[Below is the manuscript of a sermon I just gave at St. Peter’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC, where I am now the associate pastor. To listen to the audio, go here (saintpeters.me).]
Chapter 16 is a fairly lengthy passage, as we saw — and we didn’t even read all of it — so there are many important aspects to it that we could touch on, but we’re gonna have to focus in a little bit. Basically there’s this series of encounters between Paul and Silas and the three other people we just read about — Lydia, a slave girl, and the jailer — each one in very different circumstances, so I just want to walk through and see what we might be able to learn from each exchange.
We can gather from the outset that despite the significant setback of getting thrown in prison, Paul and Silas were used by God in an especially powerful way in this story. Because in Antioch, in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas stayed around to encourage the Christians in the church there for about a year. In this case though, in Philippi, Paul and Silas are only there for a matter of days. And yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it was somehow enough to start a church that Paul would later write to with great affection, presumably because they were really on the right track, at least a little more so than some of the other churches Paul was ministering to.
So in light of this fruitful effort by Paul and Silas, here’s the big picture question I want to raise that their example might be able to help us with: When it comes to our ministry to people in the Low Country, as we are striving to share the gospel, how do we as a church engage this community and this culture around us in a way that not only sustains this church but in a way that sows seeds that might even allow new churches to take root — Just as Paul and Silas did in Philippi?
I: Ok, in the story we just heard, there are three very different people are encountered by the power of the Gospel in three very different ways. Let’s take a look, starting with Lydia. That she’s a “seller of purple dyes” tells us that she’s probably a wealthy business woman. She’s described as a “God-worshiper,” so she’s someone who has rejected the many gods and many different ways of salvation that were offered by the mainstream religion of her Greek and Roman environment. She has come to have faith in the One God of Israel, even though she’s neither Jewish nor Christian.
I want to use some imagination here, and admittedly, this is somewhat speculative, but I think it’s appropriate to picture that Lydia’s the kind of person who today we might call a seeker. She really likes to think. She’s searching for meaning, purpose and truth. She’s not satisfied with the religion, values or worldview of the dominant culture around her. Maybe we could even say her main faith language is knowledge.
So the mind is the way that Lydia receives the Gospel. Now, it’s God who opens her heart and whose grace goes ahead of Paul to prepare her to hear and to understand, but the channel through which God does this is her intellect. So she listens and responds to God’s prompting, and Paul is able to reason with her and show how Jesus fulfills the divine promise of a Messiah who has brought salvation.
I want to pause here for a moment. There are some people, I think many of us could say, whose hearts seem pretty closed off or hardened to the things of God. The Bible talks about this. But there are others who, despite reservations, aren’t necessarily closed off completely. Maybe something about the Christian faith just doesn’t seem to make sense to them, or they’ve had a bad experience in church, or with Christians who are judgmental and narrow-minded. Some people are skeptical, and sometimes for good reason. And I just want to say, if that’s you, if you’re kind of a Lydia, or someone you know is — then we want you here.
And not because you would be our next evangelism project, but because at St. Peter’s — even though I’ve been here for like three weeks — I think I’ve learned that the first thing we want to do is connect with people. This isn’t a place — and frankly I don’t think church should ever be a place — where you have to conform first in order to be accepted. Yes, there is a way of life in Jesus that we want to invite everyone into, and we have beliefs and convictions that are central, but we want to extend friendship to people, whether they’re like us or not. I think this is a church where people can bring their questions. And I believe we’re a community in which, if people have doubts, they can be honest and unashamed about that.
I emphasize this because, if there’s one character out of these three that I resonate with, it’s Lydia. My main faith language is knowledge too. When I was in high school and college especially, I thought that if I could just answer the difficult questions with convincing arguments, my faith would be in a secure place. This partly why until literally the last month of my senior year of college, I was planning on going to law school instead of seminary. As long as I thought I could understand, I’d be in control. So I read books on apologetics. I even regularly attended the atheist and agnostic society meetings on Baylor’s campus that met weekly for several years, because I thought I had the answers they needed.
As you might guess though, I eventually learned that I didn’t have all those answers, and that some of my answers were misguided, or even flat out wrong. More than that though, as they graciously befriended me, I also began to learn how to listen. And you know, while some of them just wanted to argue and were cynical, others were genuinely open — they just had some tough questions! So knowledge is essential, and God uses our minds to reach us, just as he did with Lydia, and we can use our minds to worship and serve God — but knowledge can become idol, as it did for me, and still does. So as we continue to welcome people and their questions, I would encourage us to remember not to confuse knowledge and faith.
II. Alright, after Lydia, we come to the Slave Girl: This is a strange and interesting story, because Paul doesn’t even initially set out to free this girl. He merely commands the spirit to come out of her because he’s annoyed. What the girl is saying seems to be a distraction to their mission. But even though Paul may not care very much about her wellbeing in this moment — we don’t know if he does — Paul’s trust in God’s authority over this Spirit allows God to nonetheless free the girl. Because liberating people from bondage is what God does. It’s one of the biggest themes in the Bible, beginning with the Exodus story. But we also find it all throughout Jesus’s ministry. I mean Jesus heals people and casts out oppressive spirits left and right. So for one thing Paul is imitating Jesus here. But the very first words of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke come from his reading of the Isaiah scroll, when he declares that he has come to bring, among other things, deliverance to the captives, good news to the poor, and to set people free.
And this girl is definitely a captive. Yes, there was a Spirit inside of her, but she had to be set free physically — probably before she could even start to understand with her mind, as Lydia does! Lydia was at the top of the social ladder, or close. The slave girl was the very bottom. The importance of this distinction is something else I had to learn. I think God takes our social circumstances into consideration in the way that God pursues us.
I mentioned I started off in my faith journey as a Lydia. My faith was mostly in my mind and in my beliefs. And I’m still working on this, but as I matured somewhat toward the end of college and beginning of seminary, my eyes began to be opened more to God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed, and this theme throughout Scripture. I grew more sensitive to social injustices, to inequality, and to violence against vulnerable people groups in the world, as I was learning about different conflicts and so on. And in 2007, I went to Juarez, Mexico, right before the drug war got really bad, so it wasn’t too unsafe yet, but seeing the poverty in parts of that city was a wakeup call for me. I’m sure some of y’all can relate to this from when you’ve gone on mission trips to underdeveloped and developing countries. On this particular mission trip, we went there to tell them about Jesus, and it’s like I left with them having told me about their social problems, and how some of those social problems, in their view, were connected with my social privileges! This was a big moment in the shaping of my worldview. I would call it a mini-conversion of sorts.
But you know, in the past few years, God’s been teaching me another lesson. Recently I came across this quote from Gustavo Gutierrez: he says, “It might sound strange to say this, but even justice can become an idol, when it’s not placed within the context of gratuity.” Because what happens after the Israelites were brought out of the land of Egypt? Is everything smooth-sailing with God from then on? Are they totally grateful? Perfectly obedient? No way, not at all, right? After a rough journey through the wilderness, and a lot of highs and lows, they make a covenant with God, but they break it, God gets angry, forgives them, and the whole thing repeats itself. Eventually they demand a king and establish a kingdom, and while there’s some good moments, before long Israel starts to look a lot like the very place they were delivered from in the first place: Egypt.
Because justice separated from gratitude adds something to or takes something away from the gospel. Have y’all ever met anyone, for instance, who seems very passionate about social justice, but they’re also kind of mean? I think I was in danger of being that person sometimes. So justice became an idol for me as well. What’s currently helping me, and what will always be helping me overcome these idols, can be seen, finally, in what we learn from this third encounter, with the Jailer. So let’s get there.
III. What else happens when slaves are set free? Well for one thing, the people who used to own them get upset. And that’s exactly what happens. Think of Pharaoh sending his army after the Israelites across the Red Sea. And Philippi did not have a big Jewish community. It was populated by what we might call Roman “veterans” and their descendants — a pretty patriotic bunch. So their reaction to some Jewish guys interfering with their commerce and promoting these beliefs and this way of life that ran contrary to the Roman culture is fairly predictable. And it lands Paul and Silas in prison after a severe and unlawful beating — even by Roman standards.
So this is not a very encouraging story so far! But it’s pretty typical in the Bible, in Acts, and especially for Paul it seems like. The Bible is full of one story after another of men and women who faith great trials and suffering because of their faithfulness. Why is that? Does God just want to mess with us and test us all the time? Well, that’s a big question. And I’m not going to try to answer it. But I do think that one of the reasons this tends to happen is this:
The Gospel is counter-cultural. It’s always subverting the status quo of our society. And that word subvert has a very subtle meaning. It doesn’t just mean to “directly oppose.” In this instance it means something more like “undermine,” or to “expose the flaw or the deceit in whatever the dominant way of thinking or living might be.” So to subvert is tell a different version of the story, and to present an alternative faith system to live by. These Romans were trusting in Caesar, not Jesus, not the God of Israel. Their faith was in the Roman “Kingdom,” so to speak, not the Kingdom of God. So when you say to a big and powerful Empire, we’re not going to live under your rule — we’re citizens of a different Kingdom — that’s perceived as threatening! Even if you’re non-violent, as the early Christians were. That’s the kind of thing that can get you beaten up and thrown into prison — or in Jesus’s case, crucified.
What’s incredible though, somehow, is that this didn’t seem to discourage Paul and Silas. Not only did it not discourage them, but it says they were singing! Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I have to confess, this is where some of my doubt comes in… So it helps me to imagine, whether it’s true or not, that if Paul and Silas were actually singing praise songs — maybe they were taunting praise songs, like “our God is an awesome God… and he’s better than yours.” Something like that would make me feel better! But whatever it sounded like, it left an impression on the jailer.. so let’s talk about him.
If Lydia was upper class, and the slave girl obviously in the lowest class, the jailer is somewhere in the middle. And Lydia receives the gospel through the use of her mind, and the slave girl is set free by physical liberation, through the body, then for the jailer the Spirit cuts straight to his heart. This is a guy, in all likelihood, whose dignity and worth is directly tied to his job and his loyalty to the Empire. Unlike Lydia, he’s probably a good pagan worshiper of the many Roman gods, and he calls Caesar his Lord. When it comes to his culture, he’s all in.
So, after the earthquake, we can assume that the jailer is about to kill himself either because of the disgrace he feels for having failed in his duty or out of anticipation for the punishment that was to follow. So, this is a ruthless system that he’s living in, and this is a man who’s probably never known anything different – the Romans governed with brute force and by instilling fear in people — even its own people. The jailer is probably a former soldier who’s good at instilling fear in people too! He’s been trained to show no mercy. So it doesn’t matter that this escape wasn’t his fault; he knows he’s not going to get any mercy either. The sad thing is, this is the way a lot of people still live today: might makes right, competitive, keeping a record of wrongs. So maybe you sense this too: a guy like that, or anyone living this way for that matter, I think, has to be starving for God’s grace — even if he doesn’t know it.
So probably for the first time in his life, when Paul and Silas give him a taste of what unconditional love looks like, this leads him to literally beg for more. And even though there’s this crazy earthquake, that’s not finally what God uses to change the jailers heart. It’s Paul and Silas’ care for him. For an enemy! The guy who’s with the Romans, who just beat them and through them in jail. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense! And the jailer doesn’t know what to do with it, other than to say, I want some, I want in on this, whatever it is. I mean, there is no way he has his theology figured out yet. All he knows is that he needs forgiveness, and these guys, his enemies, just showed it to him. And here’s the most incredible thing about this story to me: because Paul and Silas love their enemy, the jailer is able to start becoming the kind of person who loves his enemies too. He washes their wounds, gives them a meal, and the text says that he is overjoyed, even though he has every reason to still suspect that his life is probably going to end soon. This is a radical transformation. This is how the gospel turns the world upside-down.
All three conversion stories are legitimate — mind, body and heart, rich, poor, middle class. But I would suggest the jailer’s conversion is the culminating moment and the crescendo of this sequence. New understanding, and physical liberation are vital components to the Gospel. But history and our lives remains tragic without God’s grace. As long as we trust in our own knowledge, our own ability to achieve justice, or to justify ourselves, we deny our dependence on God’s grace. But if we start with God’s grace, then we’ll begin to have true knowledge, and our hearts will be set free to pursue real justice.
So to close, I briefly return the big question from the beginning: what would it take for us as a church in sharing the gospel to both deepen our roots as a growing body, but also to produce fruit that yields this harvest — even in a way that starts other churches, as Paul and Silas did? The Christian faith is mysterious, and it’s a journey that never ends. As soon as I think I’ve arrived — whether in my knowledge, with my concept of justice, or whatever — I either fall on my face, or God reveals a whole new part of me that needs some serious work.
In a word, I think this story teaches us that God’s mission is a reconciling one. It touches on all aspects of our lives — mind, body and heart. And it’s breaking down social and cultural boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free — even for the purpose of reconciling enemies. Let’s pray.
God, we thank you for your Word, and how you speak to us through the example of the early Church, and through the boldness and faithfulness of Paul and Silas. I pray that in our lives, our jobs, our families and in neighborhoods, that’d we’d live into this picture of what it means to share your good news, in word and deed, with people who are different from us, and that we’d have the courage to do so in ways that are sometimes outside of our comfort zone. By your grace, Lord, use us to set other people free – in mind, body and heart. It’s in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.