Lent 4 A, 2011
Acts 16:16-34 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. While 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.” She 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. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly 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. When 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He 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.
For the last five weeks, I’ve invited you to join me on a Lenten journey of prayer and fasting, as we considered how we can better reach out to our friends, family, and neighbors with the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We first talked about why we needed to be intentional and deliberate about that sharing; next we talked about the heart of the Good News – that we’re all really messed up people, but that in Jesus Christ God loves us anyhow. Two weeks ago we looked at some of the reasons why we resist sharing the gospel with others, and last week we heard that we, and no one else, determine who our neighbors are. Today, finally, we’re going to consider some specific strategies for how to share God’s love with other people by looking at the conversion of a jailer and his entire household. I believe this story tells us an awful lot of what we need to know and to do to be Christ’s ambassadors to everyone we meet.
Follow this story, from Acts 16, in your Bibles with me. Make notes in the margin or in your bulletin: I find five steps in this story for effectively sharing the love of God with others.
1. Call out the demons. Paul, Silas, Luke, and perhaps others have established a congregation in Philippi in the home of Lydia. Every time Paul and the others go down to the river to pray, a slave-girl with the gift of telling fortunes points to them and yells, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Her owners made a lot of money from her fortune telling. On one hand, you’d think this would be great advertising for Paul and Silas, but they don’t want to be associated with this girl and her owners and their profiteering. It’s also apparent that the girl is not yelling this as an endorsement, but as a complaint – in the Bible, the demons acknowledge that God is God – they just don’t like it very much. So Paul, annoyed, exorcises her of the demon by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now deprived of their income, the girl’s owners have Paul and the others arrested for upsetting the economics of the town. People will put up with all kinds of foolishness until it begins to affect their pocketbooks. If you want to get yourself beaten and thrown in jail, upset the financial status quo.
The primary task of the church, said David Harned, is to point out the idols in the marketplace, in the land, and in ourselves, and to point to the times and places where God is at work freeing the slaves. You and I need to stand for the truth – which is that we are all fallen and in sin, but that God loves us anyway. We need to call out the false gods of popularity and greed and prejudice and war, and point people to the God who alone is worthy of our worship. Everything you and I do communicates whom and what we worship – and the hard truth is that you and I buy just as much into the idols that this world worships as anyone else. We should be challenging the priorities and values and, yes, the economics every bit as much as did Paul and Silas. And we also must expect the same treatment they received when at school and at work and with friends and in the marketplace we follow the Most High God. Our lives have to witness to a different Kingdom. If our lives aren’t any different, then anything else we say about the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a lie.
2. In all circumstances, especially in the dungeon, pray and praise. Beaten, chained in the stocks, Paul and Silas pray and sing. What did they sing? As good Jews, they probably sang the psalms, which proclaim faith in God despite suffering. They sang songs of praise and thanksgiving. Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul wrote later to the same Christians at Philippi, do not worry about anything, but with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known to God. In 1736 John Wesley was traveling across the Atlantic to become the first pastor in Savannah, Georgia. In the ship with John, his brother Charles, and another Oxford classmate was a group of Moravian Christians from Germany. Moravians were the ancestors of the Church of the Brethren today. During a terrifying storm in the middle of the ocean, John Wesley was convinced he was going to die and was overcome with fear. The Moravians, on the other hand, sat below decks calmly singing hymns. When Wesley asked the Moravian pastor how they could be so calm, the pastor responded, “Our women and children aren’t afraid to die and to be with the Lord.” Realizing he didn’t have that kind of assurance of his own salvation, Wesley embarked upon a three year spiritual journey that led to his awakening and to the forming of our own denomination.
The strongest witness you and I can offer others is to demonstrate that, no matter what is going on around us, we know that Jesus is Lord, and that we are with him now and always. When our bank accounts collapse, when our health fails, when we are deep in the darkest prison, we should give thanks and praise for God’s love in Jesus. It’s an incredible witness to the prisoners all around us. Fifty years later, Wesley’s last words on his deathbed were I’ll praise . . . I’ll praise.
3. Love others above yourself. When an earthquake destroys the prison and breaks the prisoners’ chains, Paul and Silas stay in place. The jailer, thinking the prisoners have escapes, prepares to kill himself, but Paul prevents him. Instead of taking advantage of the situation for their own freedom and at the expense of the jailer’s life, Paul and Silas sacrifice their freedom for the sake of their captor and his family, who live above the jail.
One of the most moving sports stories in the last couple of years was of the girl’s softball team when, in the bottom of the last inning, a girl hit a game-winning home run but broke her foot running to first base. The rules say that her teammates can’t help her around the bases, and if she didn’t touch all the bases, the run wouldn’t count. So the girls on the other team picked her up and carried her around the bases, touching her foot to each one and finally to home, where she scored the run that beat them. That action gathered the losing team far more fame than they would ever have received by winning. When you and I sacrifice our privilege for the sake of people who are in distress, it changes lives. After all, that’s what Jesus did, and if we’re going to follow him, then we need to follow him.
4. When people cry out for deliverance, tell them about Jesus. The jailer, overwhelmed that these Christians have protected him, asks to know how to be saved. Friends, people are asking that question every day, but you and I are so caught up in ourselves that we don’t notice. If you really listen, you’ll hear people talking about their struggles with their marriages, their children, their parents, their jobs, their dreams, their finances, their health, their faith. When I was doing hospital chaplaincy, I learned about “doorway moments” – I would visit a patient in their hospital room, ask them how they were, and the entire conversation would be in unrevealing generalities. But often, when I got up to leave and stood at the door saying good-bye, the patient would toss off something really significant – “I’ll see you tomorrow if I make it through the night” or “I just hope the hospital doesn’t take everything I own to pay the bill.” I had to learn to not throw those comments away with “Oh, you’ll be fine,” but to stop, come back in the room, and ask them if that’s how they really felt. And that’s when the real ministry would happen. People throw out those lines to us all the time, and tell us they’re just kidding. But they’re not. Listen and you’ll hear people asking how to be saved. And that’s the opportunity to tell them that you’re messed up, too, but that Jesus loves you and them, and that their life can be different if they’ll call on Jesus.
5. Show them what to do. Paul baptizes the jailer and his whole family. He tells them about Jesus, invites them to make a commitment, baptizes them, and brings them into Christian community. That’s exactly what I’ve been asking you to pray about the last five weeks – for God to give you the opportunity to tell someone in your life about the love of God and invite them to experience Christian community here on Easter Sunday. Don’t just invite them to believe – help them put flesh on belief here in the gathered Body of Christ.
Let me give you a specific and easy way to initiate a conversation with someone about faith. If you will ask God for the opening -- and pay attention -- there will be a moment in a conversation you are having with a friend when something will come up that you’ve been studying in Bible Study or Sunday School or youth group or maybe even that you heard in a sermon. Maybe your friend talks about how sometimes he or she gets really down on him or herself, feeling as if they have no value and feel so frustrated with being so unlovable. That’s an opening for you to say, “You know, we were talking about that in church recently – about how we’re all messed up, every single one of us. But the amazing thing is that God knows how messed we are and loves us anyhow. That helps me when I’m down on myself. And my friends at church really show me that love whenever I’m with them. I don’t know what I’d do without them showing me how much God loves me. How about you?”
We easily share our favorite sports teams, TV shows, movies, gossip, recipes, songs, jokes, and stories. Someone tells us something, and we say, That reminds me of a song . . . a joke . . . it’s like that movie . . . you, know one time I . . . All we have to do is exactly the same about Jesus. You know, that is like the time Jesus . . . last week at church we were talking about . . . there’s a hymn about that. . . Call out the false idols. Pray and praise without ceasing. Put others first. Tell people about Jesus. Show them what to do.
It will change your life, and it will change the world.
 Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religions, Westminster Press, 1968.