This has been the season for baptisms here at Saint John. Last week, when we had two baptisms, we had a children’s sermon and it was so gratifying to hear the children explain what baptism means and what it means to be part of our church. We learn a lot about life in the early church from the stories in Acts. In the first part of our first lesson for this week we see that although life was very different in the first century, the more things change the more they remain the same. The poor slave girl was being exploited by the men who owned her, and sadly, there is no resolution to her story.
Paul became annoyed because she kept following him and Silas around and calling out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” We might wonder why Paul would not appreciate what seems to be free advertising, but it is not made clear. We are told that when the men who owned her lost their source of income, they were so angry that they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities and made false accusations against them. We never find out what happens to the slave girl. It is as if she has no identity, she exists only to be exploited by others. Sadly, that has not changed. There is a still a vast traffic in human slavery, with thousands of people who are exploited, mistreated and discarded. For the people who exploit them, human life has value only as a commodity.
In the second part of the story Paul and Silas were falsely accused and unjustly punished, even though they were Roman citizens. The brutal treatment they were subjected to is described in just a couple of sentences, which do not do justice to the severity of the punishment. They were beaten with rods, then flogged severely, and finally sent to jail, where they were placed in stocks. So in addition to their severe physical injuries, they could not even move around. There was no regard for their suffering; they would only receive medical care and food if someone who knew them brought it to them from the outside. It is not until the next day that the magistrates will apologize for violating their rights as citizens. Their ordeal gives us a glimpse of what life was like for those who were not citizens of the Roman Empire.
Even though they were in agonizing pain from their injuries, Paul and Silas occupied their time by praying and even singing hymns to God. The other prisoners were no doubt surprised and fascinated as they listened. Then the earthquake struck – rather conveniently – breaking up the prison and making it possible for all the prisoners to escape. The jailer assumes the worst; that all the prisoners are gone. Since he doesn’t want to face the consequences, he prepares to commit suicide. That alone tells us something about the culture in that place and time, a culture which still exists to some extent in Asian countries, where people in positions of responsibility are expected to kill themselves if they are perceived as having failed at their job. That was the case when the ferry sank in South Korea and the captain took his own life.
Instead of escaping from the jail and getting out of town, Paul and Silas saved the life of the jailer by staying. They must have also had a calming effect on the other prisoners, since none of them attempted to escape. This had a profound effect on the jailer. He recognized that there was something very special about Paul and Silas, that they had faith in a God who acted very differently than the Roman gods. He immediately wanted to be part of this religion; he wanted to share in the saving grace of God. So Paul and Silas taught him and his household about the God of Israel and how Jesus was sent into the world to bring the message of God’s saving grace, compassion, mercy and love.
The good news of Jesus Christ stands in stark comparison to the avenging gods of Roman religion, who had a distant relationship with the people and demanded regular sacrifices from them. In contrast, Jesus sacrificed his life for us. The jailer and his household believed in the word of God as taught to them by Paul and Silas and so they were saved. The jailer’s response to the saving grace of Christ was to wash and dress their wounds. Then, in an unusual move, no doubt in response to the events that were unfolding so quickly, the jailer and his household were baptized “without delay” by Paul and Silas. Then they shared a meal and everyone rejoiced because they had become believers in God.
We are following that same pattern today at worship – hearing the word of God, affirming our belief, baptizing, and then sharing in a meal, in this case the Eucharistic meal that promises us forgiveness and grace. We thank God that even the most unexpected people, like that jailer, can be drawn into the Christian community. We remember from our gospel reading two weeks ago that Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loves us. He said it would be by our acts of love that we would be recognized as Christians. A way of life centered around love attracts others. When Paul and Silas acted out of love and did not try to escape, but instead remained in the jail and saved the life of the jailer, their actions prompted him to learn more about their God. Once he learned and believed, he was moved to perform acts of love for them.
Our gospel reading for today is part of a longer prayer that Jesus prayed on behalf of his disciples shortly before he was arrested and crucified. We get to listen in and learn about Jesus’ mission in the world – that he came as the incarnation of God’s love for all humankind, so that all people might be drawn to love the God who created the world, who came to save the world in the person of Jesus and who is with us always in the form of the Holy Spirit, acting in our lives as our advocate, our comforter and our redeemer. Jesus continues to pray for us and set an example for us so that we also will pray continually.
Today Ashlynn will be baptized into the Christian church, where she will be nurtured in the faith and where her family will continue to be given love and support. No matter where Ashlynn finds herself in life, she will know that God and the faith community that surrounds her will always love her deeply and she does not have to fear when she feels vulnerable, worried or sad. She will be taught that although the future is mainly out of our control, we believe that we can always trust our lives to the care of God. Barbara Lundblad, Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, reminds us that “this is the wondrous mystery revealed to Julian of Norwich in the 14th century. This well-educated Christian woman devoted her life to God through study and contemplation of scripture. She wrote a theological treatise entitled “Showings” and her words have now become a hymn that we remember today: “Mothering God, you gave me birth. Mothering Christ, you took my form. Mothering Spirit, nurturing One.” As Ashlynn will learn, “God is always more than we imagined. God is always closer than we had dared to dream.” Amen.