Faith is not Formulaic: Acts 16.16–34

2018.4.22 salvationDelivered at Ames UCC on
Sunday, April 22, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

HOW
How is all of this supposed to work? This coming into the sanctuary of a Sunday, the going to Bible study, the attending regional youth events? (Several of our youth are at Urbandale UCC today to meet other kids who will be going to the July youth event.) What are the faith outcomes that these religious mechanics generate?

From Christmas until Easter we watched the Jesus movement begin, Jesus himself with his teachings and talents and the blessings and backlash which followed both.  Now we are in the season of Eastertide. During Eastertide we watch the emergence of the early churches, the very earliest churches, the Communion and Baptism communities that followers of the Jesus movement planted as far from Jerusalem’s grave as Macedonia’s Philippi. That’s almost 1,400 miles and would take over 400 hours to walk. That’s commitment.

But, again, to what end and through which means?  Today Paul’s answer to his jailer is

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.

FORMULAE
Believe and be saved. It’s the classic Christian formula.

Throughout my high school years, when I would drive myself and my brother and dog north on I-5 either from the home of our aunts in Portland or our dad in Vancouver to our mom’s place in Olympia, there was a billboard that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” in full, giant Gothic print.

I remember being both offended and confused by it. Offended for having my public space taken up by Christian evangelism (I was a classic teen) and confused by the use of “on” instead of “in.” Don’t we have faith in Jesus Christ, not on him?

Regardless, I understood it then, as I do now, to suggest that if we commit ourselves exclusively to Jesus Christ we will be rescued from certain pain and suffering. It’s a tidy formula. It’s a formula that leaves no room for interpretation. And it’s a formula that no doubt has leveraged the anxiety inherent in its absolutism to gain adherents.

But I don’t think it is exactly right, and I’m a long way from that raw rejection of youth.

Speaking only for myself, but also from experience with so many other people in my life, my relationship with God through Christ has not saved me from anything. It has not saved me from sexual assault, homophobic discrimination, mental illness, or in any complete sense, from my own shortcomings.

Maybe my faith will play into whatever happens to me when I am dead, but asking me to structure the life I know around the unknowns of my death doesn’t really sound like the work of the God of Genesis or Jesus of Nazareth. Especially when our scripture offers fuller, I don’t want to say proof, but a pattern more in alignment with the full picture of God in the world.

PAUL AND PETER IN JAIL
Paul makes this statement while he is in jail. Paul is by this point devoted to God in Christ, but he wasn’t always.

Paul was a Jewish Roman citizen who had persecuted the post-Easter followers of Jesus’s Way. Then he had an epiphanic encounter with God in Christ. Paul reversed his position. Paul became a true believer, a vehement preacher, gifted teacher, and itinerant church planter.

When we meet him today, Paul is way out in Philippi in Macedonia. Paul lands in jail there because in this encounter with a psychic he disrupted the public square. Despite what the passage implies, there was no law against teaching non-Roman customs, just doing so in a disorderly way.1 Paul could be a Jesus follower so long as he was a polite one.

However, if our scripture is any indication, politeness, or public decorum, and faith often diverge since Paul is not the only early follower of the Jesus Way to be jailed. So is Peter.

Peter is one of the original disciples, a fisherman invited by Jesus to join in his work and ministry. Peter is Jewish, like Paul, but lacking the benefits of Roman citizenship.

Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew that Peter is the rock on which he will build his church, though moments later Jesus gets mad at Peter for denying the inevitable and lethal confrontation that will result from their work. Then Peter denies Jesus himself during the arrest leading up to crucifixion.

But after the Easter mystery, Peter is the chief preacher, teacher, and church grower. Thousands of people join because of him, our scripture says. So he’s a public troublemaker, too. And in Chapter 12, before today’s story of Paul, Peter is arrested by King Herod, who is intent on execution. The night before that could happen, though, an angel frees Peter from his shackles and bondage. Similarly for Paul, in the night there is an earthquake and his cell door opens.

2018.4.22 patternPATTERN
So in Peter and Paul we have another formula, not one that is so cleanly articulated as “believe on the Lord and be saved,” but one that is clearly lived by two of our most highly regarded guides: Be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, go to jail for that faith, get freed by that faith.

It doesn’t hold universally. James was arrested right before Peter and is executed. Peter is eventually executed, too. Our faith does not render us impervious to repeated imprisonment or to wrongful death.

Let’s take another step back. Let’s widen the lens to see if we can include all of these elements:

Say yes to God in Jesus.

Experience conflict because of having done so.

Get shut down by authorities but never shut out by your family of faith.

In the darkest hour know freedom.

Repeat.

Repeat unto death.

Repeat without fear of death.

Again:

Say yes to God in Jesus.

Experience conflict because of having done so.

Get shut down by authorities but never shut out by your family of faith.

In the darkest hour know freedom.

Repeat.

Repeat unto death.

Repeat without fear of death.

DEATH
Repeat without fear of death not because faith is a deal made with God to get into heaven. Repeat without fear of death because death is coming no matter what, and pain, too, and no matter how despicable we are, no matter how good we are.

Whomever or whatever we encounter after that last breath and beyond, can never be known by these brains in this stream of the life eternal. But the faith outcomes, which we know these religious mechanics generate, are who and what we want to encounter, and walk with, up until that last moment.

Faith is not formulaic and salvation isn’t future tense.

In the daytime hours, faith gives us direction and strength of community. In the night, those dark nights of the body and mind and soul, faith gifts us with a shattering unshackling. Between the two, we are saved from enervating oppression and social isolation by energizing loving and divine presence.

HYMNS OF JOY
I am now the last person who can complain about evangelistic billboards, given that I work in an evangelistic billboard, of sorts, and with banners that are no less strident than what I read on the I-5 every other week thirty years ago.

I am also now a little envious of those who have such a tidy formula to offer the world. But the God of Genesis and Jesus of Nazareth have too much to offer the world to be that tidy.

Say yes to God in Jesus.

Experience conflict because of having done so.

Get shut down by authorities but never shut out by your family of faith.

In the darkest hour know freedom.

Repeat.

Repeat unto death.

Repeat without fear of death.

Remember, Paul was once called Saul and used his gifts and talents to maim and to martyr. In this faith, though, he used his gifts to walk thousands of miles, with fellow travelers. Together they set up communities of feeding and care, shared spaces for the rich and the poor, women and men, Romans and Jews and Gentiles alike.

And when they were in jail for having done so, together they sang hymns of joy all the night long.

 AMEN

1Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. 2011. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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