A sermon on Acts 16:16-34 by Nathan Nettleton
The rather meaty and exciting reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles contains a line that is a great favourite of preachers. The trembling jailer, who had been about to commit suicide rather than face the inevitable discipline coming his way for what he thought was a mass escape of the prisoners, falls on his knees before Paul and Silas and cries, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Preachers just love that line, because of course we spend our whole careers wishing, or perhaps even kidding ourselves, that that is the question burning in the hearts of our congregations every time we step into the pulpit, eager to answer that very question, just as Paul and Silas did. And I’m sure that many of my earnest colleagues will have gleefully latched on to this line today and preached their hearts out over the jailer’s evident desire to know Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour.
But there is a rather glaring problem with this, isn’t there? We eager preachers are almost certainly twisting that line to say what we want it to say, because any unbiased reading of the story, just taking it at face value as it is written, would have to conclude that the jailer’s question did not mean anything like what we preachers so desperately want it to mean. Any fair-minded reading of the story would have to conclude that it is extremely unlikely that the jailer was intending to ask anything about pastoral theology, or theories of the atonement, or the workings of justification by grace through faith alone, or the destiny of his soul, or even anything about God at all. He’s in a desperate predicament right this minute, and he just wants help to get out of it. His cry of “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” is roughly the same as the cry of those three kidnapped women who were rescued from that house in Cleveland, Ohio this past week. “Help! We were kidnapped ten year ago. We’ve been in here a long time. We just want to get out, now, before he comes back.” And fortunately, the neighbour who heard their cries to be saved did not respond by saying “Hallelujah, sisters. Stay right where you are and let me tell you about the saving blood of Jesus.”
Consider the story with me. Paul and Silas have arrived in Philippi to announce the good news about Jesus there. They have had some immediate success with the conversion of one of the wealthy women of the city, a textiles merchant by the name of Lydia. We heard that story last week. Now, in the first half of this week’s extract, a local clairvoyant has begun harassing them in the street, shouting out about how they are servants of the Most High God who have come to proclaim a way of salvation. Now many people have puzzled over the years about why Paul would be so annoyed about this. It sounds like a pretty accurate description of his mission, so why would he be objecting to the free publicity? Well, there are a number of theories, and it’s not my main point tonight, so I’ll just touch on one. Philippi is a Roman city, and so the name “Most High God” is not going to be heard as referring to the same god it would be thought to refer to in a Jewish city. And similarly, “a way of salvation” is not going to mean the same thing that Paul means by it, which brings us much closer to our subject for tonight. Anyway, Paul has eventually gotten sick of her harassment, and he has invoked the name, not of the local most high god, but of Jesus the Messiah, to free her from the demonic spirit that has her in its grip, and which has led to her being profitably exploited by some local occult pimp. So in one move, Paul has clashed with both a demonic power and with a greedy profit seeking power, and so next thing he knows he’s up in front of a local political and legal power being accused of being a threat to the social fabric of the city and to traditional Roman family values. As often happens when a mob works itself into a frenzy and identifies someone as an illegal alien whose values and way of life are a threat to all we hold dear, Paul and Silas are subjected to some pretty rough justice. They are publicly flogged and thrown into jail where their feet are fastened in the stocks. And despite no doubt being in a considerable amount of pain and discomfort, they decide to hold a midnight hymn singing party. And in the midst of their sing-a-long, there is a violent earthquake, violent enough to bust all the prison doors open and shatter all the locks, stocks and chains, but surprisingly, perhaps miraculously, the roof doesn’t collapse and there are no reports of deaths or injuries. So the prison guard, who is under special orders to make sure Paul and Silas are held extra securely, wakes up and sees all the doors wide open, and he knows that he is in serious serious trouble. He knows that for letting such prisoners escape, he is likely to be executed on the spot, and so in his terror, the only thing he can think to do is beat them to it and kill himself first. But Paul sees him about to throw himself on his sword, and yells, “Don’t do it! We’re all still here!” And that’s when the jailer falls to his knees and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Now it is so easy to leap on this as preachers have so often done and assume that, because it is in the Bible, this is a theologically loaded question and “being saved” can best be understood against the background of the whole biblical concept of salvation. But I’m quite sure it would be a mistake. A Roman prison guard in first century Philippi is extremely unlikely to have any familiarity at all with the biblical doctrine of salvation and with what “being saved” might mean to Paul and Silas. You have to remember that most of these words that we use theologically had and have ordinary, non theological meanings first. If someone is sitting at a computer and they yell, “Help me find justification”, they probably don’t mean justification before God through faith. They probably just want the edges of their paragraphs to line up neatly and they can’t find the button. If a sausage manufacturer says he’s been saved by the blood of the lamb, there is a good chance that he just means that he avoided bankruptcy by a surge in the sales of black pudding. And this jailer is just pleading for help to find a way of avoiding the dire consequences of angry superior officers. The salvation he is looking for is very much here and now and immediately practical. It is “Sirs, how am I going to get out of this mess alive?”
But! But, but, but… It would actually be most unfair of me to simply ridicule all those preachers who take this as an opportunity to preach on salvation in Jesus Christ. Because, you see, even though the jailer’s question was almost certainly just “how do I get out of the trouble I’m in now?”, Paul and Silas do not reply, “Well, we suggest that you go into hiding, start wearing a false moustache and glasses, and perhaps move with your family to northern Africa.” No. They say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And by the end of the night, the jailer and all his relatives are being baptised. So I can’t pretend that this is not a story about salvation in Christ, and whatever the jailer meant, Paul and Silas take the opportunity to proclaim Christ to him. So what are we to make of this?
Well, one thing it tells us is that the salvation that comes through putting your trust in Jesus is not an entirely different thing from the the salvation that gets you out of a pickle in the here and now. And that is an important starting place, because the image of salvation that became dominant in the middle ages and still holds sway with far too many Christians today would suggest that it is entirely to do with what is going to happen to you after you die. Salvation is seen as being almost exclusively about booking a ticket to heaven and thus avoiding a passage to hell. The implications for the here and now are little more than the requirement that you behave in ways that don’t jeopardise your booking. But unless Paul and Silas are being as stupid and inappropriate as our imaginary neighbour who would have responded to the kidnapped girls by trying to evangelise them instead of getting them out of the house, then clearly they see that putting one’s trust in Jesus is a relevant and meaningful response to the immediate predicament in which the jailer finds himself. Salvation changes things now, not just when you die.
But, clearly this is no simple equation. They can hardly say “Put your trust in Jesus and Jesus will sort out the problems that you have with the authorities and you won’t be punished,” can they? Funnily enough, two prisoners who have just been dragged before the court, flogged, thrown into prison and locked in the stocks are not going to have much credibility if they started making claims like that. “Put your trust in Jesus, take up your cross, and prepare to be hated, persecuted and perhaps killed,” would be more in line with what Jesus said and far more obviously consistent with their present circumstances. But then, “Put your trust in Jesus and things will go from bad to worse,” doesn’t really sound like good news of salvation here and now, does it?
The good news of salvation, as Jesus proclaimed it, was never either “Come to me and you’ll be successful, prosperous and free of troubles”, or “Come to me and there’ll be pie in the sky when you die.” The good news, as Jesus proclaimed it, was always, “the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” The new culture of God has colonised this world, and the life of the new era of God’s love and grace is able to be experienced and lived now. It has arrived. Get on board. That’s why Jesus and the gospel writers use the words salvation and healing almost interchangeably. Jesus heals sick or demonised people and tells them they’re saved. It’s all part of the same reality and it starts now. He doesn’t actually say much about heaven and hell as future realities at all, and most of what he does say simply implies that they are continuations of whichever culture you allow yourself to be swept up in now. Heaven starts now. It is a kingdom or culture that has drawn near and the living of it starts now. Whatever your present circumstances. Even if you be locked in the stocks in the prison, or fearing for your life for failing your superior officers, you can be so set free from having your experience of life determined solely by present circumstances that you can sing hymns while locked in the stocks like Paul and Silas or offer generous forgiveness and understanding while being crucified like Jesus because the life of salvation, life in all its fullness, is so much bigger and richer that it cannot be crushed or destroyed by hostility or hatred or even death.
You see, although salvation does impact directly on the individual circumstances of our lives, it is never primarily about saving individuals. In Jesus the Messiah, God is on about saving the entire creation. God is on about the coming of a new kingdom, a new culture that is transforming the whole world and all that live in it. And the choice that faces each of us as individuals is whether we will get on board with what God is doing and begin living now as part of God’s solution, or whether we will cling to the old ways and remain part of the problem. Will we welcome the new culture as it gathers saints and sinners alike into one new communion of love and abundant life, or will we dig in our heels and demand the maintenance of the old hostile divisions of acceptable and unacceptable, us and them, and like the mob in Philippi declare that this new culture is a heretical threat to our traditional family values and way of life and must be met with the full force of the law?
That’s why their answer to what the jailer should do is not about giving assent to a doctrine of the atonement or of justification by faith, or praying a particular prayer, or even joining a church and participating in the life of worship and prayer. It is “Put your trust in the Lord Jesus.” This was the basic confession of faith of the early Christians: “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not. Traditional values are not. Jesus is Lord, so Jesus calls the shots. This new kingdom or new culture has one Lord, and that’s Jesus, so his style of love and mercy and generous hospitality to all are in, and the old ways of judgement and hostility and a stunted life, measured out in sanctimonious disapproving handfuls, is to be a thing of the past.
And the jailer recognises real life, life in all its fullness, when he sees it, and he eagerly says yes, and so do all his household, and so there is a washing and tending of wounds, and a washing away of sins in the waters of baptism, and so there is food and singing and dancing and an all night party of rejoicing that the kingdom has come and new life starts now. And so the story continues here tonight, for here are we, washed clean, healed and forgiven, and gathered around a table about to be set in continuation of that feast that night in Philippi. And so for each one of us, the question once again is, will you put your trust in the Lord Jesus and live the life of salvation, the life of his kingdom, life in all its fullness, here and now and to the ends of the earth.