- About Us
- Adult Ministry
- Bible Study
- Care and Support
- Church Partnerships
- Opportunities to Serve
- Stewardship Reflections
- Children & Youth
- News & Events
How Can I Be Saved?
Rev. Jeff Crews
Sunday, 12 May 2013
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Text: Acts 16:16-34 & John 17:20-26
Our passage from Acts tells a story of Paul and Silas in Philippi proclaiming the Gospel. Luke, the author of the Book of the Acts, is a great story-teller, and our passage today is one of his best stories. Just as Jesus’ birth narrative by Luke is a story with many layers of meaning, so too, is our passage today. And while our story contains fortune-telling slave girls, earthquakes and jailers ready to commit suicide, it also contains many layers of meaning about God’s saving work in the world. As I pondered this passage preparing for today, it became obvious to me that this story is about freedom; physical freedom, life freedom, love freedom, and spiritual freedom. The jailer asks in verse 30, “What must I do to be saved?” This question about freedom is on every lip in our story, and it is the question that is on our lips this morning.
Will you join your heart with mine in prayer? “Dear God who freed Israel, who freed Jesus from death, and who frees the church in every moment of salvation, we thank you for the spiritual freedom that Christ brings to all of us. Save us, O God. Free us! Amen.”
Paul and Silas are wandering around the Mediterranean, and while in Philippi, they run into a slave-girl who is possessed by a demon of divination; a fortune-teller. Of course, we can see that this poor girl is not free at all. She is trapped in a possessed body, she is trapped in slavery, she is trapped in economic servitude, and she is trapped into bothering Paul, so much so that he exorcises the spirit from her. She truthfully was saying Paul was proclaiming the way of freedom through the Gospel—the good news of freedom. But Paul commanded the spirit to leave her, and she fell silent, free and fortune-telling no more. Her owners were furious—Paul had destroyed the goose that was laying golden eggs for them, so they dragged Paul and Silas to the market place where they could be charged and tried. Rather than charge them with what really happened, the slave-owners charge them of being Jews, advocating non-Philippian customs, and then they charge them of being non-Roman foreigners. To be very candid, I heard the same types of accusations being hurled at the Boston bombers. Even though they are American citizens, many accused them of non-American ways. It is just as easy today as it was in Paul’s time to stereotype foreigners and accuse them of things because they are “other.” The crowd around Paul quickly took up the hate-speech and condemned Paul and Silas to being stripped, flogged and jailed. Interesting punishment for giving a slave-girl her spiritual freedom. Paul freed the slave-girl, but he lost his physical freedom for it.
So now, Paul is the one without freedom—but this is not the end of the story. He and Silas don’t act like they lost their freedom, in fact they act like free men even in the deepest most secure un-free part of the prison. Paul and Silas sing and pray and carry on as if they were still free—and that is because they are still free spiritually. And then, at the darkest moment of the night, an earthquake shakes the prison. God shakes the foundations of the imprisoning Roman Empire and all the prisoners are set free. Not just Paul and Silas, but everyone’s chains were unfastened. Paul’s message that evening to the other prisoners set them all free. But did you notice where they all ran when they were unshackled? The jailer assumed they all ran away and he was ready to kill himself, chained to the responsibility of his failure. Now the prisoners are free but the jailer is enslaved. And just as the jailer is about to kill himself, Paul steps in, now physically free but refusing to run, and Paul says, “Don’t harm yourself—we are all here.” Then the jailer, quite astounded, takes everyone outside—makes them all even more free-- and the jailer asks the question of the ages, “What must I do to be saved?” What must I do to be free like you? What must I do to remove these chains of enslavement to my job and the Empire and my miserable life? How can I gain freedom? How can I be free like you? Here, Luke as the story-teller, places an unlikely answer on Paul’s lips. Here, just moments before, the jailer was taking Paul’s freedom, but in a flash, Paul is now free and the jailer is trapped in failure to the point of wanting to kill himself. Then Paul offers the jailer these freedom-filled words. Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved—you will have the freedom you desire. Believe what Jesus taught and lived. We are standing here freed in love and compassion and serving God and one another, Paul says, we are not serving the Empire. The jailer asks for earthly freedom, and Paul responds with the deeper meaning of the Gospel, the eternal spiritual freedom of salvation.
So this is a story of multiple freedoms. The jailer was the only one who appeared to have any freedom at the start, but ended up being the one saved by the freeing Gospel of Christ. The jailer is us. And what is this Gospel, this good news of freedom? Jesus shows us that God loves us and forgives us, so we can freely forgive ourselves and others. Jesus taught that God loves everyone and everything, so we are now free to love God, each other, and ourselves. Jesus has freed us! This is the good news.
There are so many levels and types of freedom in this passage. How can we understand the relationship between these various levels of physical and spiritual freedom?
Let me tell me a story about different kinds of freedom. Two Viet Nam veterans shared a hospital room in the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California. The older vet was already in the bed by the window of a room when the slightly younger vet arrived. The younger vet had just finished a massive back surgery, and now was in a full-body cast that required he lay totally flat for several months. As the vets got to know one another, the vet in the body cast would ask the vet by the window to tell him what he saw outside. The older vet would describe the beautiful landscape, the abundant flowers, the trees, the changing cloudscape, the city skyline on the horizon. He would tell of lovers sitting on a bench, whispering sweet nothings and giggling. These moments of sharing the world outside became the center point of the men’s day, and the beautiful details of the unfolding life outside their window was the one thing that made their very slow days tolerable.
After several months, the men became very close, sharing their lives, their hopes and their dreams. But it slowly dawned on the vet in the body cast that his roommate by the window was seriously ill. Coughing spats grew into labored breathing, but somehow, the daily routine of the freedom of the window stories continued. That is, until one morning when the vet by the window did not wake up, having passed peacefully in his sleep. The next day the remaining vet’s body cast was removed. When he returned to the room, he asked to be placed in the bed by the window, to honor his friend and to marvel at the wondrous sights. When in his bed, he labored to sit up to see out of the window, and was greeted with a view of [pause] a brick wall. He could see nothing outside except the next building. He called the nurse. “What happened?” he cried. She quietly explained to him the vet by the window had been blind for 25 years, and even though he was blind, he shared the gift of freedom every day. [pause]
We do not live in physical jails, but we can be imprisoned by our work, our families, cultural expectations, by diseased bodies, debt, or self-doubt. We live in a free country, but many of us are deeply constrained by what others think, or by social convention. Mother’s Day is an interesting example. While we hope and pray that Mother’s Day brings happy dreams, experiences and memories for everyone, the reality is that some people do not or did not have good relationships with their mothers. So, we need to be free enough to also celebrate even fractured relationships on Mother’s Day, honoring that the world is not perfect and not everyone fits the same “normal” mold. In addition, as increasing numbers of non-traditional families, such as those with gay men and women adopt and raise children, we give ourselves the freedom to realize that there are mothering capabilities in all of us—that mothering crosses gender lines and men can genuinely express a mothering nature, just as women can express genuine fatherly love. As part of our Open and Affirming stance, we are free to imagine a world beyond strict gender roles, where men are free to be mother figures, or women are free to be father figures; or we can even call God our heavenly mother.
So, like the jailer, we ask, “What must I do to be saved?” We do not usually think of salvation as freedom, but the vet by the window reminds us that freedom saves us. Our stories today frame being saved as being granted freedom to chose, being given the freedom to live a life believing on Jesus. Salvation is being freed from the jails and trials of the world, being freed from the burdens that separate us from God. Salvation is being set free to live every moment trusting in God and Jesus. Salvation is not a one-time decision, but ongoing and constant life of freedom in Christ. In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus speaks a prayer to God about the church. This passage in John 17 is a prayer about us from Jesus to God! Jesus asks God for our freedom to be faithful, our freedom to be the unified church, and the freedom to love God and be loved by God with all of our being. This is the Easter story—we are freed from death in Christ!
So, what must we do to be saved? Salvation is spacious, luscious, all-pervasive spiritual freedom, free even if we are jailed or in a body cast. Saved in Christ, we are free to live, free to love, and free to celebrate God and one another. Jesus invites us to trust that his love frees us. Believe in Christ’s life-work of love, and you will be saved in freedom. Amen.