Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 16, 2010
SALVATION IN THREE ACTS
Text: Acts 16:11-34
As you drive to the beach along two-lane state highways, the closer you get to the beach the more you see the signs in people’s yards, along the road, scrawled on the sides of barns, “Jesus Saves.” Yes, but what does this mean? And does it mean more than we think? More than the sign-makers know? In today’s passage from Acts we get a glimpse of what the salvation of God in Christ can mean.
The last time I preached this text here I lost my sermon manuscript somewhere between the robing room and the pulpit. At one point early in the service I crossed the chancel retracing my steps to the robing room in a frantic attempt to find it. No luck. So I climbed the pulpit stairs sans sermon and did the best I could. I was waiting for someone to say, “Preacher, that was your best sermon yet!” After worship I solved the mystery of the missing sermon: it was hidden on the lectern, underneath the Bible. In those days I welcomed you to worship from the lectern and the Bible was processed to the front by an acolyte during the first hymn. I had left my sermon folder on the lectern and the acolyte had placed the big lectern Bible on top of it. Sermon hidden by Bible! It seemed almost a dream image! Word of God hides preacher’s words, Bible covers up sermon!
Well, I try again, with a new sermon in hand, and only God knows whether it will be an improvement. The title: “Salvation in Three Acts.”
I Salvation, Act One
Paul and Silas arrived in Philippi amid changed plans. They had planned, hoped, to take the gospel to Asia Minor, but as the text mysteriously says, Jesus and the Holy Spirit blocked those plans, then opened the door to Greece. It was a momentous detour. Sometimes detours turn into holy destinations. Now the gospel was headed west - - toward Rome.
When they got to Philippi they could not find a synagogue - - which was where they typically began their preaching. So they went outside the city to the river where Jews often assembled to worship if they had no synagogue. “Shall We Gather at the River?”
There they met a wealthy, competent business woman named Lydia, a seller of purple cloth. She is described as a God-worshiper, a God-seeker, a profoundly spiritual person.
The Spirit of the Lord opened her heart, the text says, “to listen eagerly” to Paul. She received the gospel of Christ and was baptized, then she offered her home to be the house-church of the new Christian mission in Philippi.
When did salvation begin in her? Perhaps God’s Spirit had moved in her all her life. Perhaps in her travels to buy and sell purple cloth she had encountered the Spirit of God in many religious forms. But now salvation came to a powerful focal point. The way of Jesus became her way. Her religious longing, seeking found a home. Christ found a home in her. Something clicked, fell into place, opened like a flower.
II Salvation, Act Two
Paul and Silas were passing a slave girl who made money for her owners through her fortune-telling powers. She began to follow them around town yelling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim the way of salvation.”
Paul grew annoyed by her constant trailing of them and loud exclamations. Why the annoyance? Did she seem a bit “off,” little out of control? They wanted press, but not that kind of press. We don’t know. As one famous writer has said: “The past is foreign country. They do things differently there.”
Paul then turned and exorcised the demonic spirit within her: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And out it came.
This is salvation as deliverance, being set free from the forces that control you, compulsions, addictions, the hidden power of the unconscious, patterns of living that are destructive to you and to others.
She was now free. But her owners were not pleased. She had lost her fortune-telling powers which were how they “pimped” her. Their economic exploitation of her was done.
There are ways of making money and making a living which are counter to the purposes of God, destructive to persons, communities and to the earth itself: slavery, mountain-top removal, sex trafficking and drug trafficking, unethical financial practices like Madoff’s schemes or the bundling and selling of unsecured loans. There are ways of making a living unworthy of you and God’s purposes for you. Jesus comes to upset the economic equilibrium of every system based on exploitation. Jesus comes to deliver us from what is destroying and diminishing our lives – and life itself.
Salvation as deliverance is rarely pretty, sometimes messy, but it is part of God’s repertoire of salvation. It comes when we are at the end of our rope, but God lives at the end of our ropes.
The deliverance of the slave girl upset the economic arrangement of her owners. They were enraged and had Paul and Silas thrown in prison.
The accusers used anti-Semitic cant to persuade the judge:
These men are disturbing our city: They are Jews, and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt.
Shades of the Third Reich.
So into prison they go - - which brings us to Salvation, the Third Act.
III Salvation, Act Three
Paul and Silas are in jail. They are locked in chains, and singing hymns to God to the amazement of the other prisoners to be sure (our 4-year olds are learning this story today). Then an earthquake shook the prison, opened the doors and loosened the chains which bound Paul and Silas.
When the jailer came in and saw what the earthquake had done he was terrified by what he was sure had happened: The escape of all the prisoners. He was responsible for them, responsible with his own life, and drew his sword to kill himself. Paul cried out: “Do not harm yourself, we are all here.” Here is a saving message, a saving companionship we offer to all who are in danger of self-harm, in all the ways we might harm ourselves: Do not harm yourself; we are here, we are here for you, with you. Here is an embodied compassion that breaks through every form of despising and self-despising, every form of despair and dark hopelessness. “They took me in when I had nowhere else to go,” has been the testimony through the years of Christ’s love embodied in the church.
The jailer fell trembling to his knees and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” And they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Do not be put off by what sounds like a formulaic question and answer. His words are a cry in the night, and their answer is an invitation to relationship with the living God and living Christ as deep as believing, a believing in or into, which means life, full, abundant eternal life, faith not as creed, but as life-line. A life-saver thrown into the water for you to catch.
The last scene is quite beautiful. The jailer takes Paul and Silas upstairs above the jail where he and his family live. He pours water into a basin and washes their wounds. They take water, pour it into a basin and baptize him and his whole family. Here is church at its most basic and most beautiful: Washing each other’s wounds, baptizing each other, all in the mutuality of a love which is a grace beyond measure.
John Calvin once said, “God knows we are creatures and so loves us in ways that we can understand: in bread and wine and water.” The text ends with rejoicing and a sharing of a meal.
What is the salvation or salvations (plural) of God in Christ? South American liberation theologian Jon Sabrino says we should talk of salvations in the plural. Here are three stories. Only you can connect the dots for your own life.
What is the salvation of God you most need this day? Wholeness, healing, deliverance, a way out of the darkness, faith? The first step of discipleship is as simple as this: to give as much of yourself as you can to as much of Christ as you know. You may be ready for that step today. It is here for you today, as real as water.
O Water, earthly and heavenly
with which we wash and are washed
pour yourself upon us this day
that we may pour you out upon the world
with the joyful sound, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.