The earthquake shaking the prison and the doors opening and the chains falling off the prisoners is an image of the resurrection, it’s a recapitulation of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of Paul and Silas. And in the life of the jailer the resurrection comes a different way, as he gets saved from the power of death by his believing in the Lord Jesus.
This is the second of my two sermons on the resurrection coming to the city of Philippi. As I said last week, Philippi was a colonia, a Roman military town. Its magistrates were military officers, its population was soldiers and their hangers-on from all over the Empire. The spirit of Rome was concentrated here, with its pride and prejudice and arrogant aggression. Caesar was worshiped here as a god, as was Mars, the god of war. Jews were not welcome, if they practiced their religion. Law and order were heavy-handed and violence was just below the surface. There was commerce and prosperity and also corruption and exploitation.
You see the exploitation with the slave girl. She had a real gift, but her owners exploited her. I gotta say that I wish St. Paul had done a little more for her; you know, after he had ended her profitability he might have dealt with her remaining slavery somehow, like having Lydia buy her or something. But there it is; the story was not dreamed up to illustrate a point or make St. Paul look good. The story is offered as historical, and not white-washed, and sometimes even St. Paul needs to be forgiven. If we dare to judge him!
You see the corruption in the unfairness of the magistrates, kowtowing to the slave owners, and you see the violence all through the story. Especially in the violence the jailer is going to do to himself. He knows this city punishes without much thought or any concern for fairness. When something goes wrong, then someone has to pay, and the penalty may be so brutal that suicide is preferable. The fear of death has power in this city, and the people are in bondage to it.
Not that life outside the Empire was better. Not that the barbarians were any less violent or less afraid of violence. There was much about Rome which the apostles valued. They paid their taxes and they prayed for the Emperor. It’s not that Rome was specially bad, but that Rome is typical, it is the Biblical type by which we measure our own societies and nations and ideologies. How are we imperial? How much violence is built into our way of life? How much does our prosperity depend on exploitation? Such questions are always relevant for every nation all the time. Yet after his conversion the jailer is not expected to stop being a jailer, and Lydia does not end her business selling purple to the upper class. The resurrection can keep you in your business, and keep you going within the moral complexity of your employments and activities.
Paul and Silas act like they are free, even in the bondage of their chains. Not free of death, but free of the fear of death. Not because they’re stoical, as you can see later when St. Paul feels very free to make use of his Roman citizenship to get some vindication and respect, but free of the fear of death because of what they believe about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Free to live within the corruption and not be angry or bitter, free to move within the moral complexity with self-respect yourself. That’s the kind of freedom the gospel offers you. It’s the special kind of freedom you get when you become a servant of the Most High God. And today that’s what salvation means. Not only rescue, but freedom — freedom from and freedom for.
Salvation. What is the salvation you desire? Eternal life? Escape from hell? Some sort of release? Some sort of relief? For those of you who are depressed, it usually means finding some meaning for your life. For those of you with anxiety, it usually means relieving your fear of pain and death. That’s what the jailer felt. He was terrified of the punishment that he would get from the prisoners having all escaped. But notice how the power of the resurrection was working to save the jailer before he knew it. St. Paul called out, "Don’t hurt yourself, we’re all still here." That first message saved his life. But his mind was still in bondage, and his fear is evident when he falls before the apostles and voices the classic question of the ages, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Even here, it’s the salvation of his neck he’s worried about.
The second message offers him a salvation greater than he asked for, and gave him more than he expected. He has no guarantee that there might not still be retribution, but his mind is free. And look what happens to him. The prisoners are still within his care, but he who was a jailer now becomes a host. And he washes clean the wounds from their flogging which had been left to fester. He is recapitulating Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples, and he anticipates the baptism which his whole family now receives.
The jailer is empowered here, he is the master who becomes a servant to his guests. He brings them from the dungeon to his house, and he serves them food, again like Jesus in the Upper Room. Here is healing and communion, here is the proper hospitality that the city of Philippi really should have given them. The city is dark outside, but from the windows of this little house there shines a light the darkness can neither overcome or comprehend.
What is it about this new life which the city is afraid of? Why do they find it so disturbing? Aren’t the slave owners right, that this gospel upsets the social order of the city? Isn’t it because the peace and healing if offers is a condition of the Lordship of Jesus, because the salvation it offers is the sovereignty of God? The sovereignty of God calls into question every other sovereignty and every other system which we work out in order to protect our interests and to keep our fears at bay? We are more afraid of the sovereignty of God than of the other hurts and dangers of the world. And often we’ll accept only when we have no other choice, like the jailer, from desperation. Well, some of us are like Lydia, last week, accepting it with calmness and freedom. Most of us are in between. It’s a long continuum, and there’s lots of room for all of us.
You have your own motivations. The desperation of the jailer, the confidence of Lydia, the faith of your fathers like Paul, the faith of your mother, like Silas, maybe you came here attracted by what you saw, maybe you came here driven by your need, maybe you were looking for community, maybe you were looking for nothing but God. Whatever you came here for, you get more back than what had expected—it is related, yes, but different, with implications and extensions that give you pause and second thought. You find that it both comforts you and challenges you, that in giving you what you wanted it transforms you into desiring what you did not want before. This community has more than you bargained for, but God keeps calling you, and you keep taking yet another step further into the sovereignty of God which is salvation.
I’m telling you that God is calling you. God keeps saying, "Come. The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’" And let all of you today who hear this tell each other, "Come." You have freely chosen to come here, but I’m telling you that God was calling you before you knew it. What God is calling you toward is your own resurrection. What God is calling you toward is your own share in the life of God. This is what you were made for, though you are afraid of it. The life is fearful and powerful because it does not belong to you. It belongs to God, who has its sovereignty, but you may desire it when you believe that is it love. The love that calls you is the love which comes out from inside God. And your fear of it is exactly what tells you how true it is. This is the love you may believe in. It is the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.