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Saved. This was the title of a movie that came out in the early 2000s starring Mandy Moore. It’s a satire about a group of students at a Christian high school. At one point the pastor of the school asks Mandy Moore’s character Hillary and her friends to help out a girl named Mary. They take this to mean that Mary needs to be saved, and with Bibles in hand, they set out to kidnap her and talk her into salvation. Of course, this doesn’t work, and as the girl walks away from them, Hillary makes one final attempt and yells out “Can’t you see that I’m trying to love you with the love of Christ”. As she says this, she throws her Bible at Mary. Mary turns around and says “The Bible is not a weapon”.
Maybe this is an extreme example, but we’ve probably all seen this narrative of salvation by any means necessary. The means justify the end. I’ve heard people going on mission trips and talking about how they want to see hundreds of souls saved. I’ve heard sermons about how I need to be saved so that I go to heaven when I die. I know of a certain evangelistic outreach where you go around knocking on people’s doors and when they answer you ask “Do you know where you’re going when you die?”. All in the name of getting people ‘saved’.
This word ‘saved’, when used in Christian circles, tends to have implications for the afterlife. But often, when it was used in the gospels, it meant being rescued out of a mess or delivered from something. This is not to say that spiritual salvation isn’t a part of what this word refers to, but it’s more than that. The Greek word for ‘saved’ is ‘sozo’ and sometimes is translated as ‘saved’ while other times it is translated into English as ‘healed’ or ‘made whole’. In our text we were given three accounts of people being saved and they each show us a different facet of what deliverance can look like.
Our passage begins by the water. Significant spiritual moments often happened by water in the time of Jesus. He met his disciples while they were fishing and he taught and performed many miracles by water. So perhaps it this setting that tells us to pay attention. Today, we meet Lydia who has gathered with other women by the water. They have come to the river to pray as they do every week. Apparently, this type of spiritual meeting place was the norm for cities that did not have a synagogue. If there were not enough people to establish one, then the God-fearing people of the city could establish a place of prayer by a body of water. This fact demonstrates to us just how few Jews lived in Philippi.
Last week we left Paul in Troas where he was travelling around to encourage the churches. It is in Troas, that he has a vision of a man in Macedonia, begging him to come and help. Paul goes at once, believing that God has called him to this place to preach the gospel. Paul and his companions, one of whom must have been Luke as we see the text change from “they” to “we”, set sail and travel to Philippi. Philippi was the leading city of that district and we read that it is a Roman colony. What that tells us is that Christianity was a punishable offence in this city. It was not on the list of approved religions by Rome and so Paul and his company are taking a risk by going there to preach. This is new territory for the gospel. Of course, Paul’s only concern is going where God has called him and so, knowing there is no synagogue in Philippi, he finds himself by the river with a group of praying women. Probably not what he expected, given that his vision was of a man, but this difference in details does not dissuade Paul from his mission.
It is here that we meet Lydia. She is described as a God-worshipper meaning she is not Jewish but has adopted Jewish customs and beliefs. She makes and sells purple garments which tells us she is a woman of means. Purple dye was very expensive to make and so purple garments were considered high end. Lydia would have had quite the business selling these garments. But despite all her wealth and her business acumen, there is something missing in her life. Despite the fact that she knows the true God and is praying to Him, there is still something she needs to hear.
As Paul and his companions begin to preach the gospel to these women, God opens Lydia’s heart and she responds. She is baptized along with the other members of her household, and she persuades Paul and his companions to come to her house. This moment is considered to be the birth of the church in Europe and Lydia is considered by many to be the first church leader in Europe. The fact that she has her own household with multiple people living in it and that she can host Paul and his companions speak again to the wealth that she has. By all accounts, Lydia was doing alright before Paul arrived. But still, God needed to open her heart to the gospel.
What is the gospel? Not the gospels, as in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but rather the essence of the gospel message. This is a question that we should all have an answer to, and it’s a good exercise to try and write it down in one or two sentences. As I read the Bible and learn more about God, I see that the gospel is the truth that through Jesus Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself. The gospel, is the truth that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we are freed to live as the people we were meant to be. Again, it’s not just about getting saved so we go to heaven, but it’s about God redeeming ALL things. We don’t know exactly what Paul said to this group of women by the water, but based on his other sermons that we’ve looked at in Acts, we can guess that what was missing from Lydia’s doctrine was that Jesus Christ is Lord and is that he is God’s revelation. We heard Paul put it this way in Acts 13 - Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. The passage makes it clear that it is God who opens her heart. Paul’s role is not to convert her, but to preach the gospel. One author points out that Lydia had an intellectual understanding of God and the law, but she needed God to open her heart. The heart belongs to God – we can appeal to the intellect but it is God who knows the longings of our hearts. As God speaks to the longings of Lydia’s heart, she responds and she is saved.
Maybe it’s not as easy to see deliverance in the account of Lydia, because as I said, she has it pretty good. We often talk about the gospel message being for the poor and marginalized, but it’s also a message for the well-off God-fearers. Those are the people who like Lydia, see something positive about a faith community and join in. They might help out with different ministries. They might show up to special events. They might be attracted to the whole Jesus thing. But like Lydia, the gospel hasn’t penetrated their hearts. Jesus didn’t command us to make God-fearers. He commanded us to make disciples. And upon Lydia’s conversion she is changed from an ‘adherent’ to a committed disciple of Christ. We never know what God is doing in people hearts. That’s why it’s important that we speak the gospel, because we never know when someone might be ready to hear words of life.
Unlike the other conversion stories of wealthy people in the Bible, Lydia doesn’t have to give up her riches. Instead, she uses what she has to serve God, holding nothing back. Her deliverance causes her open up her home to Paul and the other believers. Her deliverance transforms her entire household so that everyone living there is baptized. Her deliverance leads to the start of a new church and to Christianity breaking into a whole new continent. Lydia is saved.
The next account we see, shows deliverance in a more obvious way. We are introduced to a slave girl who is possessed by a demon. This evil spirit gives her knowledge about the future. Her owners are exploited her psychic abilities. For some reason, the spirit in her can’t help but proclaim that Paul and his friends are servants of the Most High God and that they are telling people the way to be saved. That speaks to the power of God because the power that is within this slave girl is nothing compared to that of Christ Jesus. Now Paul doesn’t seem to have any intention of delivering this girl until he gets annoyed. He’s just trying to go and pray and this girl is causing a ruckus. So finally, when he can’t take it anymore, he commands the spirit to leave her. And just like that, she is delivered from this evil spirit. She’s saved. The result is immediate, not delayed until her death but right then and there, the spirit that was indwelling her is gone. We don’t know what happens to her after that, just that her owners are mad because they’ve lost their way of making money and so, after
giving them a beating, they send Paul and Silas to prison.
It is in this prison that we have the third encounter of someone being saved. Paul and Silas, are chained and they are singing and praying and all the other prisoners are listening to them. Suddenly, there is an earthquake and all the prisoners’ chains fall off and the doors fling open. The jailer wakes up and sees this miracle and he knows it’s a mess that is going to cost him dearly. For him to lose prisoners would mean that he would be punished in their place and so he begins to take his own life. As he is about to fall on his sword, Paul cries out “Don’t harm yourself, we are all here”. The jailer, grateful and probably in disbelief, realizes that these aren’t ordinary prisoners and he asks them, “what must I do to be saved?”. Upon their response that he must “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” he is baptized. In fact, his whole household is baptized, and he brings Paul and Silas into his home and he feeds them just like Lydia did. He’s saved.
Maybe there’s a gradual progression of saved-ness that is shown in these three stories. For Lydia, she’s saved from religious knowledge, ritual and charity devoid of the gospel. For the slave-girl, she is saved from her demons and from the traffickers who are taking advantage of her. For the jailer, he is saved from death by his own hand. Three stories of deliverance and each individual is delivered from that which is keeping them from living the life that Christ died to give them. This is not to say that something spiritual didn’t take place. I think it’s clear that all three people also saw spiritual deliverance that day. But there is a very tangible liberation in that they were all freed up to live in their present as people who had known God’s deliverance. They encountered the gospel and they were changed.
One pastor translated the jailer’s question “How can I be saved?” as “How can I get out of this mess?”. That might be a question we’ve asked ourselves before. It’s a question that a lot of people have. Their mess might be financial or relational. It might be an illness or an impediment. It might be an addiction. As Christians, we can’t ignore the messiness by focusing on heaven. N.T Wight writes:
The Christian worldview sees the entire mess that the world is in, from the global facts of human rebellion, idolatry and sin, the corruption of human life and relationships, the pollution of our planet, the worldwide systems of economic exploitation, and so on, right through to this messy situation here and now, this sudden crisis, the person in desperate need or sorrow or fear, and this person whose own deliberate sin has raised a dark barrier between themselves and God – the Christian worldview sees all of this under the heading of ‘the way the world currently is’, as opposed to ‘the way the world will be when Jesus is reigning as Lord – and the way it can be even here and now, because Jesus is already reigning as Lord, but his reign must spread through humans acknowledging that lordship’.
So, the answer to the question “How do I get out of this mess?” is Jesus. We acknowledge Jesus as Lord; Lord of this city, Lord of this church and Lord of our homes. Paul returns to Lydia’s home after his release from prison. I imagine that their newly formed church had recently welcomed a slave-girl and a jailer. People of very different stations and life stories who were all gathered together around a table.
As we come to the table this morning, we come from different stations and stories. We all come to encounter the gospel that delivers us. We come to encounter Christ. We’re going to have a chance after communion for you to receive prayer. Whether you need prayer for healing or prayer for deliverance, you will have a chance to receive it at the back of the room. Oftentimes we don’t come to God, because we think that our mess is too big. If you’re in that place this morning, know that God’s grace is bigger. As you prepare your heart to receive that grace though the bread and through the cup, ask God to open your heart, so that you too can declare in your heart and with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.