“What must I do to be saved?”
Let us pray. Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” My conclusion is that this part of Acts 16 wraps around this one sentence. Here’s why I come to that conclusion. Lydia is a spiritual seeker who needs to make the step toward salvation. The slave girl needs to be saved from both mental and physical bondage. The warden of Philippi’s jail needs to be saved from certain death. Paul and Silas need to be saved from imprisonment.
This central sentence is both more and less than what it appears to be. I think we are best served if we use the translation which N. T. Wright says captures the sense of the jailer’s frantic question. “Gentlemen, will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?” Let’s have a look then at the mess that is presented in this quick snapshot of the city of Philippi.
We begin with the story of the slave girl who was believed to be a fortune-teller. I am never quite sure how to handle this sort of detail in a New Testament story. My first reaction is to think that this is simply a part of the superstition that lurked around every corner in the ancient world. However, speaking about things around corners, for most, if not all of the time I have been the pastor here at Blythwood, there has been a so-called psychic in one of the upper offices on Yonge Street south of Blythwood. Here’s the amusing or strange or, perhaps, frightening thing—while many businesses have come and gone during these ten years, this place that doles out liberal servings of mumbo-jumbo continues to be able to afford Yonge Street rents. Perhaps we are not quite so sophisticated as we would like to think.
The key here is that this young woman with some sort of mental imbalance is perceived to be able to give insight into the future—“I see a tall, dark and handsome man in your future if you’re in the right place at the right time.” Paul and Silas cross paths with her and she keeps announcing, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Dr. Luke tells us that Paul eventually became annoyed by this.
What do you think it was that annoyed Paul? I have always been struck by this matter. I assumed that it was the repetitiveness of this girl’s cry that annoyed Paul. However, think about it for a minute. In this important Macedonian city that was a Roman colony, if an announcement is made about the Most High God, to whom is the person referring? It certainly would not be the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham and Moses. It would be Zeus or Jupiter or whichever local deity the people of Philippi thought was at the top of the heap. And, a way of salvation would not be understood as the news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Paul was annoyed because this girl’s affliction is getting in the way of the gospel.
In a rather dramatic confrontation Paul orders the afflicting spirit to come out of the young woman and it happens that very hour. Anyone reading this story for the first time might think that Paul and his companions would be hailed as heroes. After all, this girl has been freed from an emotional and mental and spiritual disability. She, however, is not free; she was a slave, she had become a source of financial gain to her owners. There’s nothing worse than a fortune-teller whose crystal ball has gone cloudy.
This reminds me of a report on CBC in the aftermath of the Alberta election at the end of April. As you may remember every poll done about a week before the election was predicting a majority for the Wild Rose Party. It wasn’t even close. The Tories are once again the government of Alberta—41 years and counting. What was interesting about the report I heard was the comment of one of pollsters. This might cost her money. She referred to election polls as her advertisements. If she can’t measure the mood of electorate with any accuracy, there might be fewer companies willing to pay her to tell them what sort of frozen peas I’m likely to buy. If you get in the way of commerce, people get twitchy.
Despite the miracle Paul and Silas are dragged off to the marketplace where they can be denounced in front of the city’s authorities. Look at the charges brought against them. “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.” Notice they say nothing about their profits being threatened. Better to go after those issues, those attitudes that appeal to the least common denominator. Life is good in Philippi; we don’t need anyone here rocking the boat. Besides, these men are foreigners, they might even be Jews. Let’s face it Roman ways are the best ways. We cannot have anyone telling us different.
Paul and Silas are flogged and placed in the city jail. Someone must have thought a high level of security was needed. They were locked up in the cell furthest from the door, their feet fastened in the stocks. Something happens around midnight. Is it a natural phenomenon which God uses or is the earthquake another example of the dramatic intervention of God? I’m not sure, nor do I think it matters what we think happened. What matters is that we understand Dr. Luke is convinced that God is working to make the power of salvation known in the city of Philippi.
I find it interesting that when the doors of the jail crack open and the chains fall off the prisoners, the jailer realizes that if he has any hope of preserving his life he needs to talk to Paul and Silas. Other prisoners were aware these two had been singing hymns and praying; perhaps the guards had also taken notice of this strange nocturnal behaviour. “How can I get out of this mess?” he says. The mess, of course, is that if he cannot produce the prisoners the next morning he will be executed.
The truth is that’s only the beginning of the mess that he is in. The jailer is simply a man doing his job. It is unlikely he ever allowed sentiment to interfere with his work. If the magistrate wanted someone kept overnight, that’s all the jailer needed to know. It wasn’t his business to decide on guilt or innocence; keeping prisoners where they belonged was his only concern.
I think the direction Dr. Luke wants us to head by way of this story is to recognize the impact God intends to have through the good news about Jesus. In verse 32 of our text we are told that Paul and Silas speak to the jailer and his family about the Lord. This is very important. There are times when those of us in the evangelical church have reduced the good news to telling folks how they can get a ticket to heaven. There may have been something of the message of eternal life in what Paul said to the jailer, but, as I have said on a number of occasions, this word Lord points toward the difference God intends to make in his world right now.
Philippi is a city proud of its status as a Roman colony. Lord is the title that is used by Caesar. In other words, what Paul tells the jailer is that the mess he needs to get out of includes the much bigger issue of who has his ultimate loyalty.
Perhaps this will sound foolish, even for me; part of the good news is at first sight and sound, bad news. In what God is up to there is a confrontation with the world as it is. A young woman is freed from a prison of emotional, spiritual and mental bondage and those who have brought the good news to her life are welcomed as criminals. Except, look at what happens. Look at verse 33 of our text. 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. What does the jailer do? He attempts to set right the wrong of his world. When Paul and his companions had been the agents of bringing freedom to this young woman, there ought to have been a celebration of God’s new kingdom breaking into the life of Philippi. Better late than never, the jailer has a midnight party.
One of the commentators I read in preparation for this sermon suggested we look at the identity of the three characters who are confronted with God’s good news in Acts 16. There’s Lydia, the well-to-do businesswoman. There’s the spirit possessed slave girl. And there’s the warden of the city jail. If this were a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama, these three would be from upstairs, downstairs and somewhere in the middle.
The question confronting the world is still how can I get out of this mess? How can I be saved? How does healing come to our world? What is it that God is doing for us? Here’s the answer: in Jesus, God is setting the world to rights and inviting us, as he invited the jailer, to figure out what that looks like for us as we become involved in it.