“What Must I Do?”
The old spiritual puts it this way:
and Silas bound in jail
no money for to pay their bail
your eyes on the prize
on, hold on.
Look at Paul and Silas. There they sit, feet in stocks,
down in the innermost dungeon.
And listen to them. They’re singing.
could end up in jail should surprise no one. For nearly two thousand years we’ve
been imprisoned around the world for professing our faith, for translating the
Bible, for opposing slavery, for protesting wars, for supporting the rights of all
Congregationalists, living as they were guided by scripture and the Spirit of
God, often found themselves in jail. One early pastor
in the Evangelical and Reformed stream of the United Church of Christ was
Gustav Wilhelm Eisenlohr, who took part in the German political revolution of
1848 and, to avoid being sent to prison, fled to America.
our religious heritage: prison and the threat of prison.
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 do not limit the joy and hope of Christians.
Paul and Silas sit in jail, singing hymns to God—the
first in a long line.
How did they get there?
What do they tell us about the hope that holds on, even
in the worst of circumstances?
It starts with a slave girl.
Paul is free; she is captive.
She is captive to her owners. And they seem to make a
good amount of money from her. As in ancient Philippi so also today there are
those who would profit from the captivity of others. And yes, when people of
faith work toward the release of the captive, they encounter great resistance.
In Philippi Paul encounters a girl who can tell fortunes,
apparently. We might see things differently, but the Book of Acts doesn’t
present this girl as an imposter. Indeed, at least in speaking about Paul she
speaks the truth—and with some persistence.
For several days she follows Paul and his companions
shouting: “These people are the servants of the Most High God.” The word we
translate as “servants” can also mean “slaves.” So here is a slave suggesting
that these apparently free people are captive as well—“slaves of the Most High
Even the truth can become irritating. “There they are—the
servants of God. Listen up everybody. Here come the slaves of God.”
Day after day.
Finally Paul has had enough. Not so much out of
compassion as annoyance, Paul speaks to the imprisoning spirit: “Come out of
her—in the name of Jesus Christ!”
Not everyone likes it when people’s lives change. We
often forget that.
You might remember the gospel story of Jesus releasing a
man from evil spirits that plagued him and sending the spirits—which were legion—into
a herd of pigs. The pigs then promptly ran off the nearest cliff and into the
sea. Well, the local Pork Producers Association came with a simple request:
“Please get out of town.”
And now the Philippi Fortune Telling Alliance is upset.
If you think people get upset when you mix religion and
politics, look at what happens when you mix religion and economics.
Lutherans in East Germany began to say publicly and with
growing courage that the communist economic and political system was corrupt
and enslaving. The government used violence to quell protests and still they
spoke, still they marched. The Wall fell down and people were set free.
Some people of faith remind us that capitalism also has
its flaws, that an unfettered free market works against the well-being of many.
The result? The Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously put it: “When I
fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why people were poor, they
called me a communist.”
The owners of this now “unprofitable” girl take Paul
before the magistrates.
They appeal to a desire for order: “These men are causing
They appeal to a fear of the new: “They are advocating practices
that we cannot accept.”
They appeal to anti-Semitism: “These men are Jews.”
They appeal to all the reasons one might find to hate and
despise and punish.
There are consequences when people seek to be faithful.
We struggle, Paul writes, against principalities and powers. Those powers do
not give up quickly.
Paul and Silas set someone free. For that they are beaten
and thrown into prison: the first in a long line.
Paul and Silas find themselves in chains. Yet still, they
We shouldn’t be surprised.
What happens next, of course, does surprise us.
An earthquake shakes the foundations of the jail. All
that we count on as unchangeable—iron bars, stone walls—is changed. All the
prisons in which we find ourselves are opened by the power of God.
This, if not our reality, is at least our prayer. A
Christian from Namibia prayed in this way:
break the chains of humiliation and death,
as on that glorious morning
you were raised.
those who weep as they sow the seeds of justice and freedom,
the harvest of peace and reconciliation.[i]
This is an Easter prayer. We pray like this because of
the resurrection promise that new life is at hand, that freedom is near.
Several years ago a prisoner in a Soviet concentration
On Easter Day all of us
who were imprisoned for religious convictions were united in the one joy of
Christ. We were all taken into one feeling, into one spiritual triumph,
glorifying the one eternal God . . .. All the prisoners here for religious
convictions, whatever their denomination, were surrounded by more spying, by
more threats from the secret police. Yet Easter was there: great, holy,
spiritual, unforgettable. . . .How our hearts beat joyfully in communion with
the great Resurrection! Death is conquered, fear no more. . .Christ is risen![ii]
What an affirmation of hope!
In faith we affirm that God’s power to set free is far
greater than the human ability to imprison.
In the face of such power the jailer draws his sword and
prepares to kill himself. Death, after all, will be his reward for letting all
the prisoners escape. But when the word comes that everyone is still there, the
jailer falls down and asks: “What must I do to be saved?”
Please, let’s stop right here for a moment. Do what you
can to set aside all the dry and stale ideas such a question evokes. Do what
you can to get beyond the rigid doctrinalism 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 first of all a question about what will make life
possible and secondly a question about what will make life worthwhile. It is
asked out of desperation.
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
What must I do to be saved?
What must I do to have life,
find wholeness, peace?
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?”
It is a straightforward question about being fully alive:
“What must I do to be saved?”
And Paul's answer is disturbingly direct—Believe. Believe
in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. You will find the wholeness you
As the annoying girl who followed him said, Paul is proclaiming the way of salvation. And
remember, that word means “health,” means “wholeness.”
Protestants have long claimed that there's nothing we can
“do,” really, to be saved. Neither attending church nor staying away from
church, neither saving a lot of money nor giving away a lot of money, neither
being good middle class Americans nor being good rebels with or without a cause
will do it.
Believe. That's it. Commit yourself to the One whose life
was about freedom, whose resurrection was about life.
Believing in Christ is not something that we do in the
privacy of our rooms. Reflecting on this, the late Robert Bellah said: “On
occasion students come to me and ask what church to go to, adding, ‘but I’m
afraid I don’t believe in God.’ 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
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.
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 we celebrate in this Easter season.
It is the hope in which we baptize.
It is the hope that sustains us through trouble and
trial, the hope that lets us keep singing.
In this hope we look toward the future that is already
breaking in around us.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Hold on.
[i]. Zephania Kameeta, in Bearing Our Sorrows, pg. 175.
[ii]. Bearing Our Sorrows, pg. 168.
[iii]. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 83-84.
[iv]. Robert Bellah, Christian Century, April 19, 1995, pg.