Sunday, May 16, 2010

At What Price? Acts 16:16-34

Core sermon text for May 16th. What value would you put on spiritual freedom?

Have you ever watched Antique Roadshow? It has become one of my favorite shows. People bring their “treasures” from home and a battery of professional appraisers help them understand more about their item and what it was worth. There were two moments that recently caught my attention. One was an older gentleman who brought in a teddy bear that belonged to his daughter. As he told his story it seems that at one point a dealer had suggested that it might be worth three or four thousand dollars and that he would sell it for him for a percentage. He decided to keep it, and the appraiser told him that he had made a good call – that the bear was actually worth about $40,000. A woman brought in two Native American pieces that a distant relative has gotten in Alaska some hundred years ago. She quiet asked what they might be worth. I wish you could have seen her eyes when the appraiser told her that the combined value of the two pieces was somewhere between $250,000 and $350,000. It is funny how we value things. Sometimes it seems, things that look so ordinary can have great value, and things that look highly valuable are simply colored glass. How do you value others? What price would we assign to their spiritual freedom? Do you think that their complexion or social status would impact their value?

The morning’s focal scripture emerges from the chaos and confusion of a Middle Eastern marketplace. The sellers we eagerly pitching their wares and the dust of the day filled the air. Luke tells us that Paul and Silas and the team had been preaching in Philippi. Day after day they went into the heart of the vital Roman colony to talk to the people and to tell them the story of Jesus. Day after day the young slave girl followed close behind them shouting "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute there she was, shouting. Paul was apparently frustrated by the constant badgering and turns and casts the demon out of the young girl. "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" he commands. And at the very moment he spoke the spirit left her.

Normally we would celebrate a grand act of grace and freedom that that the crowd witnessed when Paul casts the spirit out of the girl. But, this is no ordinary story because Paul’s act not only changed the life of the slave girl, it hit the wallets of her owners. You see, she was a soothsayer – a fortune teller – and she made her owners a lot of money. Her spiritual freedom was too expensive for her owners – without the demon within her, her capacity to tell the future was gone. “Thanks to Paul's annoyance and the power of the name of Jesus, the slave girl who was caught in the grip of demon possession becomes free, "Yet no, she is not free. She is a slave, someone who is not a person but a piece of property".(1) Are her owners free enough to rejoice in her healing? No way. “When the owners realized that their hope of making money by exploiting this slave girl was gone they were furious. They seized Paul and Silas and took them to the authorities. The crowd in the market followed along. The slave owners were going to make Paul and Silas pay. While they could not get financial reimbursement for the loss, they could get revenge. I can only imagine that the crowd thought they were in for quite a show. They drug them into the center of the market so everyone could witness what was about to happen.

There they stood; Paul and Silas in hand and they told the magistrate the two things that would demand his response. They started with the race card. These men are Jews, they told Roman magistrate. They are not one of us! I can imagine the murmuring in the crowd. “Yes,” the crowd might have sounded back. Isn’t amazing how quickly one can rally a crowd with us and them kind of language? The owners were not through, they followed with the patriot argument, pointing at Paul and Silas they pronounce, “and they are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." Did you “notice, however, that their indictments fail to mention one key piece of evidence: the loss of the unnamed slave girl's services in a lucrative endeavor!” (2)That argument would give the slave girl value. That argument would have shown their selfish agenda. That argument might have turned the crowd against them. Instead, 22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

The second half of the story raises the same question, “at what price is a soul?” You know that the jailer must have been feeling pretty good about his assignment. Paul and Silas were locked in chains and locked in the inner cell. No one was getting to them, and there was no way they were getting out. But, just like in the case of the slave girl, an act of God changed everything. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose.

Can you imagine the terror the jailer must have felt when he woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing wide open? He drew his sword and prepared to take his own life. Paul apparently sees what is going on and calls out to him. "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" 29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. Most scholars contend that the reason that the reason the jailer was considering suicide is because of the prevailing legal implications of the jailer –Roman law made a guard responsible for the securing the prisoners at his charge at the cost of his life. New Testament scholar Robert Wall moves a very different direction. Wall argues that the jailer’s response was more probably a response born in his religious conviction rather than his response to Roman law. An earthquake was seen as a symbol divine judgment from which his salvation was unlikely. (3) This perspective makes his response to Paul and Barnabas more powerful. In terror – but also with hope – he goes to Paul and Silas. He brings them out and asks "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas respond with words of grace. 31They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household." 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. This is a grand moment, but do not miss the risk the jailer was taking, the price he was willing to pay. He takes the two to his home so that his whole household can hear. He is at great risk for making this decision, but decides that it is worth the price to be at peace with God. The man who had been afraid that his prisoners would escape now leads them out of jail himself. After washing their wounds, he lets Jesus wash his, in baptism. And his household, which may have been shaken, is now set on a new foundation, seen in the hospitality he extends to those he had imprisoned.(4) “The God who saves the jailer from the executioner’s sword is the same God who forgives him and his household of their sins.” (5)

The question echoes out, at what price is redemption? In the Mark’s gospel we encounter the story of the rich young ruler who comes asking; "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 19You know the commandments'"……20"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. For some, the price of salvation is too high. The rich young man had too many things between him and salvation. He was not willing to pay the prices and went away sad. The young slave girl’s owners found the price of her redemption too high; it hit them in their wallet. In their exploitation of the young slave girl for profit they had lost a sense of humanity. Their greed stopped them from rejoicing in the slave girl’s newly found spiritual freedom. The jailer decided that he would do anything, risk anything, for the sake of salvation for him and his family. There was no price too dear and not act too bold to stand between him and the gospel. By the end of the story, those who sought who were willing to exploit others found themselves as spiritual captives, and those who reached out, at any price, for the sake of the gospel were free.(6) How about you? What stands between you and the kind of relationship with God that will offer you real freedom? What holds you back from acting boldly for God? What prevents you from doing whatever it takes for you and your family to live lives of faith? How is God calling you and how will you respond?

(1) William Willimons, “Acts,” Interpretations, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 139.
(3) Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, commentary, and reflections, Volume X, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 234.
(4) Paul Bellan-Boyer,“Shaken to the Foundations," City Called Heaven, 2010 available at on May 13, 2010.
(5) Wall, 235.
(6) Willimon,140.

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