Sermon - Brad Brookins
Acts 16. 16-34
What must I do…?
In the first Lord of the Rings movie there is a scene where Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins are walking across a farm field on their way to Rivendell to seek the council and protection of the elves.
Right in the middle of the field Sam comes to a full stop and says, “This is it”. Frodo turns around and says, “This is what?” Sam’s face expresses something between thoughtfulness and fear. He says. “If I take one more step it‘ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been”.
Hobbits, as a rule, are not fond of adventures or long journeys, you may know. It is only Sam’s loyalty to Frodo that has brought him this far. Now one more step and he’s in new territory.
And it’s not just the distance he’s thinking about; it’s everything that comes with it. Step into a new place and you will see new things; meet new people. Some of them won’t look like you or talk like you or believe like you.
You will hear new ideas.
You may have to change your mind.
“It's a dangerous business…going out your door” Frodo’s Uncle Bilbo had told him. “You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
One more step, and you’re there…
Maybe you’ve been to that place—that edge where everything is about to change. I have; many times. And it’s scary; sometimes exciting, often it’s both.
But if you ever have the chance, it’s an experience not to be missed.
Good religion can bring you to the edge. In fact, it seems to me good religion is almost entirely lived on that edge of unknowing. This is God we’re talking about, you know. The Mystery of Divinity. The majestic Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all that is. If the contemplation of God doesn't bring us to the edge where we don’t know, can’t understand and might just need to be a little afraid, we aren’t paying attention.
Ruth Dobson brings our Bible study group to that edge pretty much every Sunday morning. We sit around the table and dangle our feet into the vast chasm of our ignorance. We wrestle with ideas most of us have never thought about before; ideas that sometimes undo what we have long held to be true.
Sometimes we even take that next step.
This blessed edge has, since ancient times, been called “liminal” space; “thin” space where the veil between heaven and earth, between us and God, becomes very thin and we can almost—almost see through. We catch a glimpse; we reach out.
And sometimes we take the step.
There is a character in today’s story from the book of Acts who is brought to that edge— very much against his will and beyond his understanding. He almost turns back; but then, he steps over.
The story goes like this:
Paul and Silas cross the Aegean Sea and land in Macedonia—just a little north of Greece. From the coast they trek inland to Philippi where they begin walking the streets looking for people to talk to.
The Philippians, and most everybody else in the empire for that matter, were thoroughly immersed in the religions of Greece and Rome. In this city there apparently were not even enough Jewish men—and it only took 10, to form a synagogue. At least there weren't enough who cared.
In Philippi, Paul and Silas discover just how difficult it is to translate the story of Jesus of Nazareth into words that can be heard by the Roman religious world.
The first thing they do is to make an awful mess.
There was a young slave girl in Philippi who possessed what Luke calls a “spirit of divination”. She was clairvoyant, in other words. She saw things; she told fortunes. Her owners, of course, took advantage of her talent and make a great deal of money off her.
Well, this little seer meets Paul and Silas on the street and she sees them—sees what everyone else misses. She begins following along, shouting behind them, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
At first Paul was annoyed; partly, I’m sure, because he preferred do his own preaching. This continued for several days, and Luke says Paul became “very much annoyed”. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he turned and said, not to the girl but to the spirit; “I order you to come out of her.” And it did.
And she lost her fortune-telling talent.
And her masters lost their fortune.
And they weren’t too happy about that.
The disgruntled slave owners incite a mob to haul Paul and Silas before the local authorities where they are stripped, beaten with rods and thrown into jail.
And here we meet the man who is at the center of the rest of the story.
We don’t know his name, which is really too bad, but we know he managed the Roman jail in Philippi. So we’ll call him Jailer.
Jailer was just this guy with a not very glamorous job. Not a difficult job, as government jobs go. All he has to do is keep the doors locked and his prisoners confined. Roman jails were well made. He has the key. Not much to it.
Until a couple of foreign trouble makers come to town, raise a ruckus, get themselves roughed up and tossed into his jail by the local powers. His orders? Keep them securely locked up. He doesn't know what they have done. He doesn’t really care. That’s not his business. He puts them in the innermost cell and fastens their feet in the stocks.
They likely were given no food or water; no attention was paid to their wounds. In Roman prisons, you see, prisoners depended on family and friends for such niceties. Paul and Silas were in for a long night.
From the start, though, they are a strange pair. They don’t act too put out over their confinement; they seem almost pleased. Jailer begins to doubt their sanity as they spend the evening singing religious songs and offering prayers to their God.
But isn’t that what faithful people should be doing when they are deep in trouble and waiting for God to act. Anyway, what else could they do but pray and sing. Still, it seemed to Jailer a strange religion that has people giving thanks for this kind of trouble.
Whatever. It wasn’t his concern. He checks the locks and goes off to bed.
At midnight the earth quakes. “The gods must be angry tonight,” is his first thought.
He finds the doors torn off his prison. Chains and stocks lie strewn about with, no prisoners attached. He assumes they have all fled.
Then he remembers the night before—the songs and prayers to a god he had never heard of, sung by men who had no hope of escape.
Now remember, 1st century Rome was a thoroughly religious, positively enchanted, place. The gods were everywhere. Their fingerprints were on everything—especially on strange and unexplainable events. Like earthquakes, for instance. Like chains falling off prisoners, for instance. These odd foreigners, Jailer thinks to himself, have a pretty powerful god on their side.
His conclusion was clear and immediate. “Their god did this. The god of these men— the men I held in prison, snapped his fingers, blew open the doors and set them free.
And now he’s coming for me”.
Who wants to fall into the hands of that god? Imagine the havoc a god of such power would visit on the body of a poor man like Jailer. There is no salvation, he believes, no safety before such raw strength and savage wrath.
Jailer has found the edge. His next step will be an eternal one.
He draws his sword. He would rather fall on his sword than fall into the hands of a god he does not know, cannot understand and fears with every fiber of his being. Death, he is sure, will be sweet compared to life before this earth quaking god.
Poor Jailer. He could use a little saving right about now.
And he gets it when Paul shouts out, “Don’t do that! We’re all here”.
Jailer grabs a torch, rushes into the dungeon and finds this is true. And just as suddenly, he is at another edge, another place of un-knowing; a very thin place; a very holy place.
This next step, if he takes it, will also be eternal.
He steps. Falling to his knees he cries, “What must I do to be saved?”
But Jailer isn’t asking what we usually think he is asking. He’s not asking “How do I get forgiven?” or “How do I get to heaven?”
He’s asking Paul, “How do I get what you’ve got?” He wants to be on the right side of the God who shatters Roman prisons like Tinker Toys, and sets people free.
What he seeks is not salvation from his sins, you see, but from his ignorance. The prisoners are free. Jailer sees that now. He is the one in prison; and he wants out. He wants to live free.
“What must I do to find the life you are living?” From this very thin and holy place Jailer glimpses the possibility of a world where divine kindness is a birthright; where divine grace is the air to be breathed; where God is to be welcomed rather than feared.
Those aren’t the words he would use, of course, but that’s the picture Luke is painting with this story.
Paul’s answer is simple—though it will take Jailer and his family the rest of their lives to unpack all that it means for them. “Trust Jesus”, Paul says.
“Trust Jesus, and you will begin, right now, living this life. Trust the one who breaks open prisons and sets people free.” When life is the prison, trust is the way out. Trust, you see, is life. Trusting is living.
It really is that simple.
And that complicated.
Trust is life.
Right about now, we could all use a little of that saving, don’t you think?
The full text for this week is below. It would be useful to read it one more time before tackling these questions. Have fun.
1. Imagine falling into conversation at Sjolinds one day, over a chocolate torte and a cup pf dark roast, with someone who is as unfamiliar with your faith as the Philippians were with Paul’s. She’s not antagonistic, she just has never had to consider ideas about God and faith. She doesn’t know the language. She has no emotional investment in religion—certainly not yours. “I want what you’ve got”, she says. “Tell me about your God…” What would you say?
2. v. 30 “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” This may be a challenge.
A. What does “saved” mean in this sentence? Support your definition either from Scripture or from your earlier education—why do you think this?
B. Outside the New Testament, the Greek noun “salvation” (soteria) and the Greek verb “to be saved” (sozo) are not primarily religious words. They are used to describe physical health, safety, well being and freedom—with little or no connotation of heavenly or afterlife well being. That is to say, as far as this word goes, being “saved” does not equal getting into heaven. The New Testament writers very often (perhaps most often) use these words with the same physical, this-life meaning. In Matthew 9.22, for instance, when Jesus heals the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and says, “Your faith has made you well”, the Greek phrase is “Your faith has saved (sozo) you”. Read vs 23-30 again and go on to the next questions:
C. Do a little detective work on this story. What does the jailer know about Paul and Silas—what can you conclude just from the story?
D. 1st century people lived in a very enchanted world. The gods were everywhere and involved in natural events. An earthquake happens. The jail is seriously damaged; the prisoners who were singing praises to their God are miraculously set free (saved), but don’t run. If Paul’s God is breaking open the prison and setting Rome’s prisoners free, what do you suppose this probably illiterate, probably pagan, probably very religious jailer is thinking Paul’s God will do to him?
E. Keep in mind the common, on the street meaning of “salvation”. What (or who) is the jailer asking to be saved from and to?
F. Who is saved first in this story, and how? Hint—it’s not the jailer.
G. Paul holds the freed prisoners in jail and thus saves (that word again) the jailer’s life. Why does he do this? What does his action communicate to the jailer?
3. vs. 30-31 “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered,
‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and
H. Does Paul give a “rabbit answer” to the jailer’s question? Why or why not? What do you think he is telling the jailer to do?
This is really nerdy, I know, but perhaps helpful. “Believe (the Greek word is “pisteuo” which you may remember from 2 weeks ago. It means “to trust” ) on (or in, but not about) the Lord Jesus Christ (what could this have meant to a pagan, Roman jailer) and you will be saved (the phrase “you will be saved” is all one word in Greek—“sothese”; and it’s in the future passive tense—meaning it will happen to him in the future. It would be better, if more clumsily, translated “you will be being saved”. The way the Greek is phrased, Paul is telling the jailer his salvation would not be a one time event, but an ongoing way of life from here on out) you and your household.’”
4. We’ve had this question before: What’s the difference between believing “in” and believing “about” and why is this distinction important?
5. What is Paul offering the jailer? (“Salvation” would be the rabbit answer here. Be more specific.)
6. v. 31: “You and your household…” How does my belief (trust) in Jesus “save” my children, spouse, parents, servants and everyone else living under my roof? What does Paul mean here?
7. v. 34: “his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” The jailer was likely already a believer in god. He now believes in a different God. Imagine what it would be like to change gods, or to change sides in what you have always seen as the battle of the gods. What risks would you be taking? What if you chose the wrong side?
8. Are you on the right side now? Are you being saved? How do you know?
9. Luke frames this story as a confrontation between the “Most High God” of Israel and the “Most High God” of human empire. Our heroes are in stocks, behind locked doors in the innermost cell of the enemy prison. God snaps God’s fingers and sets them free (saves them). What response to this story is Luke looking for from us?
Acts 16. 16-34
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.
28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ 36And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.’ 37But Paul replied, ‘They have beaten us in public, un-condemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.’
38The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.