Freed and United

On Sunday I had the joy of preaching at Salisbury Baptist Church. What a blessing it was to visit with these friends and see how God is working in their community.

Instead of choosing a topic and then finding verses to use in presenting it, I decided to incorporate the four lectionary readings for the day which were:

  • First reading – Acts 16:16-34
  • Psalm – Psalm 97
  • Second reading – Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
  • Gospel – John 17:20-26

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In Acts 16 we read about the good news being taken by Paul and Silas into the city of Philippi in the Roman province of Macedonia. In the early part of the chapter we witness their encounter with Lydia, her subsequent baptism and the start of a gathering of Christ-followers in her home. She was a businesswoman, a ‘seller of purple,’ and probably quite wealthy.

Next we meet a slave girl, a ‘Diviner’ or fortune-teller, who made a living for her owners by telling the future. In that day, this role was an important one and these people were thought to speak by the power of Apollo, the god whose symbol was a snake and who not only would speak the future to them, but would give insights into the deeper things in the lives of her customers.

This slave followed Paul and Silas far many days, calling out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ Just the fact that she understood who they were and that their God was ‘Most High’ is astounding. But after a few days of this, I can understand Paul’s annoyance with her. He turned and cast out the spirit that was controlling her.

In her right mind, she was of no use to her owners. In their anger at losing a great source of profit, they hauled Paul and Silas to the marketplace where they laid charges against them: charges having to do with a disruption of Roman culture and custom. This brought Paul and Silas a sound flogging with rods and a night in gaol.

Prisons being as they were in that day, this was no Sunday picnic. It was ultimate humiliation and punishment to be thrown in chains into the pit that was the dungeon where, along with a variety of criminals, one would wallow in the filth and stench while being deprived of the necessities of life. Yet, in this dungeon, in the darkest part of the night, Paul and Silas were praying and singing.

Psalms—the Hebrew hymnal—has been a source of comfort and encouragement for millions since this book was first compiled. In its pages we read stories of God’s deliverance, prayers of contrition, promises of blessing, and proclamations of joy, peace, and the sovereignty and goodness of God. Our psalm for today (Psalm 97 ‘The Lord reigns! Let the earth rejoice . . .’) may have been one of those songs being sung this night. The psalmist speaks of God’s greatness, reigning over the earth and its people. He vindicates the righteous and gives them cause to rejoice and hope in their God.

Prayer has been for many years the object of many scientific studies. One such study I read about recently monitored priests and nuns through several days and took note of their prayer life and the brain’s responses. Those times when these men and women were quietly praying showed a pattern of unusual brain activity and stimulation of areas in their brain known to produce calmness and focus. (Dr. Larry Dossey has also done many studies on prayer and its effects on people. Some of them of pure excitement. He has written many books on this subject and you can check them out at Amazon or your local bookstore.)

Likewise, singing and music over the years has been forged on the anvil of suffering and pain. In the days of the slave trade, displaced Africans used music to encourage one another and give themselves strength and courage in their work. This developed into the gospel and jazz music genres of today. Likewise, both the civil rights and peace movements of the 60’s in the U.S. used music to not only state their message, but to inspire others in the struggle. Singing together, Rob Bell says creates a ‘communal rhythm’ that unites people together like nothing else (‘Why Sing?’ Mars Hill Bible Church podcast).

Perhaps you can recall a time when you were going through a very difficult time and it seemed like everything seemed dark and dismal. Did you find prayer to be a source of comfort and strength? Were you encouraged by music? Maybe you find yourself singing in these times. Often while we are in prayer or singing songs of praise, God steps in.

And God stepped in for Paul and Silas. As they were singing, the text tells us that there was a great earthquake, so great that the foundations of the prison were shaken and all chains fell off. Paul and Silas (and all prisoners) were set free.

The gaoler, fearing they had all escaped, took his sword to kill himself (Better to take his own life than to be executed by his superiors for such a loss.) Paul called out an assured him that all were still present. This makes me wonder how it was that not one of the prisoners escaped. Under normal circumstances, this would be the expectation, but perhaps it was something about the night spent with these two apostles that kept the prisoners inside. We can only imagine since the text is silent about this.

The gaoler then falls down before Paul and Silas and asks, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ I have heard some speak of this as if it was a desperate cry in light of the fact that he may face the executioner’s sword. However, seeing the context and how the slave girl widely proclaimed Paul and Silas as possessing a way to be saved, this most likely was a call for help: ‘Show me this way of salvation you have brought to my city.’

The next verse (v 31) is possibly the most-quoted verse in Evangelical circles: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.’

Believe—trust, put your hope in—the Lord Jesus. Simple faith. No formulas. No ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or ‘Romans Road.’ No mention of the theology of atonement or even the cross. Simply ‘Believe in Jesus.’

And that is the simplicity of the good news, the same good news that was preached on the Galilean hillsides and in the streets of Jerusalem by Jesus himself—‘Repent and believe the good news.’ The good news was that the reign of God is near and all who wished to enter it could do so. That’s what John preached across the Jordan, and on their repentance, people were baptised in the river.

So it was in the city of Philippi, the gaoler and his whole household (including his family, slaves and servants, and possibly extended family) believed and were baptised. And this story concludes with the same elements that are present today when followers of Jesus gather: the washing of wounds, baptism, and a shared meal.

I like to think that Paul had this in mind when he wrote his letter to the Christ-followers in Galatia:

There is neither Jew [Paul and Silas] nor Gentile [Lydia, the slave girl, the gaoler], neither slave [the slave girl] nor free [Paul, Lydia, the gaoler], neither male [Paul, the gaoler] nor female [Lydia, the slave girl], for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, TNIV)

Because in this chapter we not only have a theme of freedom from chains (one being spiritual bondage and the other physical shackles), but also of unity as a diverse group of people are brought together to be the gathering of Jesus-followers in Philippi.

This is one of the joys found in following Jesus. From diverse peoples God calls us to join him in his mission. It’s not always easy dealing with diversity. Our cultures, our opinions, our traditions seem to cause division rather than unite. But it was Jesus’ prayer that we be one:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23, TNIV)

Paul writes many years later to this same group of people:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-6, TNIV)

God began a work in Philippi as described in our text today, and Paul was confident that it would continue, empowered by God himself until the day when Jesus Christ returns. And this is the prayer of our final lectionary reading:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let those who hear say, Come!” Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Revelation 22:17, 20-21, TNIV)