When I started to preach from Acts a couple of weeks ago, I told you that this book seemed especially good for these summer days as it is filled with accounts of travels to foreign countries, world capitals, and exotic destinations. I promised stories of Mediterranean cruises and trips through the countryside.
Did I mention time in jail? I don’t think I mentioned jail—but then again, sometimes our trips go awry.
When we left Paul and Silas last Sunday they had been beaten and thrown into the innermost dungeon, with their feet secured in the stocks.
But listen to them. They're singing.
That Christians could end up in jail should surprise no one.
That Christians should be singing in jail should come as no surprise either. Two times while he was in jail in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, Jr. was given no food because he and others with him insisted on singing their grace to God at mealtime. Prison bars are not the limit of joy and hope.
What happens next, of course, does surprise us.
An earthquake shakes the foundations of the jail. All that we count on as fixed, firm and unchangeable—iron bars, stone walls—is changed. All the prisons in which we find ourselves are opened by the power of God.
If this is not our reality, it is at certainly our prayer. A Christian from Namibia prayed in this way:
Lord, break the chains of humiliation and death,
just as on that glorious morning
when you were raised.
Let those who weep as they sow the seeds of justice and freedom,
gather the harvest of peace and reconciliation.[i]
We pray like this because of the resurrection promise that new life is at hand, that freedom is near.
In faith we affirm that God’s power to set free is far greater than the human ability to imprison.
But that’s not always good news for everyone—at least not at first.
Remember what happened in that prison. After the earthquake, fearing that the captives had escaped, the jailer draws his sword and prepares to kill himself. Death, after all, will be his reward for losing all those prisoners. But when the word comes that everyone is still there, the jailer falls down and asks: “What must I do to be saved?”
Please, bear with me, because we don’t talk a lot about being saved in the United Church of Christ and especially in this congregation. Talk of “being saved” has come to mean drawing a line between those who are in and those who are out. It’s not the line that Jesus drew, it’s not a line that Paul drew, and it’s not the line we chose to draw in this congregation and we reject any attempts to do so.
And most of the time talk of “being saved” turns people’s attention to life after death, when scripture in general and this story from the Acts of the Apostles in particular points us toward this life as we live it each day.
The jailer who cried out to Paul and Silas, was concerned most of all with his immediate situation. He wants to know how he can get out of this mess—how can he be saved.
His question, often enough, is our question—even if we might not use those words.
How can our lives be changed?
How can we be changed?
How might we know less hatred, greed, or aimlessness?
How might we experience more love, generosity or purpose?
How might we be saved—even for this moment if not for all eternity?
The Greek word that we translate as “salvation” is not so much an otherworldly term as it is a word that speaks of wholeness of life, of health, of well-being in body and spirit. So the gloomy prophet Jeremiah pairs health and salvation in his lament to God: “Heal me and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved.” He expresses what we hope to experience—a change in our lives, a change in ourselves. Indeed, in various ways and at various times we have experienced such changes, such life.
Salvation is a good, conventionally religious word, but we don’t use it much—and probably won’t use it much, because we’re not really a conventionally religious people, are we?
So let’s stop right here for a moment. Do what you can to set aside all the dry and stale ideas such a word evokes. Do what you can to get beyond the rigid thinking and judgmental attitudes that usually accompanies any talk of “being saved.”
Listen to that question with fresh ears so that we might hear it as our own.
“What must I do to be saved?”
This is not a question about self-righteousness: “What must I do to be better than others?”
This is not a question about piety: “What must I do to look ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual?’”
This is not even a question about life after death: “What must I do to “go to heaven?”
This is first of all a question about what will make life possible and secondly a question about what will make life worthwhile.
Novelist Frederick Buechener helps here. He says “Doing the work you're best at doing and like to do best—hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else's tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen: 1) you lose yourself, and 2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual. . . .You do not love God so that God will save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way.”[ii]
What must I do to be saved?
What must I do to have life,
to be set free,
to find wholeness, peace?
It is a straightforward question about being fully alive: “What must I do to be saved?”
Now, we can come up with all sorts of things to do: feed the hungry, work to end racism, care for creation, resist, visit the sick. We come up with such actions and we do those things. But as Protestants we have long claimed that there's nothing we can “do,” really, to be saved. We are saved by the grace of God.
So Paul’s answer is disturbingly direct—Believe. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your whole household.”
What must I do?
And here the trouble just continues, doesn’t it?
We start to think that belief is about what we think. It is in contrast to what we have experienced. So Mark Twain, when asked if he believed in infant baptism, said: “Believe in it? Heck, I’ve seen it!
We start to think that our doubts, our misgivings, about various doctrines and dogmas are indications of our lack of belief.
This is not what Paul means.
Belief is about our ultimate commitment. When Paul encouraged this jailer—or anyone else—to believe in Jesus Christ Paul wasn’t saying that the jailer—or anyone else—needed to accept certain doctrinal or dogmatic ideas about Jesus. He wasn’t saying that the jailer—or anyone else—had to twist himself around so that he could accept as true something about which he was filled with doubt.
No. When Paul encouraged this jailer—or anyone else, even you and me—to believe in Jesus Christ, Paul was urging him to, as we say in our church covenant, “follow in the ways of Jesus Christ”—to strive to do the things Jesus did, to seek to do the things Jesus told his followers to do: love, forgive, be grateful. He was urging him to make a commitment.
You know what commitment is, right? In a breakfast of ham and eggs, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
The belief that leads to the wholeness of life we desire is following the One who said: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Of course, we should not, we do, try to do this on our own strength or by ourselves.
The sociologist, Robert Bellah, talked about students who would come to him and ask what church to go to. They would add the caveat: “I’m afraid I don’t believe in God.” Bellah said: “I never tell them what church to go to, but I do say not to worry about believing in God. I tell them that if they become a part of the life of the church, then they will begin to see how the word ‘God’ is used and what it means. Believing in God is something one comes to in a living community.”[iii]
Believing is not something we do alone or in private. We worship together. We pray together. We feed the hungry, we resist, we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God together. That is why you are here this morning. Because you sense that going it on your own won’t work, that you need those around you as much as they need you.
This is why Paul encouraged the jailer to be baptized and become a part of that small group of Christians in Philippi. This is why we continue to invite and welcome all kinds of people into our common life of faith—that together we might all find the wholeness, the salvation that we seek. This is why, as Congregationalists, we do not seek to test what someone believes, but we covenant to live with each other in faithfulness and love. As we do so, we may yet find the salvation, the wholeness of life, that we seek.
Belief—commitment, following—is filled with doubt and questioning. It is a way of faith, not certainty.
The God who breaks chains and sets free, who shakes the foundations of the earth can surely give each one of us the life for which we were created. The God who raised Jesus from death will surely give us life.
This is our hope.
It is the hope that sustains us through trouble and trial, the hope that lets us keep singing.
[i]. Zephania Kameeta, in Bearing Our Sorrows, pg. 175.
[ii]. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 83-84.
[iii]. Robert Bellah, Christian Century, April 19, 1995, pg. 427.