by Ellen Sims
text: Acts 16: 16-35
Several years ago Brian McLaren conducted a 2-day workshop in Mobile sponsored by The Quest for Social Justice and attended by some of you. Even if you weren’t there, you may know Brian from some of the many books he’s written: A New Kind of Christianity. Everything Must Change. Finding Our Way Again—to name a few titles from this progressive Christian and public theologian. At the time of Brian’s visit, I was president of The Quest. In making arrangements for his visit, I learned that he would be at a retreat center in Mississippi the day before the start of our workshop. So I volunteered to drive there on the evening he would conclude that engagement and bring him to Mobile. My plan would save the Quest money and allow me to sneak in a 3 ½ hour one-on-one coaching session with this sought-after pioneer in what was then called the emerging church movement. Thankfully, Myra offered to drive and Mary went along for the adventure. Mile after mile I plied Brian with questions as Mary and Myra focused on the road and Brian generously shared stories and insights. (Readers, I promise I’m exaggerating my exploitation of our gracious guest.)
I thought about Brian this week because the lectionary has brought us today a scripture he used in his workshop here. If memory serves, he had us enact today’s text from the book of Acts to expose the way Christians have read the Bible with a limiting lens and have, in this case, narrowed the meaning of salvation. It’s this narrow understanding of what it means to be “saved” that I want to challenge today—just as in the past two Sundays I’ve invited you to consider more expansive definitions of two other Christian terms: gospel (last Sunday) and heaven (the previous Sunday). Today’s story not only enriches the biblical meanings of salvation but may connects the saving work in this story to the saving work Bryan Stevenson illustrates in his book Just Mercy, which we’re reading for our 9:30 class. I’m drawing from McLaren’s workshop, as best I remember it, for this sermon’s main idea, but specific points and examples are my own.
First, notice that today’s story about the continuing ministry of Paul and Silas in Philippi is framed by two characters they encounter. At first it may seem the story of the slave girl and that of the jailer are not thematically connected: mere points on the plot line leading to Paul and Silas’s imprisonment and release. The slave and the jailer, we might assume, hold opposite roles in society. She is controlled entirely by others. He is in control of others. She has been deprived of her liberty. He deprives others of their liberty.
Other details in the story seem to confirm this contrast. We realize the slave girl is not only the property of men who exploit her fortunetelling talent for their gain but she’s also apparently controlled by a demonic spirit that is the source of her talent. The girl has no agency; no personal, economic, or spiritual liberty. She is owned, body and soul. Her plight is especially pitiable if we’re willing to admit that even the ostensible heroes of the story have little real regard for her. Paul exorcises her demon because she keeps annoying him by traipsing after them and repeating to all who’ll listen that they offer “a way of salvation.” After the demon leaves the girl, she can no longer tell fortunes so she is of no worth to her owners. Therefore, they complain to the magistrates that Paul and Silas have destroyed their business, deprived them of their means of income. And the narrator, as callous as the missionaries and the merchants, promptly forgets all about the girl. We never learn what happened to her. But we can guess. There weren’t many ways a girl could earn her living. And yet . . . and yet it is she who rightly names Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God.” They are slaves, too.
As is the jailer. The entire story will eventually suggest we all are servants of someone or something. Oh, at first the jailer seems more like the slave owner than the slave. A jailer controls and contains others, right? He literally holds the key that deprives people of their liberty. He puts Paul and Silas in the most secure part of the prison and then places their feet in the stocks. He seems very much in control of the situation. And yet. . . and yet neither he nor the merchants nor the magistrates control the earthquake that broke the prisoners’ chains. Sometimes the people we assume are in control are themselves very much enslaved within the system. Not that we should make excuses for those who mistreat others because the system allows it. But it’s important to consider, as we today work for, say, racial and gender equality, that empowering a disempowered group will actually liberate the so-called privileged group, too, freeing them from their fears and prejudices and curtailed roles.
Notice the jailer in our story is himself in prison. Notice also that he’s first introduced when the narrator explains that the magistrates of the town, to appease the merchants who owned the slave girl, “order” the jailer to “keep [Paul and Silas] securely in jail.” The jailer must follow the order of the civic leaders—who themselves were pressured by the economic leaders. The jailer’s own enslavement is clear when he nearly commits suicide after the earthquake. He knows he’ll be held responsible for any escaped prisoners, and suicide will be kinder than whatever the powers-that-be will do to him. When Paul assures him they have not escaped, the jailer falls down “trembling” before Paul and Silas, and asks the crucial question: “What must I do to be saved?”
In this context—within the literal situation of this story—what do you think he means by that? What does “being saved” mean to this jailer in this particular situation? Surely the author who has crafted this narrative wants us to see a connection between the climactic question of salvation and the well-established need for liberation.
If you can try to sweep out of your mind prior understandings of the words “saved” and “salvation” and let the story speak for itself, the jailer’s question in this hour of peril obviously means: “How can my life be saved?”
Within the development of the story’s concerns about slavery, imprisonment, unjust power over others, and systems of economic and political oppression—“being saved” also means: “How can I be saved from the power of this oppressive system that dehumanizes prisoner and jailer alike?”
If you think we today are free of oppressive systems, you haven’t yet read Brian Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which exposes the complex criminal justice system rooted in racism.
If you think we today are free of other oppressive systems, hear how one commentator compares our own political and economic system to a “religion of the predatory global market — a system of organized greed.” Eleazar S. Fernandez imagines that “the priests or ministers are the economists, the evangelists are the advertisers, the lay people are the consumers, the cathedral is the shopping mall.” The Spirit of this religion is the Competitive Spirit, and sin is “inefficiency. . . . The only way to salvation is ‘shop till you drop.’ And, if Jesus ‘saves,’ we want to know where he shops.”
In today’s text Paul and Silas encounter two characters caught inside an oppressive system. Both of these characters speak of salvation. The key question is the jailer’s: “What must I do to be saved?” The slave girl has part of the answer. She says Paul and Silas proclaim a way of salvation—maybe not the only way. (Notice that indefinite article!) Paul and Silas reply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
In the context of an entrenched and cruel system of oppression, this pericope suggests that the Jesus Christ offers an alternative way of organizing our life together. Rather than a “system of organized greed”—to quote again Eleazar Fernandez—the Lord Jesus offers a new kingdom or way of living. To name Jesus as Lord is not about believing certain details about his life and doctrines developed by his followers. To name Jesus as Lord “saves” us because we are saying the Lord (or the highest priority) of my life will not be money, will not be power over others, will not be systems that oppress others. Rome is not Lord. Caesar is not Lord. The merchants and magistrates of this world are not my lords. Jesus is. The only power that should hold sway in my life is the liberating and loving way of Jesus. This is not a rejection of government but a commitment to work for ways we organize our lives to empower all equally. True liberation is the undoing of Empire and the recognition of freedom in Christ. Salvation happens here and now—not, as we talked about two Sundays ago—only in the distant future in a heaven far, far away.
Another dimension of this salvation represented in Paul’s answer is that salvation is communal, not individual. Paul tells the jailer that when he makes Jesus his lord, he and his household will be saved. He, the patriarch of a house full of family members and servants, will, by following in the ways of Jesus, bring liberation to his entire household. No wonder the story concludes this way: “He and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” The unity of the community of Christ is both the aim and evidence of salvation. Christian freedom is not lived independently of others but is an interdependence with others.
Some of us were taught that the salvation comes through the institutional Church. Some of us were taught that salvation comes through the individual’s acceptance of a creed or certain beliefs about Jesus. Most of us probably heard that salvation guarantees a ticket to heaven when we die. I’m saying today’s story answers the question “What must we do to be saved?” differently.
Bruce Epperly comments on this scripture’s answer by explaining that we don’t have to do a thing. “We have nothing to do. Nothing, that is, except recognize that we are already saved. We are in God’s hands, now and forevermore. God is always reaching out to us, and we find wholeness in receiving God’s grace, letting it flow in and through us, and becoming instruments of the grace we have received.”
The Bible holds varied meanings of salvation. I hear in today’s scripture and in other New Testament passages that we are saved by living in such a way that recognizes Jesus, not Empire, as Lord. Jesus is the humble unLord of the upsidedown kingdom.
I close with a passage from Ephesians in which Paul proudly names himself a literal and figurative “prisoner in the Lord.” Because Jesus Christ is the only authority in his life. Listen to this saving way of life Paul affirms:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. –Ephesians 4: 1-6
Next Sunday we’ll celebrate the Spirit of Pentecost with a special worship service. Rather than being led by the Spirit of competition, consumption, greed, envy, fear—what Spirit do we want to invite into our midst?
PRAYER: May we be the slaves of the most high God.