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Faith in Word and Deed

Sermon - 5/16/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 16:16-34

The text for our reflection this morning comes from Acts, chapter 16. A familiar story for some of us, at least parts of it. The story of Paul and Silas in prison, but there are parts of it that are less familiar, so listen carefully:

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

Sometimes when a preacher selects a text and reads it, you think 'what on earth am I going to say about this?'. For instance, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in Chapter 8, verse 28, he writes: "Those who marry will experience distress in this life and I would spare you that". :) Huh.

It doesn't matter what you say, because anything you say can and will be held against you :). Or in his letter to the Galatians, he writes: "Once again I say to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law". I bet it's been a long time since you've heard a good sermon on circumcision :). Listen up, men :).

But then there are other times when you read the text that there's so much there, you don't know where to begin. For instance, in this story there's this slave girl following Paul and Silas, proclaiming 'behold the servants of the most high God, proclaiming the way of salvation! Behold behold the servants of the most high God, proclaiming the way of salvation!'. After a while, it gets pretty old. About as subtle as a fire truck at 3:00 a.m. when you're trying to sleep.

But here's the thing: everything she says is true. It's just not very helpful. Sometimes it's more effective to proclaim the gospel in a whisper. Sometimes it's better to do it one-on-one in a private conversation. Sometimes it's better when you're behind the scenes, rather than out front. Sometimes you can be too loud (ask me, I know :). Sometimes you can say more by saying nothing at all. There might be a sermon in there, but I'm not going to preach that one.

Then there's this tension in the text, evident in the story between a proclamation of the good news and those who stand to lose by that good news. Good news for slaves is bad news for slave owners. Good news for the poor is often seen as bad news for those who benefit from abundant, cheap labor.

There's a great scene in the opening of the movie "Invictus", that story of the transformation of South Africa as told through the perspective of a rugby team. As Nelson Mandela, in the opening of the movie, makes his way from prison, on one side of the road there's these jubilant crowds of black citizens who come to the roadside shouting and yelling and greeting him. On the other side of the road, there's a team of young athletes, all white, standing there very solemnly. And the coach says something to the effect of 'It's a sorry day lads, it's a sorry day'. So sometimes good news for one group is perceived as bad news for the other. It may work out differently, as hopefully that has been the case in South Africa.

So, the owners of this slave girl, who are using her for their private gain, are not pleased when Paul releases that spirit of divination from her. I'm certain there's a sermon in there to be proclaimed, but that's not the one I'm going to preach on this morning.

And remember that sermon of Jesus in the Synagogue in Nazareth when he reads from the scripture from Isaiah 61: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim good news to the poor, and to set the prisoners free". And that's what is happening here -- it's being fulfilled, at least for this particular prison. The text says it's not just Paul and Silas that is set free, it's the entire bunch.

And in this country, that has highest percentage of it's citizens locked up in prison (or as Donna Beagle said last Saturday at the United Way event said: "caged") -- we 'cage' more people in this country than any other country in the world. There's probably a sermon in there. But that's not the one I'm going to preach.

And before this wondrous liberation that occurs, there's enormous suffering, torture that occurs. Paul and Silas are beaten with rods, given a severe flogging, there feet are fastened so tight there are wounds. I'm sure there's a sermon there, but I'm not going to preach that one either.

And we forget sometimes that the good news, at times, calls us to take up the cross. Or, as Dietrich Bonheoffer says, "Christ bids us to come and die". And even if we think in terms of a metaphorical death, still, it can be very difficult, painful, costly. I don't think that's a sermon we want to hear, or that I want to preach. So relax, that's not the sermon I'm going to preach either :).

So, there are any number of sermons that you can get out of this text, but I'm not going to go with any of those, I'm going to try and narrow it down. People say I try to put too much in one sermon, so I won't try to sneak in anything else by mentioning those things that I don't want to preach on because that would be cheap :). Instead, I want to focus on one easy topic: what does it mean to be a Christian?

Should be simple, right? How we doing on time? Oh well, get comfortable :).

The story here suggests that it's not sufficient to simply give intellectual assent to the existence of God. You know, there are three times as many people right here in this community (and the state of Oregon in general) who believe that God exists than there are who worship God in a church, or in any organized religion. But believing that God exists is not the same, it does not make one a Christian, it does not make one Godly.

Here is this slave girl, possessed by some kind of spirit, who proclaims that Paul and company are servants of God, they know the way of salvation, but that does not make her a follower of Jesus. And indeed in the Gospels it's frequently those that have some type of demonic spirit who first recognize Jesus as the son of God.

You see, Christian faith is much more than that. True Christian faith is really not about belief at all, as odd as it sounds. Because it's not a noun. Rather, faith is a verb. It's not what you know in your head, it's not that what you think in your mind, it's about what you hold in your heart, it's what you do with your life. And John is the one who makes this, I think, the most clear of all. In gospel of John, the noun 'belief' does not exist, but the verb "to believe" occurs some 80 times. Three times more than the other three Gospels combined. Because John wants to make clear that faith in Jesus is a verb, it's something we do, it's what we put into action.

It took an enormous amount of faith on the part of Paul and Silas, once those chains were removed, to remain there in prison. That goes against worldly wisdom that says ' get out while you can!'. Paul and Silas choose to remain right where they are for the sake of the one who is not yet free, the one who is bound to his duty. The jailer.

and sharing that perspective by our friends we are known since Jesus name will know we are Christians

And by their actions, they not only spare him a certain doom for his failure, they make him receptive to hearing the good news. Sometimes, the greatest act of faith is staying right where we are, and sharing that perspective.

By our fruits we are known, says Jesus. 'They will know we are Christians', we sing. How? Not by how we judge one another, not by how we compete with one another, not by how we argue with one another. But how we love one another.

And note the immediate reaction of this jailer, who washes their wounds. Brings them to his home. I can just imagine that scene: "Honey, guess who I brought home for dinner?!"

He feeds them in his own home. That's the ultimate act of hospitality. And thus the actions here of Paul and Silas lead to those reciprocal actions of the jailer. Actions of faith. The story resonates with me, I think, perhaps because I'm an activist at heart. I'd much rather show my faith than talk about it, and that seems odd for a preacher to say, but it's true. Actions speak louder than words. And yet we must not underestimate the power and importance of those words. By the spoken word, the slave girl is freed from that demonic spirit. By the the spoken word, that jailer and his household come to understated the good news.

So, yeah, I'm a preacher by trade, I obviously believe in the value of spoken word. You give me a podium, give me a microphone, put me in front of a TV camera, I'll have something to say. Doesn't mean that there is anybody listening, but I'll have something to say :).

But if I'm honest, I suspect, like many of you, in that one-to-one conversation, sharing faith privately, sometimes it's scarier than a Steven King movie. We who have so many negative images of people who are a little bit too pushy when it comes to sharing their faith that we tend to overcompensate as if our timid-ness makes up for their zealousness. In the end, it all balances out. We don't want to be like those folks whose only agenda is to convince you how right they are and how wrong we are. And so to show them how wrong they are, we do not say anything about how right we are :).

And we don't talk about such things because we don't want to be pushy. And then we wonder why, why why isn't the church growing any faster. Huh. I wonder. I'm not suggesting here we all shave our heads, put on funny clothes and go to the airport, selling books and accosting people. Or that we were white shirts and ties, and slacks, black skirts and go door-to-door knocking on doors. That's now what I'm suggesting.

I'm suggesting that if we are at all serious about our faith, we better learn how to share it. To do like Wally did last Sunday.

If we want to reach those goals we set for ourselves in this congregation, we need to get over our hesitations and our fear.

Rick Morse, who you see on the screen (we're going to hear from in a second) is the head of New Church Ministries for Disciples of Christ. Used to be a pastor in the Seattle area, was a guest speakers at the regional assembly. And he told us Friday night about a conversation he had with a Brian McLaren, a very popular Christian author who is one of the gurus of what they call the 'emergent church'.  So Rick said getting a chance at this convention he was at, to meet him and talk with him was like being with a rock star. Someone he has always idolized.

In the course of the conversation, Brian McLaren said to him 'You know, we know about the difficulties the Catholic Church is having right now. What's less known is that the evangelical church is declining faster than mainline Protestant churches right now. The had this big meteoric rise, and now it's going down the other way. He said Disciples, on the other hand, are ideally positioned because of the kind message you have. He said if you Disciples can learn to tell your story, there is no end to what you can do.

And Dick Hamm, our consultant who led that process of discernment with us a couple years ago, said the same thing about our congregation -- that we are ideally suited for this particular community because of who we are and the kind of message that we have that fits so well with this community. But unless we learn how to share that, it's not going to do any good if we're sharing that only with ourselves. It's only when we share it outside of these walls that we really are effective.

Study after study of growing churches revealed that the most effective means of advertising is not the building, not what you put in the newspapers, it's not what you put on TV or radio or anything else. What is it? It's personal invitation. 80% of those who come to church come because someone invited them.

Next Sunday is Pentecost. Great Sunday to invite someone. We're going to be doing some special things. We've got a combined service. We've got a special guest, Kay Edwards who is going to share with us. We've got a new surprise in this service that I'm not going to tell you about, but it's going to be really cool to get that Pentecost experience (we've never done before, it should be fun). It should be a great Sunday to be here.

I want to share with you a clip from Rick, that captures why it's important for us to share:

[Dan then played a video clip from Rick Morse -- you can view it here]

So my question to you is: is it important what we do here? Does it matter?

How are we sharing that? There are people all around us like that couple, who don't know what all of this is about. My point is simply this: putting our faith into words, and our words into deeds. And when we do that, chains will be broken and doors will be opened.

Even for us.

 


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