Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2016
Acts 16:16-34 Commentary
TANSTAAFL is an acronym for the old adage, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” reportedly coined by Robert Heinlein. Quite simply, it means even if something appears to be free, there’s always some kind of catch. So your friendly neighborhood lobbyist (or pastor) may buy you lunch or dinner. However, she’s probably going to use the occasion to ask you to do something for her. If, after all, something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.
People naturally assume that there’s also no such thing as free lunch when it comes to religion. So they feel compelled to join Paul’s flustered jailer in asking, “What must I do (italics added) to be saved?” After all, nothing so precious as salvation can possibly be free, can it? We naturally assume that since the idea of salvation as a free gift seems too good to be true, it must be.
What’s more, some pastors seem all too eager to feed this heresy. After all, some regularly dole out advice like, “Pray every day, don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t swear. Go to church every Sunday and put lots of money in the offering plate while you’re there.” Even churches with a more biblical view of grace sometimes pack our services with “musts” and “shoulds.” By doing so leaders imply that we must do certain things to have salvation.
Yet we profess that when it comes to the greatest gift in the universe, there is such a thing as a free lunch. God, in Christ, has done everything to grant salvation. Of course, salvation wasn’t free for God. It cost God the life and death of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. Yet as a result, when it comes to salvation, as one prominent theologian has written, “the heavy lifting is accomplished by Another.”
Of course, God’s salvation by grace was hardly a doorway to a boring life for Paul. In fact, in this text, he packs about all the activity into one day that anyone possibly can. Paul and his companions are, as Luke reports, on their “way to the place of prayer,” something they did every day when they were in Philippi.
However, a slave girl who has a lucrative knack for predicting the future interrupts their trip. People own her because she makes much money for them by forecasting what will happen to their clients. What the original language calls a “python spirit” possesses this slave girl. It claims to help her do what modern psychic hotlines claim to do: tell you what’s going to happen.
While citizens of the twenty-first century may be skeptical about such prescience, apparently the Philippians weren’t. They’ve, after all, turned this slave girl into quite the “golden goose” for her masters. Yet while we’re not sure the slave girl could actually tell the future, her spirit clearly revealed to her some things other people didn’t yet realize. After all, as she chases Paul and his companions, she hollers things about a most high God and the way to salvation (17).
Since this slave is telling the truth, we’re not sure why she so obviously irritates Paul. Perhaps it’s her captivity to a demon rather than her message or persistence that so deeply troubles the apostle. Paul eventually tires of her enslavement and casts the evil spirit right out of the slave girl. Though we can be certain this was a great relief for this girl, Luke doesn’t tell us what happens to her. Luke does, however, tell us what happens to the slave girl’s masters. They sense Paul has snapped off their meal ticket’s psychic antenna. Since this creates a cash flow problem for the slave’s masters, they haul Paul and company off to court. Religion has gotten mixed up with economics in Philippi and, as is often the case, religion loses. After all, the slave girl’s owners accuse Paul and company of disturbing the peace, in other words, of disrupting their profitable business.
The Philippians, apparently committed capitalists, fall right into line with the masters. To “keep the peace” they attack and batter Paul and Silas. Not content with such vigilante justice, however, the local judges order soldiers to also strip and brutally beat the apostles. They then banish them to the back cell of the city jail. So while God has used Paul and Silas to set a pitiful young woman free, in the process, the authorities have jailed the apostles. The liberators have become the prisoners.
Their two savage beatings probably leave Paul and Silas intensely uncomfortable. Yet instead of complaining about it, the apostles turn their jail time into a hymn sing that seems to shut down all conversation around them. Apparently the only person in the jail who isn’t listening to them sing is the jailer. After all, it seems to take an earthquake to make him finally pay attention to his prisoners.
By the time the warden finds his way down to the shaken prison cells, he worries his prisoners have disappeared. The rattled warden knows what his punishment for such dereliction of duty will be. So he decides to save his boss the trouble of killing him. Paul, however, interrupts the suicidal jailer. “Don’t do hurt yourself,” we can almost hear him shout. “We’re all still here, just singing.” You see, Paul and Silas were never really the prisoners in Philippi. They’re free men.
While it seems like an odd way to launch an investigation into a jailbreak, the jailer immediately asks the apostles, “What must I do to be saved?” Apparently this shaken jailer recognizes that he’s enslaved. So he asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be free.
The apostles answer, of course, by saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ…” After all, Jesus Christ has already done everything necessary for the jailer’s salvation. All that’s left is to simply believe that God graciously did it. So what must I do to be saved? “Nothing,” Paul basically answers. “Just trust that Jesus has already done it all for you and that you’re all set for eternal life.”
Then, however, as if to remind the jailer and us that God’s grace is incredibly lavish, Paul adds, “You and your household” will be saved. God’s salvation, the apostle insists, will scoop up the jailer and his family before they even get a chance to do much of anything.
Yet while God’s people don’t have to do anything to be saved, we must still admit that even simply believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is immensely difficult. First, accepting Christ’s finished work means the end of efforts to save ourselves. On top of that, our consciences (and sometimes the people around us) never let us forget that we grievously sin against God by failing to keep any of God’s commandments. What’s more, Christians know that we still often succumb to the powerful tug of sin’s attractiveness.
Yet Christians profess that when God looks at us, God sees only Christ and Christ’s righteousness. God graciously looks right past the dark things you and I see in our own lives that make us doubt that God could ever love us.
Of course, God literally sees sins. God sees and knows, after all, everything. However, we profess that God graciously treats us as if God doesn’t see them. So while we keep slipping back into our sinful habits, God keeps redirecting us. God doesn’t even mention the fact that God has already had to do that a thousand times.
So what must those whom we teach and to whom we preach do to be saved? Not a blessed thing. In fact, as we profess, even the act of believing in Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us. So Christ doesn’t just do everything necessary for our salvation. God also gives us the gift of faith we desperately need in order to faithfully receive that work.
What must our hearers do to be saved? Not a blessed thing. God, however, does invite us to do certain things in thankful response to God’s great gift of salvation. We glimpse that in the subsequent interaction between the apostles and their former jailer. Midnight washing fills this redeemed house. The jailer responds to Christ’s finished work of salvation by tenderly washing the wounds his cronies had earlier inflicted on Paul and Silas. Then the apostles turn right around and gently bathe his family and him in God’s healing baptismal waters.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons.)
In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner winsomely writes, “After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
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