ to a wide variety of audiences.
Two weeks ago we heard about Silas and Paul’s trip across the Aegean Sea from modern day Turkey to Macedonia, in what is today Greece, to a leading city called Philippi. It appears that there was not a synagogue in Philippi, so he went to a spot outside the city where there were some “believers in God” who had gathered to pray on the Sabbath. He spoke to them and one of them, a business woman named Lydia, accepted what he said about Christ, and was baptized, along with everyone in her household. Then she forced her hospitality on Paul, Silas, and possibly Luke. [The author of the Gospel of Luke was also the author of the Book of Acts. Sometimes “we” appears in Acts and it’s probable that Luke was actually present for those parts of the book.] As it turns out, the church that grew after Paul’s visit to Philippi was one of the early successes for Paul. If you read his letter to the Philippians, you’ll find it filled with joy and affection for his sisters and brothers in faith there. Which might not be surprising, given the initial enthusiasm that Lydia showed for Paul’s message, but it is quite surprising after the events recounted in our first lesson this morning.
We looked at this passage with some care at Evergreen on Wednesday. It’s interesting, and needs some explanation: Paul and Silas, and perhaps also Luke and Timothy were going through Philippi sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. “A slave-girl who had a spirit of divination” would follow them and cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
We don’t know the girl’s name. We don’t know how old she is. It appears that she was possessed by a spirit that enabled her to tell people’s fortunes, and this ability brought a lot of money to her owners. It also appears that it is this same spirit that possessed her to identify Paul and fellow travelers as God’s messengers. A spirit of possession made her able to tell the truth about Paul and his mission to one and all.
It’s also interesting that the slave-girl identifies Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God.” There is no shame in being a slave to Christ. One explanation for the white collars that some ministers wear is that it is a reminder of the collar slaves wore in Roman times.
But this slave-girl was irritating. I wish there were another way to say that, but irritating is really the best I can do. Think about it this way, most of you are Packer fans, and you share a lot of knowledge about the team and its history and camaraderie with other Packer fans…but sometimes, don’t you find one of them who is kind of grating? You’re on the same side, root for the same team, but still you’d prefer not to sit next to this person at Lambeau…that’s how I imagine this slave girl.
After putting up with the girl for a few days, Paul finally loses patience, and casts the spirit that enables this girl to tell fortunes out of her. Her owners are furious, so they took Paul and Silas to the police, and accused them of…something…and a crowd assembled. Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and thrown into the deepest part of the jail and their legs were locked in chains.
It’s really, really hard for us to imagine suffering like this. We who have never been persecuted, or suffered or even really been inconvenienced by following Christ, to be humiliated, beaten and imprisoned is hard to imagine. Would any of us approach treatment like this as Paul and Silas did? Would you be praying and singing hymns at midnight after this kind of treatment? What hymns would you sing…in prison…for the guard and the other prisoners to hear? Remember, you’ve also been unjustly flogged. Would that change your tunes?
Then an earthquake hits the prison and all the prisoners could go free, but they don’t. Paul and Silas are conspicuous in staying in their cells. The jailer—who had been asleep—trembles with fear in Paul and Silas’s presence and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
I have to say it isn’t clear what the jailer is asking. After he realized that the earthquake had probably freed the prisoners he was ready to kill himself, presumably for having failed at his job as a prison guard. But with the prisoners choosing to stay even though they are no longer physically restrained, what danger was he in?
The jailer’s question is odd. And Paul’s answer is, perhaps, odder. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It is very strange to hear “believe on,” instead of “believe in.” I was very surprised to find “believe on” in the New Revised Standard Version, the most modern translation I typically use, while “believe in” appears in the Revised Standard Version, which is about 40 years older. This little word sent me off to do some research. People do not say “believe on” in modern English, and the New Revised Standard Version went from “believe in” to “believe on,” there had to be a reason for that tiny, but significant change. And as near as I can tell it’s just for emphasis, to believe on is to express a deeper level of trust than to believe in. It’s as though believing on is closer to “relying on,” than simply “trusting in.” Paul makes it clear that the stakes are high, believing on Jesus Christ saves not only the jailer, but also his whole family!
It’s a most interesting contrast here in Philippi. Paul wins two converts to The Way. Lydia is a prominent, Jewish woman who hears Paul speak outside, in the light of day and accepts the gospel with great enthusiasm—and is baptized along with her whole household—and compels Paul to accept her hospitality. That was our story two weeks ago.
Then we have the jailer, who was asleep while on duty, who was so afraid he was ready to kill himself, who was seconds later trembling before Paul and Silas because he recognized their great power, or perhaps their connection to God’s great power. And in the middle of the night, the jailer washed Paul and Silas’s wounds, had his whole family baptized, took Paul and Silas into his home and fed them and rejoiced in knowing the living God.
The contrasts in these two stories are stark. Just as the contrast between Paul former life as a persecutor of the church to being its most passionate advocate is stark.
Everyone, everyone, everyone is included in the message of reconciliation in Christ that Paul preaches. Everyone, everyone, everyone. And the joy that Paul knew in Philippi came after he had been severely persecuted and suffered enormous physical pain.
And his faith is exactly what Jesus commended to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember these words?
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who went before you.
I’ve heard those words all my life, but I’ve never come close to having to suffer for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What would it be like to live in place where following Christ was illegal? What would it mean to your faith if you suffered for it? Would you feel blessed when the majority was reviling and cursing you? I marvel at that, and wonder about the depth of my own faith and commitment to Christ. It has never been a struggle for me to follow Christ. Still, we should give thanks for those who did struggle to pass the faith on to us, and be inspired by their example, to make the faith our own so we can pass it on to those who will come after us. Amen.