Witnesses - Week Six: "What Must I Do?"
This is what is known as the Season of Easter in the historic church calendar, and until next week we'll be continuing to celebrate Easter, and today we'll also be concluding our sermon series, "Witnesses."
Because where we are in respect to Easter Sunday is about the time that those first-century followers of Christ were asking a question--which is the same question you and I ought to be asking, too: "Jesus rises. Now what?"
It's a good thing that we are not alone in asking this very question. Jesus' disciples wondered the same thing, and almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead. We know this because of the book of Acts.
I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.
It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.
It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.
I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you? But how did this happen, really? It was because of witnesses.
That's what this sermon series is all about---a bunch of people living differently. Living a Resurrection life because they witnessed something that changed them forever.
And we have a chance at this. To bear witness to what has been raised to a new life in us--to live a Resurrection life. Today we are going to be concluding this sermon series by exploring what it means to share the news of Resurrection, to share the Good News of Jesus without fear.
Our conversation partner for today's sermon comes to us from one of the more familiar stories in the book of Acts---the story of Paul & Silas in the Philippian jail from Acts 16:16-34.
Before we jump into the sermon today let me tell you a story of a time when I took my church youth group on the wrong kind of mission trip.
I was serving as the director of student ministries at a large church in Evanston, IL and the plans that my predecessor had made for a junior high mission trip fell apart and I was left to figure out what to do.
My assistant and I found an organization that was doing an urban mission trip to Nashville, TN. They made it sound awesome. We would be working on houses in a neighborhood that had been once one of the biggest drug neighborhoods in Nashville. Among other things.
What I didn't know was that this particular "mission" group wasn't really all about doing missional work in the aforementioned neighborhood. They were all about cold witnessing. I mean the kind of witnessing where you went around asking people if they knew where they would spend eternity.
At one point we found ourselves in the Opry Mills Mall walking around looking for people to share the Good News with. The Good News that they were probably going to hell.
It sucked. In case you were wondering.
We were rejected, cussed at, reviled, you name it. And the one real conversation I was actually having with some goth kids in the food court was hijacked by the idiot kid who was one of our "leaders."
He had grown impatient while I was trying to develop a rapport and get to know the kids we were talking to--trying to show my kids that you didn't have to be a jerk in order to share your faith. So he up and blurts out finally, "We're really here to help you come to know Jesus. Do you know where you will spend eternity?"
So here's the thing. None of us want to go through rejection. We don't want to be subjected to having someone react negatively to us if we start talking about our faith... so most of us choose not to risk it.
And we also don't want to be that guy. You know, the guy who says the wrong thing, acts awkwardly, is obnoxious, offensive... like the poor kid who I was with at the mall.
So we keep our witness to ourselves. We hide our light.
But here's the thing, there are all kinds of people in the world around us who need to hear a word of hope. There are scores of people who you encounter on a daily basis who are in prison of their own making and who need to be told what true freedom is all about...
And we can do that. We can speak grace and peace into their lives. This is ultimately what it means to be a witness to the Resurrection... to actually bear that witness into the world in ways that are winsome, wonderful, and winning.
In fact, that's what I want us to hold on to today as we take the last step in our journey through the book of Acts for this series:
We are living a Resurrection life when we become unafraid to share the story of how God is saving the world.
Let's take a look at our passage of Scripture today:
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.
23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
Let's break this down a bit...
The whole story begins when Paul heals a slave girl who is possessed with the "Spirit of Python"---a spirit of divination, the ability to tell the future. The slave girl accosts Paul and Silas every day as they go to prayer and finally Paul gets so annoyed he heals her.
Why Paul didn't take pity on her the first time she accosted them is not clear, but he finally does heal her and her masters are suddenly left without their meal ticket.
A word about the translation "The Spirit of Python" is probably in order. This is a clue that she is connected to the cult of Apollo Palatinus, the sun god and the god most closely connected with Caesar Augustus---who did very little to dissuade people from making the connection.
According to legend, Apollo killed the giant snake god Python in his sanctuary at Delphi, where there was a famous oracle. So it could be that the phrase "spirit of Python" was connected to fortune telling.
Augustus-was is often known as the "son of the most high." So you can see that something funky is going on when the slave girl keeps declaring that Paul and Silas are servants of the "Most High God."
The owners then go on to accuse Paul and Silas, not of theft, or damage to property, but sedition. Their accusations take on a nationalistic tone and also are steeped in anti-Semitic fervor.
The magistrates of the city order that Paul and Silas be summarily stripped naked and flogged publicly. This process was known as coercitio, the word we get coercion from and was a way that the Romans would get evidence from suspects and to make an example of them to others who might be tempted to commit similar offenses.
It was a punishment meant for non-Roman citizens and so Paul would have been exempt from it had he exerted his rights. He didn't do so, it seems---or at the very least if he did they ignored it.
Then Paul and Silas are thrown into prison---but even that wasn't good enough for these enemies of the state. They are thrown into the center of the prison which was a space reserved for the worst criminals, who were often put there to die. They are put into stocks which would have stretched their cut and bleeding limbs and back in horrible ways.
Then they start singing and praising God. Some scholars believe that they may have sung Psalms like Psalm 102:19-20:
“The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Or maybe Psalm 79:11
May the groans of the prisoners come before you; with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
And they may have concluded with Psalm 107:10, 13-16
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains, He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.
Then the jailhouse rocks. Literally.
The jail comes apart crashing all around the prisoners and freeing them all from their bonds, including Paul and Silas. When this happens the jailer comes running in and is about to commit suicide. He knows that if any prisoners escape under his watch his life is forfeit. That's how the Romans worked. Suicide was preferable to disgrace.
It appears from the text that he believes he might be the object of divine retribution for the way he treated Paul and Silas, who now appear to actually be servants of "The Most High God."
But the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are all still present and accounted for despite the fact that they could have taken off and run to freedom.
Then the jailer asks an incredible question: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
This is really a question for the ages, isn't it? A better translation of this question is, "Gentlemen, will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?" I know that when I was growing up, the preachers who used this passage of Scripture in their sermons read a whole lot into the motives behind this question.
The bottom line is this: This jailer knew nothing of Jesus, of Heaven or Hell. He knew that something incredible had happened, that his life was in danger and that he needed rescue and deliverance.
So here's one of the many things that we can learn from this amazing story:
It cost Paul and Silas to be in the right place at the right time--because it enabled them to share a bigger story of freedom to all those in prison.
Here's a question for you: "Are you willing to be uncomfortable in order to tell someone about your faith? Are you willing to risk feeling awkward to share your story?"
Most of us would probably say, "No way!"
So why don't we ask it another way:
Are we willing to be uncomfortable to help people find freedom?
At this point you're saying, "Oh come on Preacher, you're not fighting fair! And besides, there's no way I am ever going to become one of those annoying, Christians who drives people away from Jesus! Not gonna happen!"
Fair enough, but what if I had a way for you to speak some grace and peace into people's lives so that they can find their way to freedom? And what if I told you it is in three basic steps?
Still not convinced? Well, hang on. You can do this. And here's how:
First, you need to be willing to put your story out there and embrace vulnerability because the risk of rejection is worth the reward of openness.
I need to say this, though. Not everyone has earned the right to hear your story. There are certain people who are not safe to share your story with, and there are certain places that are not safe spaces to share. You have to guard your heart to some extent.
But you can't let this keep you from being open to vulnerability in those moments when you just know that what you have to say is so important and so real and so true that it must be heard by whoever you are telling it to.
Second, you need to be willing to be connected to those in pain and embrace empathy because people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
This is important. The people around you are not objects. They are not obstacles to be overcome. If you are simply bent on sharing information, telling people all the ways that you imagine they are getting it wrong, and how they can turn things around and get it right---you're doing it wrong.
So many Christians think they are being so magnanimous and gracious because they tolerate people they disagree with, or who they think are on the outside looking in. And so when they share their faith they seem disingenuous because they are.
Tolerance isn't a virtue. Empathy is a virtue. Why do you think Jesus got in line and got baptized by John the Baptist. Do you think it's because he was a dirty rotten stinking sinner that needed to repent? Why do this?
Because Jesus wanted to show us all that he was with us in that line. He empathized with us in every way.
And until you learn to love like Jesus and stand in line with the marginalized, the broken, the messed up, the lost and lonely, the jaded, the atheists, agnostics, lepers, poor, blind, lame, naked and afraid... don't speak.
Finally, we need to be willing to speak the right words of freedom and embrace courage because we have the greatest news in the history of ever and we need to share it.
Here's the cool part of the story... No matter what his intention, the answer to the question is the same: "Believe in the Lord Jesus..."
N.T. Wright wrote about this moment, "Believe in the Lord Jesus is always the answer to the question of how to be rescued at whatever level and whatever sense..."
When Paul answers the jailer in the way that he does it's not a changing of the subject---it's a deepening of it.
What he is sharing at that moment is a truth that transcends all other truths. When you decide to spend your life stumbling after Jesus, it will be a life well-spent. You can experience eternal life, both now--and forever.
Because of Jesus you don't have to fear sin and death any longer. Evil doesn't get to win. The arc of the story bends toward resurrection, justice, and light. The darkness cannot overcome it.
Tell that story. Tell it all day, every day to anyone who will listen. Tell them how to step into living a Resurrection Life
Because we are living a Resurrection Life when we become unafraid to share the story of how God is saving the world.