Readings: Acts 16:16–34, Revelation 22:12–22 & John 17:20–26
I had a meeting with someone earlier in the week who described themselves as being spiritual rather than religious. They told me they feel intimidated by church, because they don’t understand what is happening during the liturgy of the Sunday morning service, and because they find it difficult to make sense of the Bible. I certainly understand what they mean, particularly in relation to their comment about the Bible. And I told them that was the main reason for the sermon each week–to explain the meaning of the Bible passages that are read in church on Sunday morning. So I was far more conscious of that than usual, as I sat down to prepare my sermon for today.
So let’s look at our readings for this week, the first of 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 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 the birth 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 that Paul was chosen by God, to bring the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. He had previously been an ardent persecutor of the early church, but God chose Paul, and worked through Paul, 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 Greek, this 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.”
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 deliverance from sin —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 people would understand, that Paul could build on.
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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 tell 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 release 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 God.
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. Therefore those who “wash their robes” is a reference to those who believe in Jesus and in God. They they will have the right to the tree of life, meaning they 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 be in with Him.
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 come to believe in Jesus 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
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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.
The person I had the meeting with earlier in the week told me after our conversation that they would come to church now that I had explained certain aspects of church and the Bible to them. And I pray that when they do, God may be made known to them through their experience of church. And how appropriate is that prayer, given that we have just entered into the time of ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a time when millions of people around the world, across various denominations of the Christian faith, will be praying that more people, like the person I met with this week, come to faith. That they come to find Jesus; and in finding Jesus, they come to find the Church. And in finding the Church, come to find a community where they can feel welcome, included and engaged.