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The Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2013
The First Lesson: Acts 16:16-34
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The First Lesson:
With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, 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. While 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." She 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.
But 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly 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. When 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He 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.
Next time you’re trying to exit a shopping center parking lot on a really busy shopping day and some driver lets you cut in line in front of them, give thanks to God because, according to some new research, there’s a good chance that driver is a religious person.
But maybe, if the research is right, it’s that person’s fellow worshipers who should be thanked as well. The study, conducted by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame scholar David Campbell, was published about two years ago in their book Amazing Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives.
According to their study, religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their neighborhoods and their civic community than are nonreligious people. By religious, incidentally, they mean people who are actively involved in a faith community, such as a church. Just being “spiritual”, as many people are apt to refer to themselves these days, without the group dynamic of a congregational connection, gets about the same results as nonreligious. Religious folks are more apt to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, vote in local elections, attend public meetings and donate both time and money to public causes, including secular ones.
The study also shows that religious people are, in general, just “nicer.” They do good deeds, help both neighbors and strangers, give money to panhandlers and let others cut in front of them in line.
But here’s why you might want to thank the driver’s fellow worshipers as well as God: Putnam and Campbell say the reason religious people are nicer and are better citizens isn’t just because of religious teaching, per se. They’re behaving well not because they’re trying to secure a place in heaven or because they’re afraid of divine judgment; rather, they’re that way because of the relationships they have in their places of worship. The authors theorize that if someone from our “moral community” (as opposed to, say, someone from our bowling league) asks us to volunteer for a cause, we’re more likely to agree. The authors are so impressed by the data on these relationships that they say faith community relationships should be dubbed “supercharged friends.”
Our reading from Acts this morning is a case in point. The action takes place in Philippi, where Paul and Silas are tossed in jail on trumped-up charges of “disturbing our city” and “advocating customs that aren’t lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” And before being thrown in jail, the pair are stripped and beaten with rods. All this because Paul called a demon to come out of a slave girl, thereby depriving her owners of income they made from her fortune-telling. This trouble happens to Paul and Silas, and they go through it together. While the whole affair was painful and terrible, the companionship and goals held in common by these two missionaries made it somewhat easier to bear. The text suggests this, for after Paul and Silas are flogged and put into the dungeon in stocks, they together pray and sing hymns. Here was a supercharged friendship if there ever was one.
Actually, although the New Testament gives us quite a bit of information about Paul and some about Silas, we don’t have a clear picture of how their friendship came about. What we do know is that they went to a church conference together. Well, I suppose “conference” is putting it somewhat mildly. It was the first Jerusalem Council, the very first official Council of the Church. It’s that Council that decided that you and I could become Christians without becoming practicing Jews first. It also exempted us from the Kosher food laws and the Levitical law codes. So, if you like bacon, you can thank the First Jerusalem Council for making it legal. All in all, it turned out to be a pretty good decision for us Gentiles, and the Church as it expanded into Europe. Paul, the Scripture tells us, had been one of the chief proponents of the change. Silas, we are told, was one of those chosen to carry a letter to other congregations with the decision of the Jerusalem council. It was in this church setting that the two connected, and eventually, Paul, “chose Silas and set out” (Acts 15:40). There has to be more to it than that, of course. At minimum, Paul had to have observed something in Silas that led him to think he would be a suitable companion and coworker. And Silas must have seen in Paul’s invitation some idea that the two could work together and accomplish something they couldn’t do singly.
But without Paul’s invitation, would Silas have gone out to spread the gospel on his own? We have no indication that he had any such intentions. He likely went because Paul, a member of his “moral community,” asked him to. But once Silas agreed, he accounted himself admirably, including keeping faith with Paul and with their mutual commitment to Christ, even while in the stockade.
All this suggests that there’s something to be gained from going to church that cannot be had by staying home and listening to a sermon on television, or relying on private devotions alone. A congregation as a whole is a supercharged friendship where we draw forth good things from each other for the benefit of others.
This pair accomplished a lot for the kingdom of God, and our reading gives us one example. There in prison, while Paul and Silas prayed and sang, an earthquake occurred, shaking the area so violently that the jail doors sprung open and all the prisoners’ chains became unfastened. The jailer assumed the prisoners had escaped, and, expecting to be held responsible, was about to kill himself. But Paul stopped him by assuring him that everyone was present and accounted for.
Recognizing that God’s power was present in Paul and Silas, the jailer asked them what he needed to do to be saved. They told him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” He did, and soon he and his “entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” A whole family was blessed because of the faithfulness of Silas and Paul.
That’s in line with what the study found. Religious people are good for their faith communities, for civic life, for all those around them. Part of the reason is because they call forth good things from one another. It isn’t difficult to find stories of how the supercharged friendships within congregations can accomplish great things. Here’s one example that ended up involving three congregations:
In 2006, a congregation in Hollywood, Florida, became concerned about the AIDS epidemic around the world. A couple of friends there were inspired to find a way to make a difference.
Shortly after that, one of them noticed an article in the local paper about the spread of HIV in Haiti. That was shared in the congregation, and some additional members began exploring what might be done there. About that time, one church member who had friends who attended a Jewish synagogue in town, asked the church pastor if he thought the church might be interested in teaming up with the synagogue for work in Haiti. The pastor asked the rabbi, and soon a partnership was born. Yes, the two congregations were from different faiths, but in terms of their interests in the world, they belonged to the same moral community.
Eventually, these partnered congregations sent folks to Haiti, where they connected with the pastor of a Haitian congregation that was struggling to operate an orphanage for HIV-infected children. That congregation was long on service, but short on funds. The Florida congregations committed themselves to raising the funds needed for food, clothing, and medical supplies.
In the six years since getting started, the work of these three partnered congregations has gone even farther. They have started supporting other orphanages and helped purchase more than 1,000,000 deworming pills for starving Haitians. Observers there agree that there are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children in Haiti today who wouldn’t be alive without the work of these three congregations.
Faith communities around the world can tell of similar good things that have occurred because someone had a vision and asked others to help.
Here’s the bottom line for us this morning: St. Thomas is a moral community. We have supercharged friendships right here. For that matter, we have something that the authors of the study haven’t taken into account: The Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit actually moves among us, resides in us, and works through us, we truly are supercharged.
Perhaps you have an idea for the good of folks right here in our congregation, or in our town, or even on the other side of the world, but you don’t know where to start. The help you need may be sitting in a pew near you right now.
Paul asked Silas, and because Silas said yes, the jailer was saved, his household was blessed, and lots of other people heard the gospel of Christ. What is the Holy Spirit calling you to envision or improve? Just ask!