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Seventh Sunday of Easter

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 16:16–34, Revelation 22:12–22 & John 17:20–26

I remember having a conversation some time ago with a person who described themselves as being spiritual rather than religious. They told me they had attended church services previously, but they felt intimidated by these, because they didn’t understand what was happening during the liturgy of the Sunday morning service, and because they found it difficult to make sense of the Bible. I can certainly understand why they felt that way, particularly in relation to their comment about finding it difficult to make sense of the Bible. I told them that was the main reason why we have the sermon each week – to explain the meaning of the Bible passages that are read in church on Sunday morning. I was thinking about that conversation again this week when I was preparing my sermon for today. 

So let me provide some explanation of our readings for this week, starting with the first reading, which is from the Acts of the Apostles. Now as I’ve said before, we have to remember that the passages we read each week, although they are presented to us as stand alone stories, are always only a small part of a bigger picture the author is painting for us, and we have to read them in the context of that larger story the author is telling in the particular book or letter we are reading. In the case of the Acts of the Apostles, the larger story being told is that concerning the beginning of the Christian Church, and how God works through certain people that He chooses, to bring about His purpose. 

Today’s passage from Acts follows on immediately from last week’s reading which, if you remember, was the story of the foundation of the church at Philippi, and the conversion of Lydia, both of which, were acts performed by the Apostle Paul. Remember also, that Paul was chosen by God, to bring the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Paul had previously been an ardent persecutor of the early church, but God chose him, and worked through him, to establish the Church amongst the Gentiles. And history tells us just how successful Paul was. 

In today’s reading we find that Paul is still in Philippi, and together with his colleague Silas, he is being followed by slave girl who is possessed by a demon. In the original Greek transcript of this passage, the demon is referred to as a πνεῦμα πύθωνα (a Python Spirit), which basically means she is a fortune teller. She follows Paul and Silas for several days, crying out at different times, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 

Now the title “Most High God” is a term that would have been understood by both Jews and Gentiles alike, because it was used by Greeks to refer to the god Zeus, and it was obviously used by the Jews to refer to Yahweh (the Hebrew name for God). Likewise the use of the word “salvation”— which for Paul and the Jews referred to being freed from sin and reconciled to God — would have suggested for Gentiles a release from the powers governing the fate of humans and of the material world. It was therefore a term that all people would understand, that Paul could build on. 

We hear that after being followed by this girl for several days, Paul has had enough, and he commands the spirit, in the name of Jesus, to come out of the girl, which it promptly does. This leaves the girl unable to foretell the future, which means her owners can no longer make money from her fortune telling. They are naturally furious with Paul for destroying this particular source of their livelihood, and so they have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten and thrown in prison. 

While in prison, Paul and Silas are singing and praying to God when there is a major earthquake, and their chains are released and all of the prison doors are thrown open. The jailer wakes up and, seeing all of the cell doors open, he thinks the prisoners have escaped. Had they escaped, the jailer would more than likely have faced the punishment of death, and to avoid the shame and humiliation that would bring, he is about to commit suicide.

However Paul calls to him and tells him that all of the prisoners are still in their cells. 

The man then asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Clearly the man believes the earthquake is the work of God, which has been carried out to free Paul and Silas. The man also believes what the slave girl had previously said about Paul and Silas proclaiming the “way of salvation” – meaning he believes they can free him from the powers that govern the fate of humans and the material world. Paul and Silas tell the man that he must believe in Jesus, and that if he does, then all of his household will be saved. The man and his family are immediately baptised and they believe in Jesus. 

Salvation is also mentioned, though not explicitly, in our second reading, which was from the Book of Revelation. And in fact today’s passage is the conclusion to the Book of Revelation. We hear it said that, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” 

Those who believe in Jesus, like the jailer from the story in the Acts of the Apostles, are washed clean from their sins and reconciled to God, both in the present age and in the eternal life to come. Therefore those who “wash their robes” is a reference to those who believe in Jesus and in God. They will have the right to the tree of life, meaning they will have access to the tree of life, which of course is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as being in the Garden of Eden. This is therefore a reference to being with God in the place that He originally intended all of humankind to be in with Him. In that place, people are released from the powers that govern the fate of human beings and the material world, and are reconciled with God forever.

In our final reading this morning, from the Gospel of John, we deal with one section of a long prayer that Jesus prays to God in front of his disciples. In this section of the prayer, Jesus prays, not only on behalf of the disciples, but also on behalf of all people who will come to believe in him through the word of the disciples, again people just like the jailer in the story from Acts. People just like you and I. We are all one, together with the disciples, and together with Jesus, because God has been made known to all of us through the word that Jesus gave to the disciples which, in turn, Jesus himself received from God. God’s word has been made known to us through the Scriptures, in other words through the Bible. 

If you think about this time of Thy Kingdom Come, what we (and others) are doing, is exactly what Jesus did in our gospel reading today, when he prayed for people to come to believe in him through the good news of the gospel that was proclaimed by the disciples. We have been praying for people we know, to also hear the good news of the gospel and, hearing it for themselves, that they too might then come to believe in Jesus.

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