Saturday, May 07, 2016

May 8, Easter 7: "What Must I Do to Be Saved?"

(The Tin Man is Silas, the Scarecrow Paul, the Lion is the Jailer, and Dorothy is Jesus.)

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-26, John 17:20-26

“What must I do to be saved?” That is the question. That’s a more pressing question than whether to be or not to be. Hillary Clinton be thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Bernie Sanders?” Are you thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Hillary Clinton?” or are you thinking, “What must I do to be saved from Donald Trump?” You know the answers: “Believe in Donald Trump, believe in Hillary Clinton.”

Most often the answer is not belief but some action plan. The residents of Fort MacMurray, Alberta have to do specific things to get saved from the terrible wildfires burning around them. Some Americans believe that in order to be safe they have to carry their own guns. That means they no longer believe in the police to be safe. They no longer believe that most basic principle of civilization, that the government should have a monopoly on violence. That principle is why there was a Pax Romana, to the advantage of the mission of the apostles.

In our story, when the Philippian jailer asked the question, he wasn’t asking about the saving of his soul but about the saving of his neck, and about the safety of his household from the potential retribution of the magistrates. That they were vengeful and violent is apparent in their treatment of Paul and Silas on minimal accusation.

This was a city of the Roman army, and what is an army but the organization of violence for power. An army uses violence for the safety of its citizens and for the imposition of its will upon the unwilling. But violence can never be fully organized, it always pushes out, it breaks out, and expands like fire, and feeds on itself, violence producing violence.

When the jailer asked the question, I think what he wanted was an action plan, to anticipate the magistrates and take some steps to defend his household against the worst. And so the answer that Paul gives is a strange one. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your household.” What?

Do you mean I should run to the shrine of some foreign deity and quick make a sacrifice? But there are no such shrines allowed in Philippi, only the temples to Mars and Jupiter and to the deified Caesars. Or do you mean that some Jewish general will intervene on my behalf tomorrow morning? Do you mean that some Jewish aristocrat will strike a deal with the magistrates? Do you mean I should not do anything, but depend on somebody I do not know to act on my behalf? What could you mean by what you are saying?

This invitation by St. Paul to “believe” was extravagant. It offered no action plan but to believe in Jesus as the Lord who could save him from the very power of Rome that he had been serving up till now. And for Rome, it was Caesar who was entitled the Lord and Savior, especially among the army. The Caesars had saved the Roman Empire from self-destruction, at the Battle of Actium just  down the road, and it was on their having saved the empire that they claimed their lordship. Well, the empire maybe, but this jailer was expendable. He had to save himself, but he couldn’t see how.

So he asks, “What can I do to be saved?” The extravagant answer is that there is nothing to do but trust this Lord Jesus to save you. We have no proof, only the evidence of the earthquake, and the doors opened, and our chains unfastened—by the way, all signs and metaphors of the resurrection—and we did already save you from your suicide.

Has he got a choice? What a predicament. How unlike with Lydia, in last week’s story, also in Philippi. Her choice for Jesus was free and peaceful, her life was fine. The jailer’s choice is life and death and in the midst of  violence. And the result is just as wonderfully dramatic. If Lydia’s big house became the church in Philippi, tonight so does this jailer’s humble apartment, tonight like the stable in Bethlehem, the light of Jesus shining in the dark.

And what happened there describes a worship service: First they spoke the word of the Lord to everyone in the house—that’s the sermon. Then the jailer washes their wounds, which is baptismal, and a kind of absolution, plus the actual baptism, and then you get Communion when he serves the meal and they all rejoice. When they were in chains they had been singing hymns, and now they are singing Gospel songs!

So what’s the salvation here? Well, the jailer goes through a transfer of sovereignty, he gets moved in place. He doesn’t cross a border but the border crosses over him, and in his baptism he gets naturalized, from the sovereignty of the Lord Caesar to the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus. He may or may not have been a Roman citizen, but tonight he’s made a citizen of the City of God.

Lordship and salvation. The one goes with the other. The Caesars were lords of  Rome as long they were saving Rome. And if the Lord Jesus cannot save you, why have him as your Lord? What salvation does he offer you, that you can believe he will deliver for you? There are many salvation stories in the Bible, and many aspects to salvation, like the salvation of your souls at death, and salvation from the fear of death, et cetera. But what’s the aspect of salvation offered in this story?

Salvation is freedom, and first it’s freedom from your circumstances and then it’s freedom within your circumstances. The circumstance of the slave girl was the exploitation of her spiritual gift, and the circumstance of the jailer was the dominance of violence and the power of death, which would have caused his suicide.

We are not told what happened to the slave girl after her liberation, nor do we know whether the jailer kept his job or if the magistrates left him alone. But that’s the message here. The jailer was saved from the bondage of death for the freedom of the resurrection. He entered a freedom from the compulsions of circumstance, that same freedom that Paul and Silas evidenced even in their shackles as they sang and prayed.

So that no matter what the magistrates might do to him, the jailer was be free from the bondage of fear. That’s a most precious benefit of salvation, the freedom of your mind and of your soul within your circumstances. And what that freedom results in is joy. The story ends with their rejoicing. Freedom from your circumstance is joy. So the first aspect of salvation here is joy.

The second aspect is service. Not servitude, not subservience, but service freely chosen. Look, the guy who had shackled them now washed their wounds and fed them. Their guard become their nurse, their keeper became their host. He exercised his freedom directly within his circumstance. He remained their keeper, they did not run away, but the circumstance of hostility became the circumstance of hospitality. Salvation is freedom for service precisely within and for your circumstance.

That’s important for Old First. It’s a circumstance of our congregation that we have inherited this building. No other Protestant congregation around here has been handed such a heavy gift. We do not run away from it. A variety of missions is available to congregations, and we choose our mission within and for our circumstance.

Our particular community of Jesus is freely choosing to serve God in paint and plaster and ceiling ribs. We do this for lavish hospitality, a house of healing, a sanctuary of reconciliation, and a shelter of peace. In a few moments Cynthia Ponce is going to speak to you about our Respite Shelter, and for you to serve in this Respite Shelter is an incarnation of salvation. The homeless men will tell you how they enjoy finding rest within the glory.

I like to end my sermons on love, the love of God. I think I can again today. Listen, you can believe that when you freely chose for joy and the service of hospitality, you are yielding to a power that is greater than your own, which is the power and glory of the love of God. So I end with the words of the gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.”

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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