Sunday, May 26, 2013

You Can't HANDLE the Truth!

Texts:  Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5: 5b;  John 16: 12-15

Picture first that court martial scene in A Few Good Men as Tom Cruise relentlessly demands the truth from the infuriated Jack Nicholson, who finally barks back that famous line, "You can't handle the truth!" 

Although stated with an entirely different tone to make an entirely different point, Jesus said essentially the same thing to his followers just before his arrest and trial. 

Picture now the last supper scene in John's Gospel as the disciples question where Jesus is going and how they'll be able to follow him (John 14).  Jesus gently, perhaps wistfully, responds: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 15:12). In other words: "You can't handle the truth; you can't take in the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth'." 

Then he adds, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 15:13).

I wonder how often there is more truth available to me--were I prepared to handle it. But receiving truth in limited doses is, I suppose, a blessing. How comforting to know that Jesus felt compassion for his followers who weren't ready to hear the fullness of his truth. How hopeful to hear a promise that more was/is yet to come from the Spirit of Truth that animated Jesus's life and that guides us today with a Still Speaking Voice. I'm not expected to have figured out everything. I can be at peace when I have received all that my little mind and heart and spirit can bear--and no more.  Yet I can be expectant that there is more.  We can believe, as one of our UCC forebears said in 1620: “There is yet more light and truth to break forth” (John Robinson).

In my personal life, there have been times when I protected myself from difficult questions for fear my worldview would change too much, for fear I would have to delve deeper in my own emotional life than I was prepared to go, for fear I would leave my old self behind and never find my way back to that me, for fear I might discover a God bigger than I could handle.  At other times I have simply been so weighted with my own needs that I've missed transformative experiences with others that could have deepened my spirit.  I was too distracted by my hurts, preoccupations, or prejudices to listen deeply to someone else's truth.  I've not always welcomed new truth.

In a more cosmic sense, I believe Truth has many more things to say to humanity, but we are not able to bear them now. Just to consider that the universe is literally expanding, that it includes black holes and dying suns and subatomic particles and perhaps parallel universes, wormholes through space, and intelligent life on other planets--is more than most of us can handle. If the theory of evolution challenged us theologically 150 years ago, what are the theological implications for quantum physics?  We can't bear the thought quite yet--not because such a universe appalls but because it is astonishingly unfathomable. 

Culturally, too, there are limits on truth.  Human cultures have taught not only what is true but also how to know truth.  However—and we often forget this—the truth we know is always partial and culturally-mediated. As culture changes, so do our understandings of what is true and how we know what is true. It’s not simply that we accumulate new facts but that we put on new lenses that change how we see things.

I’m oversimplifying, but I ask you to consider that in pre-literate cultures, truth--or Wisdom--was apprehended through stories or sayings handed down or through dreams divined. The book of Proverbs, from which we read earlier, is an example of a type of trusted ancient wisdom or godly truth that was based on sage sayings. A wise person was one who could deliver the perfect aphorism or parable for the right situation. Sayings and stories and dreams—spoken by an authoritative figure like a shaman, elder, priest, or prophet—transmitted the truth.*

When cultures shifted from oral to written communication, the printed word became the ultimate arbiter of Truth.  Religious and political leaders eventually began grounding their declarations of truth in printed words.  Laws were written down. Our democratic system evolved when printed words allowed even the average person to pin down complex ideas long enough to follow a logical argument--and later to hold someone accountable for his or her argument. Wisdom written down allowed laws that were more than rulers' whims to gain power and stability.  And Wisdom printed by a printing press allowed for laws and philosophies behind them to develop and be distributed to more and more people. Truth in print, of course, has given us the false impression that what is printed is Truth.  So once again we see the limits of Truth within our culture's primary conveyance of truth.

Some culture watchers argue that the current vehicle for truth is the image.  A picture’s worth a thousand words, you know.  And now they say, “If you don’t have a picture of it, it didn’t happen.” Events that matter are those that are televisible. Our phones are cameras. Courtroom evidence is a video. We click on icons or touch pictures to operate our computers. Some hear sermons on television where the preacher’s image and personality fill up the whole screen. Some go to church to see video clips on a big screen so that even religion is picture-based. Pictures offer a truth that is more emotionally charged but maybe less rationally developed. Each new medium for delivering Truth expands and contracts what we can know.

As the general culture has reconsidered how it receives Truth, so has Christianity. The first authority for Christian Truth in a largely oral culture was found in the sayings of Jesus, passed on by word of mouth to followers who eventually incorporated them into the pages of Gospel accounts. Later, authoritative figures who stood on top of those sayings became the arbiters of God's truth, and others stood on top of them, until the Church's truth eventually was determined by a powerful hierarchy. 

When once again culture shifted, it was neither Jesus’s sayings nor papal authority that determined Truth for many Christians.  It was, in the slogan of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura—or "only scripture.The Bible, now available in print to the many, became the chief repository of Godly truth and wisdom.  “No one can tell me what to believe,” Protestants protested. “I’ll read it for myself.” But how was the Bible to be interpreted?  Making Christian scripture the ultimate authority for Truth had its own limits. So by the 18th Century John Wesley argued that spiritual discernment happens best when we consult scripture, tradition, reason, and our own lived experience.

What would you say is the primary way we today determine spiritual truth?  At some level our image-based culture, as I suggested earlier, drives how we deliver and receive religious truth today.  But another contemporary arbiter of Truth is found in our general culture and increasingly in religious life: community. In popular culture today, the World Wide Web is our icon for a vast and interrelated network of information that holds our wisdom. The Arab Spring last year demonstrates the power of these vast but loosely organized connections.  At Open Table, our emphasis on group discernment—which trusts the members of our faith community to find truth together collaboratively—reflects our own preference for an ancient/modern method for discerning what is true. Two heads are better than one.  There’s a theological presupposition that the Spirit of Truth works in community and that we, the Body of Christ, are all interrelated in some fundamental way, that there is unity across our many differences. We are committed to hearing even, or especially, the voices on the margins, because Truth lies there, too. Are there limits to this communal way of knowing?  Of course. 

But on this Trinity Sunday, I suggest that a communal approach to Truth is very Trinitarian. The Trinity is a picture of the Sacred as a diverse yet united community that seamlessly, eternally communes: Parent, Son, Spirit picture a mysteriously united and yet distinct pattern for Truth.

If the Trinity is True, then it's true more as a picture of loving community than as a doctrine to be developed through entirely rational argumentation.

If the Trinity is Truth, then our generation may see that truth best as relationship.  All that needs to be known and treasured and enacted is ultimately found in some pattern of relationship: as one atomic particle bonds with another, as one planet pulls its moon into a regular orbit, as one human paradoxically retains her distinct identity while being shaped by others in the community.

If the Trinity imparts truth, then truth comes also through ongoing revelations.  All that needed to be understood about God had not been shared by the time Jesus said farewell to his followers.  Truth continues to unfold—as we see through science and religion.  God’s “truth is marching on.”  But Truth is a messy and boisterous process. Recall the words of Lady Wisdom we read earlier as she strides forth: 

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”

Lady Wisdom, long associated with the Holy Spirit, does not stay home. She’s assertively active.

Jesus shared his truth but believed there would be other vehicles for sacred truth so that his Spirit would continue to prick consciences and nudge loving actions and teach creative ways of nonviolence and connect us to one another and inspire us to work for justice. The way Truth would get told would be through humanity's messy engagement in life.  To sit across from Jesus in the passive mode of listener had its limits.  We understand truth in the context of our daily interactions. 

In the fictional world of A Few Good Men, we observe several understandings of Truth. Truth is known in Jack Nicholson’s world--that is, the world of his character, Colonel Jessup--through slogans and unwritten rules like the Code Red and authority figures in a military chain of command.  But truth requires that authority be questioned, whatever the authority du jour.

Truth is known also in the world of the JAG corps in which Tom Cruise’s character operates. The US Constitution, formal military codes, even letters and a flight schedule are used as evidence and thus attest to power of the written word to tell us what is true. Yet these written truths require interpretation.

Ultimately, the audience plays its role as the ultimate determiner of truth. The film, you see, ends ambiguously. The Marines on trial are found not guilty of criminal charges but are dishonorably discharged. So it’s a hollow victory for the defendants and for their attorney. Meaning it’s up to the viewers—having heard the stories, having reviewed the law, having witnessed a powerful authority speak his truth, having seen logic and reason brought to bear on a complex case—it’s up to a jury-like audience, which represents the communal way that Truth today gets determined, to decide if Truth won out.

How much easier it would be to line up behind one confident authority who’ll happily decide truth for us. 

How much richer it is to be in relationship with the Spirit of Truth.

Trinity of Truth, keep us humbly mindful that we can know only in part, but keep us seeking truth nevertheless.  May we see love as the brightest light for truth. Amen

*My discussion of epistemological shifts was influenced by writings of Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren and others but is mainly informed by Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  (New York: Penguin Press, 1985).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Guided Meditation for Pentecost: Catching up with the Spirit

TEXT:  Acts 2: 1-18

At our church council meeting last week we wondered: What is the birthday of Open Table?  Is February 16, 2009, our birthday?  That’s when a handful of people met for dinner at the Sims house to hear a vision for a new church in Mobile, which we’ve been pursuing ever since. Or is January 2010 our birthday? That’s when the Southeast Conference welcomed Open Table as a ministry of the United Church of Christ and we began regular worship services. Or should we hereafter mark May 5, 2013, as our birthday, the day the SEC welcomed OT as a church in full standing in the UCC? Depending on what we consider to be our church’s birthday, Open Table today might 2 weeks old.  Or 3 ½ years old.  Or 4 ½ years old.

Even the date and reason for marking the birthday of the Church Universal is unclear. Sure, it’s customary to celebrate the birth of the Church with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. But the Spirit of God didn’t suddenly appear for the first time in history in Jerusalem 50 days after Jesus was resurrected. For instance, John’s Gospel says that the first disciples received the Holy Spirit when the newly resurrected Jesus breathed on them (John 20:22). But to claim the Holy Spirit for the church only is overreaching and proprietary. After all, in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we learn that the creating Spirit of God swept over the primordial waters (Genesis 1:2).  Let’s be sure to tell the story of Pentecost and the birth of the church when the Spirit inspired a certain group of people, but not as the story of the first and only coming of the Spirit to planet earth. The Church doesn’t own the Spirit of God.

Pentecost is, for Christians, a way to recall that the church was birthed when a group became a movement: when early Jesus followers gathered and others gathered together and were so transformed that the group started a movement--a movement and not an institution, which I’ll say more about later.  The first followers of Jesus were joined by others—strangers, people very different from them—and a new energy seized them. People who spoke different languages were in one place, open to the Spirit of Love.  And something extraordinary—but I believe repeatable—happened.  They began to understand one another.  They shared with one another and connected at some deep level.  They began to “see visions” and “dream dreams” and a power and excitement so overtook them that the first group was no longer a “group” but a growing source of loving energy that expanded and expanded and could not be contained.

I wonder where we are, new church, in the process of spiritual evolution.  I think we are on the verge of transitioning from group to movement. 

Unless we like too much the idea of being a small and safe and comfortable group. 

I see room in these pews and in our hearts for folks who need to be here.

Long before February 2009, I began praying for you. Long before I met you, I believed the Spirit would bring us together—first as a group, then as a movement that other people might call a church. Long before you met one another, there was this vision of what our life together might be.  And that vision includes others who are not here yet, others who need to be included, others we need for the long journey ahead. We’re at a major juncture, having recently achieved our status as a church in full standing. We may think we’ve arrived. We could grow complacent.

I invite you to spend a few moments envisioning those who are not sharing a pew with you. Who might be sitting next to you in that now-empty space?  First, think about someone who is not here today but who is already a member or participant of Open Table. Is someone not here because of illness? Maybe for some other reason of which you’re aware?  Hold that person in your heart and consider some way you might help bring comfort or reach out with an encouraging words. Make a point to check on that person this week.

Now think about someone you know—a good friend or an acquaintance—who has never visited Open Table and who is not active in another faith community.  Consider how you might, in just a sentence or two, tell him or her why you participate in this faith community or some story about something that happened at Open Table recently and invite him or her to come with you next week or the week after.


How do you feel about sharing with others some of the energy you experience here?  Are you fearful that our close groupness will be disturbed?  Are you concerned that someone will think you are some kind of religious nut if you mention your church?  Are you discouraged because you HAVE invited others before and they’ve said no?  Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings at the prospect of trying to include others.  Where does God’s loving, welcoming, and energizing spirit take you with these thoughts?


There is nothing wrong with forming small groups for comfort and guidance. But “church,” according to today’s story, happens when a group, infused with new and different folks, becomes a movement. I don’t mean that only megachurches are real churches. Not at all. A big church can be more insular and stagnant than a small church. I’m talking about a movement that energizes beyond its members, that adds to its membership, yes, but also that makes waves in its community, that impacts others, that disturbs some.  When God’s creative and connecting Spirit is recognized and utilized, some people say, according to the story in Acts 2: “Those folks must be drunk.” But others catch the Spirit.

I hope we can become a movement, but I hope that movement avoids eventually becoming so institutionalized that the movement stops and we no longer “see visions” and “dream dreams” through the Spirit’s power and movement out into the world.

A well-loved mentor of mine, Rev. George Williamson, used to preach that the “inbreaking of the Spirit” usually happens out in the world, not in the church.  This phenomenon, according to George, happens just out ahead of the Church. He believed the Spirit’s activity could be detected by identifying places in the world where people were being stirred up to act for justice and peace. So if you find instances of injustice, you’ll see the Spirit at work where a few souls are exposing that injustice. Unfortunately, the church is often part of the system upholding inequities. So the Church as an institution tends to be several steps behind the Spirit and by the time the institutional church catches on and catches up, the Spirit has moved ahead to stir up other actions of justice and peace.

For instance, George said that the Spirit was operating within the civil rights movement, which he participated in and for which he was arrested years ago. Unfortunately, most white churches were oblivious to the Spirit’s actions to advance civil rights, and by the time they finally recognized God in this movement, the Spirit had moved on. George Williamson did not mean that God at that point ceased to be interested in justice for African Americans or that racism had been conquered; simply that the most institutionalized forms of the Church often came late to a daring movement, after it was “safe,” after the risks were reduced.  Ironically, people outside the church were usually the first to be used by the Spirit.

The feminist movement was another example of people outside the church being the first to notice inequities that the church was, in the meantime, shoring up.  Likewise, the Stonewall Riots in New York that birthed the gay rights movement and the peaceful protests to oppose American wars were started outside the walls any religious institution—but started by the Spirit nevertheless, George would hypothesize. I suppose George would also conceded that some ministers and some churches HAVE indeed been on the leading edge of movements for social justice. But not many.

Do you see why I wonder if it’s right for us to conflate the coming of the Holy Spirit with the birthday of the Church?  Seems presumptuous, don’t you think, to imply that God’s spirit started with and works exclusively through the auspices of the Church, as Pentecost often gets explained. Maybe it’s truer to say that Pentecost reveals that the Spirit of God started a movement that would later get tamed into what we now call the Church.  When the Church is at her best, she startles us with acts of inclusion and justice out on the margins-- inspired by the God of love.  Unfortunately, the Church too often focuses on building or preserving institutions and ends up coming very late to the party of justice and peace. 

Take a moment to think about your responsibility to be noticing where the Spirit is at work in the world.  Visualize some who are the margins of society, because that’s where you’ll find current injustice. What’s the newest justice issue?  Is there any movement stirring at these edges? Do you have a role—do we as a church have a role—in getting out there on the leading edge?  The point is not to be first, as if we are reporters competing to break a big story. The point is to be looking for the inbreaking of the spirit so that we can join in God’s work in the world, so that we can offer the world a prophetic vision of God’s realm, so that we can catch up with and cooperate with the Spirit.



One challenge is to keep our own spirits replenished.  I think our retreat last weekend was one way to do just that.  And I hope each Sunday becomes true Sabbath for you, a way to refuel for the week ahead. 

One writer on Christian spirituality has helped me appreciate the difference between being led by the Spirit to do something versus being driven to do so.  If you’re like me, this challenge to follow the Spirit can become ironically “dispiriting.”  We have no trouble noticing the troubled parts of the planet or in our own backyard, and we feel overwhelmed by the hurt and the mess. Some of us over-function to the point of burnout. Others just shut down and don’t try to do much of anything because there’s no end to the injustice and the pain in the world. 

Patricia D. Brown (in Learning to Lead from Your Spiritual Center) advises those trying to discern where the Spirit is leading them to ask this important question:  Am I being led or driven?  If I am acting out of frenzied or hardened “drivenness,” a pressure to do what is expected or to control another person or situation, then I am not acting in response to the Spirit. It helps if I have been very honest with myself to identify the roots of the forces that drive me to do even well-intentioned actions. But if I am acting because I am led and loving lured by God to do something, there is a sense that I am able to carry love and hope into that situation. If I'm led, I’ll be challenged to dare and work and stretch and grow, but I can leave the outcome up to God. To act with care for others while retaining compassion for myself is healthy for all. The Spirit of Love is not a spirit of fear or anxiety or timidity or depletion.

Our reading from Romans 8:16 teaches that the Spirit is "bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God."  If we have caught up with the Spirit and caught the Spirit, we will know at a deep level that we are beloved children of God. We will feel as if God's spirit reverberates within ours.  

What is a decision that is on your mind today?  Maybe you’re trying to decide whether or not you should undertake a new challenge.  Are you feeling driven or led?



Spirit of Gentleness, Spirit of Restlessness:  Lead us as individuals toward healthy decisions. Energize us as a group so that we become a lively movement.  Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Stories of Liberation

Acts 16: 16-24

16One 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. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace 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.

Stories of Liberation, Part 1
At our retreat this past weekend, we explored the spiritual power of stories that connect us more deeply and engage our imaginations more powerfully.   

Stories connect us—forming relationships, making communities—because stories school us in empathy.  When you are drawn into another’s life through, say, a movie or novel or your grandfather’s tale—you glimpse the perspective of another, perhaps a fictional someone who may not even exist, and thus you develop your compassion capacity.  

Sacred stories also cultivate the imagination. When you are reading or listening to a story, your mind and heart gladly anticipate a reality beyond what currently exists. While reading or listening to a story, you are continuously asking the future-oriented question: “What next?” Within a story’s framework, you must open yourself to new possibilities, a requisite for hope. 

Both compassion and imagination are foundational for healthy spirituality.  Thus, stories save us as they offer the spiritual gifts of love and hope. They save us from isolation.  They save us from despair. No wonder Jesus taught almost entirely through parables. 

And so we turn to the story about an exploited slave girl, a story that may give us practice in compassion and hope.  I’m wondering . . .when we read the girl’s brief story just now, was your heart touched by her plight? Did your mind imagine the wretched conditions of her life?  Did you consider what it would be like to be sold into slavery—perhaps by starving parents no longer able to feed you?  If so, you can imagine this pitiable unnamed child being dragged into the market place like an organ grinder’s monkey to collect coins for her masters.  Her fortune telling had made a fortune for her owners, but as her usefulness to them increased, her chance of freedom decreased.  Her very gifts were used against her. 

If slavery seems blessedly absent from our own times, perhaps that’s because we assume economic exploitation of workers ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. But just last week we learned that nearly one thousand garment workers in Bangladesh lost their lives because, at least indirectly, factory owners valued higher profits above safe working conditions and because consumers like us value a great deal on a sweater or a pair of pants above decent treatment of other human beings. 

If the slave girl who traipsed after the apostle Paul seems unfamiliar to us, it may be because we don’t see the way she resembles young girls today who are kidnapped, used, and abused.  But just last week we learned that three young women barely out of girlhood had been abducted ten years earlier, three young women raped and tortured for a decade of their young lives, three young slave girls in Cleveland, Ohio, who experienced a life so horrifying I suggest we NOT try to imagine what they suffered.  But let’s not deny the reality that slave girls exist today.

I pray to God that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and the 6-year-old child found with them, will be able to heal from their horrors by becoming the authors of their own stories at last.  And I don’t mean by talking to the press or selling the rights to their stories. I mean doing the hard spirit-healing work of composing a new story they may live into with freedom and self-direction. I thank God their stories can be re-authored. May we help redeem their suffering by preventing future abuses.  May we care.

But as I read the story of the slave girl and the Apostle Paul, I have to wonder—with all due respect to Christianity’s first theologian—how much Paul cared about the girl or how much the Lukan author of Acts cared about her.  Notice that the reason Paul exorcizes the spirit of divination, according to the writer, is because the slave girl was “annoying him.”  For days she followed after Paul and company shouting to all around them that they, too, were slaves—though “slaves of the most high God.”  Maybe she meant this as acclaim, maybe as mockery, but this girl was preaching Truth.  All of us serve masters in our lives.  But some of our masters are not worthy of our devotion.

Apparently to silence her irritating proclamations, Paul commanded the troubling spirit to leave the girl.  Here the narrative itself leaves behind the slave girl, newly healed, in order to follow Paul, the hero.  So we don’t know what happened to the girl—or if Paul was certifiably heroic in this particular instance.  I used to assume a happy ending. Now I want to linger with her long enough to ask what happens to a slave who can no longer work, no longer earn a profit for her master?  I’m guessing her retirement plan doesn’t kick in. I’m guessing she can’t even draw Social Security.  In fact, I’m guessing Social Insecurity worsens.

Did Paul consider what would happen to her with this healing?  Did he think he was offering an exorcism while she was experiencing the extinction of a rare gift?  I would like to think that the girl, once she became useless to her owners, was freed by them and somehow able to find a way to support herself.  But I can also imagine pretty terrible consequences for a slave who can’t turn a profit.  Even if she’s freed, she’s lost a gift that had been unique to her.  Even if she’s freed, she may still feel the bondage of what we now call PTSD.  I want to know if her life is better or worse after she encountered a follower of Jesus.
I wrestle with these questions because this is one of those open ended stories that can evoke compassion and make our imagination work overtime.  I then start thinking about, for instance, unintended consequences when I try to help someone.  Just intending to do good is not good enough, this story makes me realize.  And sometimes when we tell ourselves we’re trying to help someone, we might really be trying to shut them up.  Stories like this one make us uncomfortable because we see there are all kinds of slavery—from the slave girl to the imprisoned Paul and Silas to the fearfully constricted way we sometimes live our lives, all tied up in the knots of our own making.  This is a more complex story than it appears, especially if we engage with compassion and imagination.

Once a teller of fortunes for others, but now the most unfortunate, does the slave girl herself have a future? If you have begun imagining some scenarios that offer a glimmer of hope for her, then the sacred story is operating within you to cultivate your capacity for relatedness, to heighten your powers of imagination.  Compassion plus imagination, you see, leads to righteous action.  And your best response to this story printed on a page is to live out freedom in your own life and in the world.  Of course, there is also a Spirit of domination and oppression that has great influence in this world.  But today’s reading from Acts can engage you to oppose that spirit of bondage—as first you recognize exploitation and slavery—from which you may suffer or in which you are complicit.  And when you hear a young girl from the 1st century or the 21st century courageously defying her oppressors, crying out despite her fears, and perhaps recognizing in strangers “a way of salvation” . . . well, the rest of the story is up to you. . . .

Acts 16: 25-34

25About 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.

Stories of Liberation, Part 2
So Paul and sidekick Silas are thrown into prison because they messed with an exploitative economic system and local customs. Those are high crimes still today, unofficially.  But economic, cultural, and legal systems, however powerful, are not unassailable.  On a dark night and in a dark situation, Paul and Silas manage to sing and pray to reassert their authorship of the unfolding story, and an earthquake reminds us that the Holy Spirit can open up new possibilities we can’t predict.  The doors fly open, the chains fall off, and freedom awaits.

In this case, Paul does think about the consequences of his actions.  The jailer is terrified, assuming these high profile prisoners will escape. The jailer is, after all, a small cog in the empire’s machine and so in some ways more enslaved to the system than are the prisoners. Ready to take his own life rather than face the wrath of those who hold power over him, he picks up a sword.  But “Paul shouted in a loud voice” (v. 26).  (As opposed to shouting in a soft voice?)

And immediately the jailer bows down and asks what he must do to be saved. 

I’d always been taught this was a “how-to-have-your-soul-saved-and-be-sure-you-go-to-heaven lesson” right here.


But in this context it seems that the jailer initially desperately wants to be saved from his fate at the hands of those who’ve put him in charge of the prisoners and who gave explicit orders for him to guard these two especially carefully.  He wants to live. But death by his own sword is a better alternative than what he can expect from his superiors.

“How can I possibly be saved from what they’re going to do to me?” he seems to be asking Paul.

“Quick, run out the back door!” Paul does NOT say.
“Quick, disguise yourself as a drunk who wandered in by mistake!” Paul does NOT say.
“Quick, hide in the laundry basket!” Paul does NOT say.

Paul says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your whole household.”

What does that mean in this context?

“Quick! Believe certain facts about a man named Jesus!” Paul does not mean.
“Quick!  Let me catechize you!” Paul does NOT mean.

It is Paul who redirects the jailer's concern to one about how he will live his life.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus" here suggests reorienting one’s life and values in Jesus’ direction. If you call Jesus “lord,” that means you start telling yourself a different story about life.  Others to whom you’ve sworn allegiance are no longer your lord. The focus is on how to live, not how to avoid suffering or dying.

And the jailer is saved.  How do we know?  Because he lives into a fresh story.  He immediately invites Paul and Silas to leave the prison with him and enter his own house, thought it puts his family at risk.  The former tormenter washes the wounds of the former prisoners, a sign of completely upended relationships, a foreshadowing of the baptism that Paul will offer the jailer and family that signals in Christ there’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, master nor slave.  Further, the jailer sets before Paul and Silas a midnight feast with his family, a Eucharistic celebration if ever there was one.  The jailer’s story has changed because of the compassion he has received and then is able to offer.  The jailer’s story has changed because he has imagined a new way of being, a new system that breaks chains of oppression. The sign that someone has been changed by the words of Jesus is in their risky hospitality, in their real life rites with water for healing and food for community formation.

While the slave girl’s story ends ambiguously, the imprisoned jailer’s story ends with the whole household rejoicing as a bold new trajectory of their story begins.  And then this final scene with a twist right out of a Hollywood movie:

35When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.”   

Ah.  That would be happy ending enough.   

But Paul has the hutzpah not simply to walk out a gratefully free man but to rub the magistrates' noses in the injustice, to create political protest, to utilize Jesus’ teaching of a nonviolent third way that shames the oppressor into doing justice:

37“But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” 38The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

What an amazing turn of events!
God’s story of liberation is one in which prisoners and jailers alike are released from the systems of oppression, and one freed person helps the next.  That’s how we get saved—the masters and the slaves, the prisoners and the jailers.  God loves us all.  And trusting in this way of Jesus is a saving story for all.