May 24th, 2015

We cannot worship lazily and passively.

Acts 16:25-34

Remembering together

Today is about remembering. More specifically, it’s about remembering together.

This is Memorial Day weekend. Even the name of the holiday has “remembering” in it. The holiday’s beginning goes back to a few years after the Civil War, when “Decoration Day” was declared to be May 30. This was originally a day to decorate the graves of fallen heroes with fresh flowers. In 1971, Congress declared the last Monday in May an official “Memorial Day” to remember the cost of freedom. Being Americans, we tend to celebrate this one like every other holiday – by doing our own thing, whether it’s beer and a cookout or launching the summer vacation season. That might be an appropriate way to remember freedom, but I like the newer tradition of a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 PM local time on Memorial Day – because it’s about remembering together. This should be an “us” holiday, not a “me” holiday.

Today is also Pentecost Sunday. Every event on the church calendar is about remembering. You know about the big ones – Christmas and Easter, remembering the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Today should be a big one too. It’s about remembering together the coming of the Holy Spirit. A little later in the service we will hear the Lord’s Prayer in several different languages. We remember together that the very nature of the church is to be multi-cultural. One of the major differences between the old covenant and the new covenant is that the gospel is not limited to one race or language. When we welcome outsiders – really welcome them, not just tolerate them – especially those who don’t look, act, or think like us, we are remembering Pentecost appropriately.

Paul and Silas also do some remembering in our study today in the book of Acts. But they don’t do their remembering with hot dogs on the grill or saying the Lord’s Prayer in Chinese. They do their remembering by singing. Together. Songs that save.

Singing and praying

If you were with us last week, you know that Acts 16 records a significant advance for the gospel of Jesus. The Holy Spirit twice prevents Paul and his missionary team from moving north and east into Asia (6,7). Instead, Paul receives the “Macedonian call” to go west across the Aegean Sea into Europe (9).

On arrival at Philippi in Greece, he learns that the town’s Jewish population is too small for the required ten married men to form a synagogue. He locates a group of women praying next to a stream they could use for ritual washing (13). Lydia, a wealthy traveling merchant, immediately embraces Paul’s gospel and is baptized in Jesus’ name with her household (14-15). Lydia persuades Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke to make her home their home while they are in the area (16).

It seems this European expedition is going to go well, right? Not so fast. We soon learn that the religious diversity of Philippi includes a rather lucrative religious-economic enterprise based on fortune telling. In almost every age and place somebody figures out that religion can make money. A slave girl in Philippi has “a spirit of Python” (16, NIV – “a spirit by which she predicted the future”). In central Greece there was a shrine dedicated to Delphi, also known as Python, a serpent/dragon that could predict the future. Apollo had slain the dragon and assumed these powers for himself. Those who were indwelt by Apollo were known as “pythons.”

The idea of an indwelling supernatural force was attractive to those inclined to follow superstitious ideas, and a young slave girl with the Python spirit could make a lot of money for her masters. When Paul and his team entered the public arena in Philippi, this young woman would follow them, shrieking, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (17). At first she probably helped Paul and Silas. She had some credibility among the masses and helped Paul gather a crowd. But after a few days, Paul was fatigued by her annoying attention. Recognizing demonic source of her supposed powers, he cast the demon out (18).

That was good for the young woman, but from the masters’ perspective Paul had just murdered the goose that laid the golden egg (19). Furious, they grabbed Paul and Silas, dragging them into the agora, the town center for commerce and government, and located the praetors (NIV “authorities” in verse 19 and “magistrates” in verse 20), men designated by Rome to keep order in the Roman colony. Each praetor was accompanied by two lictors (NIV “officers” in verse 35), who in turn carried their version of a handgun and Taser – an axe and a bundle of rods to subdue any troublemakers.

The charge brought by the slave girl’s masters was, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to practice” (21). It was a false charge, of course, as was the idea that Paul and Silas caused the riot. Paul indeed had publicly exposed their “worship” as the occult, worship connected to Satan not to “the gods.” But the basis of their accusation was anti-Semitism.

Don’t ever forget that Hitler didn’t invent anti-Semitism; he drew on a tradition of both Christian and non-Christian hatred for Jews that has existed for 3500 years and rears its ugly head in certain moments and places. Jews tend to have counter-cultural customs – Sabbath-keeping, kosher food laws, unusual apparel – which in turn makes it more comfortable for them to live in close knit and even isolated communities. They have rarely in their history been a threat to anyone who’s not Jewish, but they tend to arouse suspicion and mistrust, which sometimes rises to the level of violence.

In other words, the charge against Paul and Silas amounted to “Jew!” It’s like calling “Arab!” today or just pointing out that someone is Muslim. If people already harbor prejudice, they immediately experience emotions from fear to rage. Sometimes such racism has governmental approval, as it did in parts of America for three hundred years against people of African descent. No matter what you think about any individual case in the news today about police action against minorities, don’t forget that at least part of the frenzy is about the collective memory of state-endorsed abuse.

Rather than the Philippian praetors calming the mob, they participated in the injustice. The rods of the lictors were applied to the backs of Paul and Silas (22), after which they were ordered to prison. The jailer was instructed to “guard them carefully” (23). I’m sure the jailer knew well the law – if you let a prisoner escape, you pay with your own life. With this explicit instruction, the jailer placed Paul and Silas in the inner cell and shackled them (24). We’re not told why Timothy and Luke were not jailed – perhaps because Timothy and Luke looked more Greek than Jewish.

I don’t know about you, but my next response would not necessarily be to break out in song and prayer as Paul and Silas did (25). I might be saying, “Lord, I was trying to do your work. I followed your call to Macedonia. What do I get for my obedience? Rejection, a bleeding and bruised back, my feet and hands in stocks, and a dark jail cell.”

I wish I could have heard Paul and Silas singing and praying. I wonder what they prayed and sang. Were they psalms and traditional Jewish songs like the ones they shared with Lydia and the other Jews and God fearers on the riverbank? Were they early Christian hymns about Jesus? We don’t know.

What we do know is that there was a violent earthquake – one of only two recorded in the New Testament, not including the visions in Revelation. (The other earthquake was on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection.) Luke says “the foundations of the prisons were shaken” and the prison doors opened and the chains of the prisoners broke (26). The jailer, who had been sleeping, knew the prisoners would all escape and he was going to die. To reduce his suffering and shame, he drew his short sword to plunge it into his own neck or heart (27). Paul yelled out to stop him: “We are all here!”

Humbled and trembling (remember the earthquake!), the jailer fell down before Paul and Silas. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (30) We don’t know all he meant by that. Maybe he just wanted to know how to get out of the mess he was in. Or perhaps he had heard the slave girl’s claim that these men knew “the way of salvation” (17). Maybe he had heard Paul preach the gospel. Perhaps it was the content of the songs they sang in the dingy isolation. Whatever it was, he knew he needed what they had.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus,” Paul and Silas answered, “and you will be saved – you and your household” (31). Apparently the jailer lived next door and his family – who undoubtedly had emerged from the home due to the earthquake – joined him in faith and baptism (34) after treating Paul and Silas for their wounds (33). Sometime that night or after, I’m assuming Dr. Luke’s services were helpful as well. The following day, the praetors learned they had broken the law by beating and jailing Roman citizens without a trial. Terrified, they released Paul and Silas and ordered them to leave Philippi (38-40).

Sealing truth in our souls

There are many places we could go with this story as we reflect on its meaning for us. Certainly evangelism is central to the story. What does it mean to be “saved”? What does it mean to “believe on the Lord Jesus?” How do we seize those moments when the Lord gives us an encounter with a seeker who’s so ready? We could also speak of suffering, and finding the strength to trust God when life beats us down.

I want to go somewhere different, but it ties to both those themes. The singing and praying in that jail cell is about “collective remembering.” As I said, I don’t know what Paul and Silas were singing, but I doubt they made up the songs on the spot. They sang the songs of trust and hope they had sung in the community of believers. I don’t know what words they prayed. They may have been extemporaneous prayers, but even if they were, they were based on the prayers they had learned to pray in synagogues and in the community of believers in places like Antioch and Jerusalem.

What songs do you sing when you’re in your own jail cell? Todd Byrd, who attends the Thursday Bible study, reflected on that question and sent me a YouTube link to a moving a capella rendition of “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” For me, it’s going to be some version of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” These are songs Todd and I both learned in community with other believers. It’s part of our collective memory about who we are and, more importantly, who God is. He is worthy of our worship and trust because he’s all-powerful and he loves us infinitely. Singing will save you in suffering.

It’s the same for praying together. We pray the Lord’s Prayer because it teaches us to pray the big picture. On this Pentecost Sunday we pray it in multiple languages because our community is global. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray in humility and dependence. The free prayers of public worship model how to pray.

This is one reason we cannot worship lazily and passively. You can’t just sit there. You sing the songs. You think the songs. You pray the prayers. In doing so, you program your mind with the truths of God’s Word. Then, when you suffer, you replay your collective memory and you find hope. And when the world overhears, they want to know, “What must I do to be saved?” Singing will also save others. Amen.

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