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.

I’ve really enjoyed preparing Bible Study month sermons; I mean it’s been like bootcamp for my brain after six months of watching Netflix and taking care of Anna, but it’s been really gratifying to read and read and read and find ways to educate my community about this great book of the Bible. What has been difficult though is finding a singular message from the passages I’ve been given, particularly the passage for this week. I am a one point sermon kinda gal. Most of my sermons all point to a single take-home message. But really, good bible study rarely leaves us with one point, one idea, one new way of thinking. Good, mature bible study is an opportunity to explore the profound depths of scripture; there are layers and layers of meaning and impact, and each time we explore, we might see or learn something differently than we had before. In any case, this will not be a one-point sermon. There are probably twenty take home messages for today. My prayer is that at least one will be of benefit to you and your Christian journey.

The first thing to say about the passage we have before us is that it’s weird. It’s a weird text, and it leaves us wondering why Luke decided to have it as part of his narrative. It is important to note that while the book of Acts reads with some pace and urgency, leaving us wondering why our faith journey is boring by comparison, the stories of Acts take place over at least thirty years. It is also important to note that Luke wrote Acts for the people around him at the time; I don’t imagine he could comprehend its incorporation into our holy Scriptures today. So I imagine that for Luke’s original readers, the purpose this narrative was to emphasise the ongoing, tangible activity of God in the story of the early church. The story would have shown those early followers that while Jesus was no longer among them, God had not deserted them as well; rather, God was still very much active in healing, and in the opening of doors and chains. Be encouraged and have faith, early church; see what God is still doing. Perhaps this purpose still rings true for us today – have faith, dear church, even in our current post-Christendom, increasingly pluralistic, increasingly secular, post-truth world; God is still very much at work.

But I think that the way Luke emphasises God’s movement and action is to contrast it with forces of darkness and evil in the story. I’m not sure what you believe about this kind of thing, but for my part, I do believe that there are forces of darkness and evil in the world that can be rebuked in God’s name; I’ll explore that more in a sermon in a couple of weeks.

A friend of mine, who some of you who are involved with ESL met a couple of years ago, Bridget Ocean, was called to Ashfield Uniting Church/Exodus Mission after her ordination. Exodus works primarily with those on the margins of society in the Inner West – addicts, the homeless, prostitutes and so on. Bridget, perhaps with cheerful naivete and perhaps with a sense that God was on her side, began her work there. And it had an impact in the community. Some came to faith. Addicts and prostitutes started to drop into the centre where they would find hospitality, prayer and affirmation that they were more than their dehumanising lifestyles.

But then, as Bridget describes, forces of darkness began to rise. Hateful letters began to arrive. Violent behaviour became more common. The people of the congregation complained about the “quality” of people entering their space. And in the most sinister way, Bridget became ill with an odd disease, and became completely incapacitated. She believes she was only healed through urgent and prolonged prayer, and that the illness was a result of walking into a forcefield of darkness and challenging it with the gospel. The dark powers that had affected the lives of so many in the area were striking back.

I don’t tell you this story to be melodramatic; many people go through a full lifetime of faithful ministry without events like this. But sometimes it does happen. Have you had experiences of dark forces?

Back to the story: Paul, Silas, Timothy and it seems Luke, who has inserted himself into the story, had walked into this city where all kinds of forces were at work. For the sake of clarity, let me identify three. The first is strange spiritual forces. The Greek world in which this story is situated knew all about divination; people regularly went to places like Delphi to ask the priestess of Apollo for advice on everything from getting married to declaring war. A lot of the time, according to historical documents, this system of divination was merely a matter of cynical people making a profit out of simple souls, like the minders of this young possessed woman making good money out of her. So much was she simply a tool of trade than an actual human that she is not even given a name.

This woman found herself following Paul and Silas and yelling after them, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” What’s wrong with her statement, you might ask? The statement is true, but not in the sense that she meant it or that people would understand it. “God most high” to the Philippian people would not have meant the God of Abraham, the one God of Jewish monotheism. It would mean either Zeus or whoever people thought of as the top god among the pantheon. She says they proclaim A way of salvation, not THE way of salvation. And salvation wouldn’t have meant what it means to Jews or Christians today – entry into the Kingdom of God, overcoming sin and death. Salvation for them would have meant health, prosperity, or rescue from disaster (and keep this in mind for the last part of the story). Anyway, this publicity was probably something Paul could do without; he also may have felt quite sorry for the young enslaved woman. So eventually he turns around and in the name of Jesus, he exorcises her.

Here comes the second dark force: the profit motive. The girl’s minders were suddenly bereft of their profits. So they turn nasty, and themselves invoke the third dark force: religious and political prejudice. They drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates, naming and shaming them as Jews advocating customs which we Romans should not adopt or observe. These men aren’t our sort. They are trying to change our way of life. They are anti-Roman.

Ring any bells, anyone? Boy do we see this today. Those immigrants are stealing our jobs! Those boat people are bypassing the system! Those Muslims with their burqas are freaking me out! Those homosexuals want marriage now? This happens all the time: a hostile appeal to cultural-political identity that labels the “other” as different, and therefore as dangerous and as a legitimate target of persecution and violence.

It works though. This combination of religion, money and politics work together to strip, flog and jail Paul and Silas. Perhaps this is what happens to those who challenge the powers of the world with the power of the gospel.

Midnight comes, and the jail listens to Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns to God – hymns of praise for being God’s servants in the face of injustice. Much like there are many hymns about the church being a family, there are also countless hymns about rejoicing in our suffering. And it’s a seductive thing, to see ourselves in Paul and Silas, to think of ourselves as having superhero-like faith in the face of persecution, to believe that, were we falsely accused, stripped, beaten, shackled and thrown into jail, we would respond not by crying like a baby or being immobilized by fear and hatred, but by praying and singing hymns in the darkness. We need to remember though that, and I’m hazarding a guess here, none of us has been close to a situation like this. We live in Australia, where it really is safe to be Christian. And perhaps if we are faced with true hardship, we might surprise ourselves, but speaking for myself, given how I respond to minor irritation, that superhero response seems unlikely. I lose faith if I run out of milk for my coffee at home. Friends, we read from the context we are in; we read this text from a predominantly white, rich majority. How might you read this text if you were literally in prison? If you were literally persecuted for your faith? If you were constantly living in fear of yet another earthquake ruining your home? Our reading lens matters.

Earthquakes in the Bible are almost always synonymous with God shaking the foundations of the world. So an earthquake erupts, shaking the penal and judicial systems of the era, opening doors and unshackling the prisoners. All the prisoners. Not just the ones praying and singing. This is my favourite part of this passage, because I think Luke is saying that the faith of these two was enough for the liberation of the whole group, in the same way that the belief of the jailer was enough for the liberation of his whole household. Perhaps Luke is saying to the early followers and to us that sometimes we need to rely on the faith, the songs, the prayers of others. If we are to be part of a Christian community, a family, then maybe faith is a communal gift. Maybe Christianity is a team sport, not an individual competition. Maybe in the times when we are doubtful or fearful or depressed or angry, it is the faith of the rest of this family that will carry us, and vice versa. Maybe in the times when all we can see is darkness, we need our family to shine light for us.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” How many of you have heard this as part of a sermon or altar call or something? Let me bring you some education on this! Many preachers want their congregations to ask this question themselves, so that they can be ready with Paul’s answer about believing in Jesus, and so they invest the jailer’s question with the lens of a much later generation of conscience-stricken Westerners. From Augustine to Luther and beyond, that question came with a strong sense that there was a heaven and a hell, that some would go to the former and be saved, and others to the latter and be damned, and that it’s fairly important to be sure where one stood.

The thing is, the Philippian jailer had no sense of this. In his pagan world, there were many theories about the afterlife, but none of them was anything as clear and precise as the medieval heaven-and-hell idea that dominated later Western thought. In biblical times, there was no understanding of heaven and hell. Rather, Jesus frequently spoke of being saved as being akin to being healed; for example in Luke 4, “your faith has saved you” meant “your faith has made you well.” So to be saved meant to be rescued or delivered from problems.

Here is a better translation of the question, not word for word, but capturing the sense of the jailer’s frantic question: “Gentlemen, I am in so much trouble; how do I get out of this mess?” Their response? “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” What does this mean, in the context of the jailer’s plea?

Let’s go back to basics. The Christian worldview sees the whole mess that the world is in –rebellion, idolatry, sin, corruption, pollution, economic exploitation, slavery, and so on – under the heading of “the way the world currently is”, as opposed to “the Kingdom of God”, which is the way the world will be when Jesus reigns as Lord, and the way it can become even here and now, because we believe Jesus is already reigning as Lord, but that His reign must spread through humans hearing about and then acknowledging Him as Lord. That is why “believe in the Lord Jesus” is always the answer to the question of how to be saved or rescued or delivered. Paul and Silas appeal to the jailer to “believe in the Lord Jesus” so that he and his household might be saved; this is basically a summary of what the Good News is all about. It isn’t about committing yourself to a life of worship, prayer and charity. It isn’t even about believing in the right theology of how God deals with our sins through the death of Jesus. It is simply about recognising, acknowledging and hailing Jesus Christ as Lord – rather than self, or money, or profit, or anything else. This is exactly what Paul declares to the Philippians in his letter: “if you confess with your lips Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Everything else is contained within that – all the volumes of theology, all the liturgy and prayers and dogma, all the ethics and choices and personal dilemmas. From the earliest times, to present oneself for baptism, one simply had to say “Jesus is Lord” – and this is what the jailer decided to do, enabling the salvation and liberation of his whole household.

Have faith in the ongoing activity of God. Dark forces rise when the power of the gospel challenges the powers of the world. There is enough faith in this room to carry the lack of faith of individuals among us. To be saved, or delivered, or rescued, we are called to acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord. And perhaps above all, rest in the knowledge that we worship the Most High God, who even today has power to open doors and break shackles and save. Amen.