What can I do to be saved?
The jailer’s question to Paul resounds throughout this story, through the many different situations and individuals, and through all of our lives today. It is an eternal, archetypal question that surfaces in almost every story ever told, throughout history and literature. It is a question that seems to be embedded into our very being. At some level, we must all consider what it is that holds us back … from what? From freedom, happiness, contentment?
Slavery and Freedom
A. The concepts of slavery and freedom run throughout this story
Perhaps this story and these concepts would be more appropriate to talk about in a few weeks on Memorial Day, because those subjects are so deeply woven into the fabric of American history. This story, worthy of a blockbuster movie deal really, speaks to a myriad of ways in which we are enslaved in this world, and what freedom might mean in different circumstances. Biblical times experience of slavery is slightly different from the more modern experiences.
1. The slave girl with the spirit of divination
Perhaps because she herself is a slave, she recognizes the spirit of another slave in Paul. It is troublesome to us, however, that while Paul frees her from the spirit that possesses her (and thus being exploited economically for another person’s gain) she is not delivered from the slavery that she lives under on a daily basis. She was controlled by her possessors. What is it that possesses you? Is it your job? Your family? Expectations you place on yourself? To a certain extant our obligation should control us … but they should never be able to eclipse our ability to live a fulfilled life on our own (or God’s) terms.
2. Her owners, enslaved by their greed and exploitation
They are not free, by any stretch of the imagination. Their livelihood and well being is dependent on another person whom they must control and exploit in order to gain anything. This is tenuous circumstance at best. What happens if she can no longer divine the future? We find out once Paul exorcises the spirit that so annoys him. The girl’s owners do not simply seek restitution for their lost livelihood. They want more than repayment; they want revenge. So they accuse Paul and Silas of a more sinister crime – disturbing the peace. These owners were, in fact, controlled by their possessions. What, of your possessions, control you? TV, schedule, belongings – the myth of materialism reminds us that things can never buy of stability and peace of mind. (ex.) There was a study done some time ago that found mega-lottery winners often find they were happier before they won their money.
3. Paul and Silas’ imprisonment
Instead of being driven to despair as authorities had hoped, the two men dwell together in their faith so much so that their fellow prison mates and even the prison guard are touches by their shared time together. The spirituals sung by African-American slaves and by the protesters in the Civil Rights movement are modern-day examples of solidifying each other’s faith through song. (Crossing to the other side, river of Jordan, the Ohio River= freedom, often were symbols for death as well. There was an understanding that freedom was precious and would be found either here or in the afterlife.) These spirituals were songs of hope – they gave the singers strength, endurance and courage. What songs bolster your faith? What songs do we sing that unite us in a common hope and a deep, deep yearning for the world and for our spirit?
Even before being throne in prison, Paul is identified as a slave for God – someone who worked for the good of his master at all times. It is hard for us to imagine this as a positive image for Paul, and it probably did startle him and the listeners a bit, but he does not shrink from the title. Would we be willing to be ID’ed as God’s slaves? Would that mean giving up a freedom of some kind?
To be saved, believe
We return to the jailer who asks Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”
What must I do to be freed from what keeps me from truly living? Paul’s answers is simple, “Believe.”
A. Attitude not action
Paul emphasizes attitude and thought over action or behavior.
What we do is important, but it is not, in the end, what saves us.
1. What is slavery? Freedom?
All the characters in this story find their conceptions of slavery and freedom challenged – even Paul. It is not so clear that one is 100% good while the other 100% bad.
What is clear is that this story has lots to say to our modern, Western nation where so much is decided by who has control and wields it over another.
When that mentality of control bleeds over into our understanding of faith, we feel the need to control situations and ourselves in order to be “free” of demands.
2. The heart of the message today is “Believe” or better yet “Trust.”
Trust that God is at work.
Trust that things turn our well, even if not in the way that we desire or expect.
Trust that God’s faith is sufficient for all of us.
Let us pray, Trustworthy and faithful God, too often we allow the world to dictate to us what is important and what we should be doing. Help us to break free from our desire to be independent and free so that we may be your slaves, trusting in and depending on you completely. Amen.