“What Must I Do?”

                                                                    May 1, 2016


Acts 16:16-34


The old spiritual puts it this way:

                        Paul and Silas bound in jail

                        Had no money for to pay their bail

                        Keep your eyes on the prize

                        Hold 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.

That Christians 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 people.

Early 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.

This is 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 God.”

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 a disturbance.”

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 sing.

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:

            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]

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 camp wrote:

            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 way.”[iii]

What must I do to be saved?

What must I do to have life,

            to be set free,

                        to 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 are seeking.

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 living community.”[iv]

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. 427.