“A Life Worth Living”
September 23, 2018
Pastor Lucas Bitter
Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The 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 household.
Here at Intown Lutheran, we are starting a new church in a big city. Over the years many other Christians have done the exact same thing. Last week we heard how Jonah shared God’s Word with the pagan city of Nineveh, and had just incredible success (the whole city repented in just one day!) This week hear about how some New Testament missionaries shared God’s Word with another pagan city called Philippi. But this time, things didn’t go quite as smoothly.
There were racial barriers between the Jewish missionaries and the Roman natives. There were religious barriers between the monotheism of Christianity and the many, many false gods of Greece and Rome. But finally it all boiled over one morning on the way to Sunday church. Paul cast an evil spirit out of a slave girl, resulting in financial loss for her owners. The angry owners dragged Paul and Silas into the town square, complaining that these foreigners were “disturbing the peace.” A crowd started to gather, and things started to get pretty ugly.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of a riot – but have you ever been to a sports game where the referees make one call, and then the home crowd yells so loudly that the referees feel pressured to go back and change it? That’s kind of what I picture here. Everybody is yelling so loudly at the city officials that they skip the normal legal process and go straight to physical punishment. Paul and Silas are beaten up by the crowd, beaten with rods by soldiers, severely flogged, and thrown in jail. In jail, the jailor locks up their feet in the stocks to cause additional discomfort. This has not been a good day. This is not what Paul and Silas pictured when they headed out for church that morning.
You’ve already heard the details of the reading. But there are a number of additional questions I’ve always had about this text, and it wasn’t until just recently that I figured them out. We’ll call them “Pastor’s Tough questions.”
Here comes the first one. Paul and Silas are sitting there in the stocks, too bruised and uncomfortable to sleep, so they start praying and singing hymns. All of a sudden a giant earthquake hits the jailing, somehow open all the doors AND breaking off all the prisoners’ chains. My first question is,
- Why didn’t all the prisoners just run away?
- First of all, it was dark outside and they didn’t know which way to go. They might run right into an armed guard which would not end well for them.
- Second of all, if they ran they would be punished but if they stayed they might be rewarded. They might even get their prison sentence removed for good behavior. That’s not a bad idea.
- But third, and perhaps most likely, it seems like Paul told them “Stay here! Nobody move!”
That brings up my second question:
- Why would the prisoners listen to Paul?
- Well, think about it. One moment Paul and Silas are praying and singing to their god, and the next moment a massive earthquake breaks them out of jail! Could this be a coincidence? No way. These prisoners may not have been Christians but they were very religious and very superstitious. They believed Paul’s god had sent the earthquake – so they were ready to do whatever Paul said.
The jailor probably lived in a house next door, and as soon as the earthquake ended he threw on his bathrobe and came running over to check on the prisoners. When he got there he saw the door swinging wide open. Chains hanging loose. And so in despair, he pulled out his sword, preparing to end his life. This brings up another question:
- Why did the jailor suddenly decide to kill himself?
- The text actually tells us. Did you catch it? He was going to kill himself “because he thought the prisoners had escaped.” Under Roman law, if a prisoner escaped on your watch, then you had to pay for the loss. A life for a life. Keep in mind, also, that in Roman culture suicide was considered a noble way to die. And so apparently this jailor decides that suicide right now is a better option than a humiliating trial and execution later. But what’s really sad about this is that the jailor has a family. He has a wife. He has children. And yet he doesn’t even think his life is worth enough to go back to the house and say goodbye.
But here’s where Paul saves his life. He shouts, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailor calls for lights, rushes in secures all the prisoners, and falls on his knees before Paul and Silas. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
- Why is the jailor in awe of Paul and Silas?
- Same reason the prisoners are. He too is religious and superstitious and believes Paul’s god sent the earthquake.
- And finally, what does he mean when he says “What must I do to be saved?”
- The jailor had been pretty cruel to Paul and Silas earlier in the day. He locked them up in the stocks, which probably wasn’t necessary when they were barely conscious from their beating. He’s just seen their god break open the jail with a giant earthquake, and he figures that god is pretty angry with him. The Roman gods require prayers and sacrifices – what does this new god require in order to gain his favor?
It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Paul and Silas are missionaries. Their whole job is finding people to tell about Jesus. They thought this whole day was a horrible mistake, but now they realize that it was all part of God’s plan so that they could share the gospel with their jailor. And that’s exactly what they do. I would imagine they explained it something like this. “Our God is the true God, and there’s nothing you can do to gain his favor. No prayers or sacrifices would ever be enough. But it’s OK. God loves you so much that he sent his one and only Son– a man named Jesus – and he gave himself up as a perfect sacrifice to pay for all of your sins, even your sins of being extra-cruel to your prisoners. You don’t have to do anything to be saved, because God already did it all for you! Just believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved – you and your household.” And that’s exactly what happened. At that very hour of the night the jailor got his family out of bed. They heard the good news about Jesus. And every one of them, young and old alike, was baptized.
A pretty bad day at the beginning had turned into a pretty good day by the end.
The Book of Acts goes on and tells how Paul and Silas were released from jail and went on to serve other mission churches. But the author of this book, a man named Luke, stayed behind. And he got to watch the gospel continue to work in this jailor’s life. The jailor became a member of the small but growing church in Philippi. For the first time he experienced the joy of Christian community. For the first time he experienced the excitement of sharing the good news about Jesus with his friends and neighbors. For the first time he felt true peace in his heart, because he know that no matter what happened in the violent-and-sometimes-scary Roman world, he and his family would get to live forever with God in heaven.
In a very short period of time, this jailor went from thinking his life was meaningless to having a life more packed with meaning than ever before. The gospel had made his life worth living.
What is it about the gospel that changes people so much?
You know, we look at the Jailor at Philippi and at first we say “What are the odds? This is the last person I would ever expect to become a Christian!” But then we realize we could say the same thing about Paul, the persecutor-turned-missionary. Or Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector-turned-generous disciple. Or Mary Magdalene, the demon-possessed-woman turned pillar of the early church. Or St. Augustine, the serial adulterer-turned-theologian of the 3rd century AD. Or C.S. Lewis, the atheist-turned Christian of the 19th century A.D. And I could list many, many more today. Former gang members and drug addicts and embezzlers and adulterers. Sometimes the most unlikely people become Christians.
Actually. . . .all of the time the most unlikely people become Christians. We are all unlikely candidates for grace. We are all born lost in sin and far from God. We are all, by nature, objects of wrath. But “because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. It is by grace we have been saved.”
In a special way I think we treasure the stories of people like this jailor, or the Apostle Paul, or Zacchaeus, or all the rest, because it is so clear these are real people, with real sins and real problems and real doubts, just like you and me. . . but then they are confronted with the gospel message of a real and powerful Savior who took all their sins away, and that message changes them. It makes their life worth living, just like it does for you and me.
But I still haven’t answered my own question. What is it about the gospel that changes people so much?
I think it may be, quite simply, that the gospel gives us value.
Let’s talk about value for a minute. Can you raise your hand if you own a house in Atlanta? What is the value of that house? (you don’t have to answer!) My wife and I bought a house in Ormewood Park last year. It’s not very big. It’s not very new. If you added up the cost of all the wood, bricks, paint, and plaster, you could build a brand new house like mine for a fairly reasonable amount of money. But, if I go to a website called Zillow and type in my address, I see a number that is not so reasonable. The estimated market value of my home is way, way higher than what it would cost to build it. Why? Because that’s the going rate for my location. That’s the average price for a 3-bedroom bungalow in Ormewood Park. At least according to Zillow, the value of something is determined by how much somebody else is willing to pay for it.
If that’s true, then you and I must be worth an awful lot. Because look how much God paid for us. Martin Luther wrote in his explanation to the Apostles’ Creed, “Jesus Christ has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and by his innocent suffering and death.”
Isn’t this the essence of our response to the gospel? Isn’t this why the gospel changes people’s lives? Because I know my sins better than anybody else does, and I look at Jesus dying on the cross, and I am amazed every single day that God would do something like that for a person like me.
And so it is for you. Your life has incredible value because of how much God was willing to pay for you to be with him in heaven. But that’s not all! Your life also has incredible value because of how much God wants to do with you here on this earth.
Sometimes we treat “the gospel of Jesus” as this abstract concept that fills our minds with dreamy thoughts about eternity – but it’s not! It’s a real, concrete thing for the here and now! And it impacts real people in the here and now. The fact is, every person in this world has an immortal soul, and will continue to exist forever in either heaven or hell, depending on whether they believe in Jesus as their Savior. Since we have the good news about Jesus that leads to eternal life, this automatically infuses every one of our human interactions with deep and meaningful purpose.
If only we thought of life more this way. But instead, we tend to split the human interactions in our lives into “important” and “non-important” ones. For example – at work, we are uber-focused on things like job interviews and presentations and meetings. We may stay up at night worrying about those interactions with people because they are so important to our job. But what about the conversation with a coffee barista? Or guy who holds the door for us as we come into the office? Or the pest control people who keep calling you back and you don’t have time to talk to them? Or the coworker who wants to talk about the fact that her cat is sick again and you just don’t care? These aren’t important conversations. These are annoying distractions.
The same thing also happens at home. Certain conversations in the household get a lot of attention: What we should do for vacation. How we can afford our ridiculous mortgage payment . Our child is getting towards middle school and I think it’s time we had that talk about “the birds and the bees.” (You might lose sleep over that one even more than the work presentation, right?) All those moments are important in our family life. But what about the more mundane things – like the incessant questions from your kids that distract you from the article you’re reading on Facebook? What about the token “how was your day” conversation when you get home from work? What about the casual conversations you have – or don’t even bother to have – around the dinner table?
The Christian apologist C.S. Lewis had some great quotes, but here is one of my favorites. “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is, of course, that what one calls the “interruptions” are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day.”
Every day of your life you are surrounded by people who are vastly, immeasurably important to God. People God paid for with the precious blood of his Son. People God wants in heaven with him for all eternity. And therefore every conversation or interaction you have with somebody is a great opportunity! It could be an opportunity to talk about the hope you have in Jesus. . . it could be an opportunity to show what the forgiveness and patience of Jesus looks like. . . it could be an opportunity to encourage a person who is suffering or struggling in their walk with God. . . and so on and so forth. Every conversation and every interaction is important. And actually, some of the conversations that we view as less important – because they start out with casual things – may end up being the most impactful and meaningful conversations that we ever have.
Jesus said in our gospel lesson, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” And this is exactly what we have, isn’t it? An eternal life with our God that has been earned and paid for by our Savior Jesus. And life in this world that has been infused with deep and meaningful purpose, for as long as we are here. We have a life worth living. May God help us live it to the fullest. Amen.