Seventh Sunday of Easter
Sunday 28 May 2022
“What must I do to be saved?” ©Suzanne Grimmett
This is the question on the lips of the jailer of Paul and Silas who has had, to put it mildly, a very rough night. This is a small story within the greater story of Acts telling of the spreading of the good news of the way of Jesus the Christ through Gentile lands and occupied territories.
It is a deeply personal question seeking a personalised response. If we were to ask the same question, we must surely wonder how our life- and this question- could have anything to do with the desires, hopes and fears of a first century Roman jailer whose prison duty had just been interrupted by a divine earthquake that released all the captives.
We might also ask ourselves what we understand by salvation? Saved from what and for what? Freedom and life seem to be a keynotes of salvation and key themes of today’s readings. There are plenty of ways that we are robbed of life and freedom and equally many ways in which we volunteer ourselves for such enslavement, whether that be through our attachments to money, power or security or addictions of various kinds.
“What must I do to be saved?”
There is a path laid down for us in the story of Jesus the Christ in the four Gospels. It is a story grounded in the soil of Judaism that has spread throughout the world revealing a way of truth and life. I love the work of Alexander John Shaia in describing how that path is revealed in the Gospels as a journey. It begins in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in the wake of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the massacre of its priests. Change and upheaval is something we all face in our lifetimes in big and small ways. Matthew’s Gospel brings us face to face with change and asks us how we will face it and recognises the need for attention to the new moves of the Spirit and for courage to act.
Mark’s Gospel is the story of an early church undergoing terrible trials and asks us,” How do we move through suffering?” This is a key question given that struggle and great sorrow, will, after all, visit us all at different times in our lives. It is the way of the cross.
John’s Gospel comes with a new note, and it is the note sung with clear beauty in today’s reading. It is the promise of wholeness and healing, where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. It is the sudden inbreaking of light and love where we know that all is one and everything is held together in unity. It is expressed so beautifully in the prayer to the Creator of all that we hear on Jesus’ lips;
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
We are to seek that joy and salvation which heals us and brings all to a joyful consummation, even as we recognise that this is the work of the Spirit from start to finish. The question posed by John’s Gospel is not “What must I do?” but “How do I receive this joy?”
But there is also caution. We can easily misconstrue, distort or seek to control this message of joy and wholeness. This where the Gospel of Luke and story of Acts comes into play, reminding us to stay on the journey, open to the Spirit. Our personal salvation is caught up in the salvation of one another as we learn to live the truth that we are to love one another as we are beloved by the source of our being. The stories of Luke/Acts ask us how we are to mature in loving service, surrendering to the transformation of ourselves and our communities.
The story we are told in the reading from Acts today presents many characters in a human drama, and although the context is vastly different to our own, within the narrative there are many seductions, common to all human experience, that can lead us away from life and freedom.
Let us consider the cast of characters and what the writer of Luke/Acts could be telling us in the narrative tableaux before us.
First, we meet the slave-girl. She haunts the steps of Paul and Silas as every follower of a God of love and justice should be haunted by the oppressed and enslaved. The slave owners have exploited her abilities, whether they be a gift or a curse, for their own material gain, commodifying another human being. There seems to be great power in her words, as her speech has taken on a religious quality, proclaiming Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” The use of the word slave is interesting- perhaps her own enslavement leads her to be unable to interpret their relationship to God through any lens but the disempowering life she has known.
Paul and Silas, too, have to navigate temptation in their encounter with her. One temptation would be to simply ignore her plight, not cause a fuss, and go on their way. This is something that they apparently have attempted to do, since the text tells us she had been following them with her cries for many days. Another temptation could have been to embrace and capitalise on the message she is proclaiming to the crowd. The words, after all, could be said to be promoting their cause and elevating Paul and Silas above the average mortals. Isn’t this the temptation of every spiritual or religious leader or teacher? There is always the seduction of seeing themselves as some kind of enlightened being whose ego revels in the adoration that is given while exploiting their influence for their own ends. We see this in charismatic leaders of mega churches whose popularity has become a personality cult, but we also see it in our branch of the church where clericalism has been a sickness that has led to the disempowerment of the laity and enabled the great evils of sexual and spiritual abuse.
But instead of using her words and adding to her exploitation, Paul sets this slave girl free. I wish we had a follow up story to know what happened to her. But her owners, enraged by their loss of a slave, seize on their opportunity for revenge, whip up the crowd and have Paul and Silas dragged before the magistrates. The crowd gives into the human temptation to find a convenient scapegoat and turns on them with all the fury of a mob. The magistrates, too, give into this seductive outrage and take the path of least resistance and have them flogged and imprisoned. It is oh so easy to find legalistic justifications for our behaviour and decisions at times, without allowing the demands of our conscience to be heard. Just because it lawful does not mean that it is right or good. And conversely, not everything that is unlawful is wrong. What constitutes a crime is in fact a complex reality- who gets arrested, charged, tried and convicted is often a matter of who has support, access to resources and levels of advantage or disadvantage. The story of our faith, we need to remember, begins with God tried and executed and of the disciples of the risen Christ who are tortured, imprisoned and put to death.
The jailer, filled with fear of authorities, may have felt the temptation strongly to run when the earthquake shook the very foundations of the prison. He instead chose to give up on life itself and become his own dealer in death and destruction, until Paul cried out to stop him. His freedom was caught up in the freedom of Paul and Silas who chose to remain in their place of imprisonment when their shackles flew off. Faced with such goodness and solidarity in suffering, he asks the question with which I began, “What must I do to be saved?”
There is a way that Jesus has revealed to us. A way to travel through an openness to the Spirit and courage to change, faithfulness through suffering and a readiness to receive the joyful consummation of the Christ who comes bringing healing and wholeness. Our way of salvation continues as we allow the love poured out upon us to spill over to love of one another and all creation. It is a liberation that bursts upon us when we recognise that there is no locked room in our life where Jesus cannot come with mercy, forgiveness and redemption. We find the way when we resist the easy seductions of power, money and security. The way of truth and life comes uniquely to each of us as we open ourselves to the Spirit who would work in us more than we could ever think or imagine.
“What must I do to be saved?” Step out on the path, my friend. The way is known, and Jesus, our friend and companion, will never leave us to travel alone.