Message for Easter 7 on Acts 16:16-34 given on May 29, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
As I have been reading the news the last few weeks with so many stories of tragedy, horror and evil, I have been wrestling with a lot of questions: Can we, as Christians, have an impact on those bent on war? Can we make a difference on climate change, which is devastating not only the creation, but poor populations who live in the most vulnerable areas? Can we do anything about the availability of military-style weapons used repeatedly to kill children in school, people of color and other innocents at alarming rates which we now seem to accept as an almost ritual? Do you ask yourself these questions? Do you wonder how you can make a difference?
The truth is our ability to make a difference really depends on the depth of our Christian faith. In our Acts passage, we see four stages of faith that lead us into a deeper relationship with God so that we as the body of Christ can have a real and lasting impact in the world. Paul and Silas move through four stages of faith in this one passage.
The first stage is Simple faith, and we see this in their annoyance at the slave girl’s proclamation about their ministry. This is a self-serving stage—a WIIFM faith—a What’s In It For Me? Faith. The slave girl’s witness was correct about Paul and Silas: They are "men of the Most High God, who proclaimed the way of salvation," and even though they are apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, their first reaction is to focus on themselves. In this stage faith can be reduced to how we feel or to sentimentality—feelings without responsibility. Everything is black and white, right or wrong, I like it or I don’t like it, you’re for me or against me—it’s like a simple social media faith.
We all start out here, with Simple Faith—our children may be here and that’s ok: We ask, “What can I get out of coming here? Do I like Sunday School? Is this worship going to feed me? Do I connect with the music? Who is going to care about me?" These are important questions—and it is a great starting point, but a growing, adult faith does not stop there— we move forward from a Simple, self-centered faith to an Others-focused Faith.
2. Others-Focused Faith: Paul and Silas shifted their focus from the negative effect this slave girl was having on them to her need to be released from this spirit and those who were abusing her for their own financial gain. The question in this second, deeper stage of faith shifts from “what is in it for me? to “How can my relationship with Jesus Christ serve you?” When this shift from self-centered to Others-focused faith happens inside Paul and Silas, healing is the result. Healing is not the only miracle that comes from an others-focused faith—but it is the miracle that happens in this passage.
When we shift the focus from our self, outward to others, it releases the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ to heal and to cast out. Jesus gives us his Spirit so that we can heal, bind up, clothe, feed, and love in his name—and it just did not happen in biblical times—it happens today. When we became others-focused during the pandemic, the Holy Spirit empowered us to start serving a free burrito breakfast and we are getting to know people in our community—people who are homeless, families with children, households with members fighting cancer, people helping elderly neighbors. In many cases we are supporting people who are being others-focused in their own lives. Our women’s group leads us in Other’s focused faith as they reach out every year with quilts, health kits and school kits for refugees here in this country and fleeing Ukraine, letting them know that we notice their need and God loves them.
But there are risks—when Paul and Silas became others-focused it threatened the status quo. Those who were making money off the slave girl dragged them into the marketplace, they were beaten mercilessly and thrown in prison. There were not many Jewish people in Philippi, so they experienced prejudice and suffering. They might have been tempted to give up on this God whom it appeared had given up on them. We can understand the temptation to give up on God when it seems like everything has gone wrong. But Paul and Silas reached down deeply within the depths of their soul to show us yet another level of faith—
3. I call it The Jail House Rock Faith! Jail house rock faith pulls us up when we are about to give up on God. Many people struggle with faith at this stage, when they face adversity, pain and when they are walking through the valley of the shadows and cannot understand a God who allows bad things to happen to good people. In this stage of faith, we come to understand that God does not willingly harm any of us, but that in this fallen world, all of us will contend with evil, all of us will contend with illness, and the vicissitudes of life. For that reason, God sent Jesus to be our strength and stay—not to prevent the valleys, but to strengthen us and walk with us through them to the other side. This is why we are church together—to be the hands and feet and prayers of Christ for each other through the valleys.
That's what Paul and Silas did. Their lips weren’t in the stocks, so Paul and Silas begin to pray and sing and sing and pray. Amazing grace how sweet the sound….. Leaning on the everlasting arms… What a friend we have in Jesus… I’m so glad Jesus lifted, singing glory Hallelujah Jesus lifted me… and they prayed and sang—and soon the whole jail house was lifted up and being witnessed to and believing in this God to whom they sang. Jail house rock faith—is faith that trusts in the providence, the presence, and the power of God in all circumstances, no matter how dire life seems. So, Paul and Silas didn’t have a pity party, they had a prayer meeting! They sought divine instruction and intervention through prayer. Elvis had nothing on them—the earth shook, the bars broke, and the chains were unfastened. Through the power of the Spirit, not just Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners were released.
Now you would think that Paul and Silas and everyone would bolt as fast as they could—they’re free! But no, they stayed and witnessed to the jailer. Trusting that God would not only provide for them, but also for others, they move to a fourth level of faith,
4.Risk-Taking faith in the face of adversity. Rather than running away—they stayed! Paul and Silas first saved the jailer’s life by not leaving. Then they shared the faith of Jesus Christ with him, offered him new life, and accepted his hospitality. Now this was a truly dangerous enterprise. The angry crowd that came after Paul and Silas could now come after the jailer –the jailer was jeopardizing his life and standing in the community by becoming a Christian; Paul and Silas were doing the same again, by staying in Philippi and going with him to his home. This jailer’s household along with Lydia in our Acts reading from last week become the core of the church at Philippi to whom the letters to the Philippians in the New Testament is written.
Wonderful things happen when we move from a Simple, self-centered faith, to an Others-focused faith where healing and service happens, to a Jail-house rock faith that trusts God to provide for us even in hardship, and finally to a Risk-taking faith that enables us to act for salvation, even in the face of adversity, trusting that Jesus accompanies us and works through us to do great things for the kingdom.
St. Luke’s is a place of risk-taking faith. We have already taken a risk by committing to our future in our capital campaign with a vision moving forward. It’s now time to take the next step in our risk-taking faith and start to make our vision a reality. When we dwell in the deep stages of our faith, we trust we are full of Christ’s Spirit to make the difference in our community that Jesus put us here to make. Our Global Mission team heads to the border in El Paso on June 7—they are all engaging in a risk-taking faith to shape our mission to refugees in our area and in this state. We have taken a risk to be LGBTQ welcoming in a state that is not so friendly to them if you have noticed. We are right down the street from the high school and nearly half of LGBTQ youth have considered suicide this year--God might have a mission for a welcoming church there. I have already talked with two members for whom our children going to school in safety is a vital and issue and they are ready to take risks to help make this happen. If you are also passionate about addressing gun violence as a follower of Jesus and are willing to take risks for the sake of our children, please talk with me after the service so I can get you connected.
What is the issue that breaks your heart and what risk are you willing to take for the sake of making God’s kingdom real and showing Jesus’ love? You can identify one issue you are willing to work on and pray for on the back of your attendance slip –whether I have mentioned it or not—that you have a passion for, so we can move forward in mission.
The entire early church was built by followers whose faith moved swiftly from Simple faith to engage in Others-focused faith and jail-house rock faith, and risk-taking faith. We can make a difference in the issues of our day, because we are filled with the same Holy Spirit as Paul and Silas—whose mission ensured we got the message of salvation in Jesus Christ 2000 years later. If they can do it, we can, too.
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