Sunday’s sermon: A Tale of Two Households

Female hands holding two houses.

Text used – Acts 16:16-34

  • This morning’s text, y’all … mmm, mmm, mmm! This morning’s text is one of those Biblical stories that could easily be it’s own Hollywood box office drama.
    • It has …
      • Intrigue
      • Action
      • An exorcism!
      • A courtroom (complete with false accusations!)
      • One of those “all was lost … but then!” moments
      • Prison AND a prison escape
      • And it ends with lives changed. Really, this story has it all!
    • It’s also one of those stories that we can pretty easily break down into two parts, and those parts are defined by two different households and the choices they make.
  • Before we dig into that, let’s take a minute for a little backstory for some context. → remind us how we got to where we are in Acts today
    • Reminder: Acts = continuation of account written by author of Luke’s gospel → so Acts = Good News, part II
    • Main character throughout most of Acts = Paul
      • Acts begins with disciples/Pentecost
      • Focuses on Peter for a few chs.
      • Enter Saul → Saul’s dramatic conversion → spends the rest of the book chronicling Saul/Paul’s many missional journeys to start churches and share the gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide
    • Leading up to today’s portion of the story = major drama!
      • Paul’s original traveling companion/evangelizing partner = Barnabas
        • Started a lot of churches together
        • Walked A LOT of miles together
        • Even put together their own ministry team with a few of their own followers/disciples
      • BUT backing up some verses from today’s passage, we read that Paul and Barnabas had an argument – text: Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they shouldn’t take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and hadn’t continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace.[1]
  • Part 1: household of the slave woman
    • Like any good story, this one begins with sometime to draw us in right off the bat → Paul and Silas are out doing their work in God’s grace – “on the way to the place for prayer”[2] – when they come to the attention of this slave woman … a woman with an uncommon … gift?: “a spirit that enabled her to predict the future,” a spirit that enabled her to make a lot of money for her owners[3]
      • Interesting bit that gets lost a little bit in our translation: Gr. translated as “slave” when describing the woman is the same Gr. translated as “servant” when describing Paul and Silas → Is there an element of choice involved in this? The woman is indentured. Her freedom is not her own. Paul and Silas are devoted to the service of God. Through this service, they find an ultimate and eternal freedom – the freedom of Christ.
    • Maybe it’s this servitude connection that draws this woman to Paul and Silas. We don’t really know. But whatever draws her, it’s a powerful, persistent draw! – text: She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days.[4]
      • Draw that’s so powerful and persistent that it eventually pushes Paul over the edge → Paul finally turns to her and casts out the spirit that’s been enabling her to predict the future → And we can’t really blame Paul, right? Remember, time-wise we aren’t that far removed from Jesus being arrested, tried, convicted, and killed for spreading the message of God’s love and grace. And how Paul and Silas are going around trying to spread the same message. And here comes this woman shouting and pointing and drawing attention to them again and again and again. I mean, really, if someone was following you around all day shouting about your business and drawing attention in a time and place when it wasn’t entirely safe for that business, you might get a little testy, too, right?!
      • Fears are justified → action and attention ended up coming back on Paul and Silas in spades – text: Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. → And this is where the choice comes in. Just like everyone else within earshot of this woman, her owners surely must’ve heard (or at least heard about) her claims as to who Paul and Silas were.
        • Must’ve heard about their mission
        • Must’ve heard about their message
        • Must’ve heard about their faith
        • In fact, we know they did because of what they said in front of the court: They said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.”[5] So they knew that Paul and Silas were proclaiming a message of faith and witness. And they could have paused to listen – to let that message seep into their minds, into their hearts, into their spirits. They could have given the word of God a chance to work in and through them. But instead, they chose to follow the way of greed. Their fortune-telling, money-making slave was no good to them anymore, and that was what mattered to them: recompense and revenge. They actively chose to reject the work and worship of God.
    • Result: Crowd joins in the attacks against Paul and Silas (as crowds so often do) → authorities order Paul and Silas to be stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison “with great care”[6]
      • “with great care” = challenging translation → sounds soft and maybe even compassionate BUT Gr. here is more forceful and restrictive, more like “thrown them securely in prison” or “in prison beyond a doubt”
        • See this in the description of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment – text: When [the jailer] received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet with stocks.[7]
  • Brings us to part 2: household of the jailer himself (different household, much different choice)
    • Despite their imprisonment, Paul and Silas are “praying and singing hymns to God”[8]
      • Maybe for their own benefit → to keep their own spirits lifted
      • Maybe for the benefit of those around us (text: the other prisoners were listening to them[9]
      • Surely, though, God was listening to them. – text: All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose.[10] → In this darkest and most desperate moment, Paul and Silas are displaying a strong and wholly devoted faith. And God’s response to that faith is equally strong. Not only are Paul and Silas’ chains released, but every door in the prison is opened and every chain is loosed.
        • Brings to mind God’s promise through Is (words that were probably running through Paul’s mind as well, since he’d been a Temple scholar before his conversion): God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners[11]
    • Clearly a situation that presented the jailer with his worst nightmare → jailer (who had been asleep) wakes up to find every door in the prison open and assumes that all the prisoners have fled → literally about to fall on his own sword rather than risk the wrath of the Romans over having lost every single prisoner → Paul stops him: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”[12] → jailer is so overcome with disbelief and gratitude that he falls on his knees before Paul and Silas à leads them out of their bondage and out of the jail himself and asks the ultimate question: “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
      • More familiar version of this question: “What must I do to be saved?
        • Heard similar question asked of Jesus by the rich young ruler in the gospels
        • And truly, this is the It’s the question that’s the whole point of Paul and Silas’ many journeys. It’s the question that’s the point of their work and their message, their witness and their prayers. “What must I do to be saved?” And so they give the jailer the answer that they have given to so many before him and will give to so many after him: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your entire household.” They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house.[13] → And so the jailer is present with The Choice.
          • To believe or not to believe
          • To embrace faith or not to embrace faith
          • To give their hearts, their minds, their lives to God … or not
    • And, of course, the jailer makes the opposite choice that the slave woman’s household makes – text: Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.[14] → And I have to point out that the ending of this story is just as important as the rest of it because not only are we given the jailer’s choice – to choose faith, to choose God – but we’re given a glimpse into just how immediate and life-changing that choice can be.
      • Affects the jailer’s action
      • Affects the jailer’s spirit
      • Immediately upon actively choosing God, the jailer acts in compassion and hospitality to those on the margin – those he had literally just released from his own prison. He takes these men into his own home, bandages their wounds, and gives them something to eat. And not only are his actions affected, but his state of being is affected as well. We’re told that the jailer was “overjoyed” because he and his whole household had come to believe in God.
        • Gr. really interesting word here → denoted the physical act of rejoicing but also includes an internal causality for that rejoicing → makes the joy a central part of the subject’s sense of self instead of just a reaction to some external event → Because of his choice – because he chose God – the jailer was given joy – joy on an essential, elemental level … a kind of joy that can’t be taken away.
    • And friends, we are given that same choice each and every day. When we wake up in the morning, do we choose God? As we go about our days – the rollercoaster of ups and downs as well as the most tedious moments – do we choose God? In the ways we interact with others, do we choose God? As we wind down at night and prepare for sleep, do we choose God? At the very core of who we are, do we choose God? Amen.

[1] Acts 15:36-40.

[2] Acts 16:16.

[3] Acts 16:16.

[4] Acts 16:17.

[5] Acts 16:20-21.

[6] Acts 16:23.

[7] Acts 16:24.

[8] Acts 16:25.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Acts 16:26.

[11] Is 61:1.

[12] Acts 16:28.

[13] Acts 16:31-32.

[14] Acts 16:33-34.