Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Acts 16: 16 – 34
Paul and Silas in Prison
16 One day, 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. 17While 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.’ 18She 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.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer* called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord* to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.
Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21
12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes,* so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
John 17: 20 – 26
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,* so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I 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. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
In our readings from Acts and the Gospel of John, is a simple but great secret – the secret of our working with God.
Before I go there I want us to hold in our minds a few facts and some mental images that will help us come to grips with this secret.
Fact 1 – we are created by God, for God and in his image for relationship; therefore we are both completely dependent upon God and yet we have free will – agency. We can act. We are not mindless robots.
Fact 2 – we are fallen creatures. Something happened as reflected in the Genesis 3 story that severed us from God. We have been in rebellion ever since and have to cope with death, which is what happens to anything severed from its source of life.
Fact 3 – God loves us and his rescue of us is given effect in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in following Jesus and in being what Paul calls “in Christ” that our salvation is found.
Now down the years, as the church has tried to work out the Christian life, our attempts have gone this way and that, a bit like a rabbit running in front of a car at night on a country road.
Our understanding of how we engage with God is seen in different ways.
Mental Image 1 – One of the poles that has emerged in trying to sort out how we relate to God is this: At one extreme is the idea (and it holds some truth) that our salvation is passive. We are dead in our trespasses and sins therefore we can’t do anything so it’s all up to God. God is active and we are simply passive.
Mental Image 2 – The other pole is that God has made plain the way we should follow and what we have to do is get up off our behinds and follow that way. We have free will so it is up to us.
Of course there are theological names for these approaches which we won’t go into today.
The truth is that there is a little bit of both in real experience
- The idea that I can’t do anything and that salvation is simply up to God goes along with a mindset that sees our sinfulness as predominant, that in the Fall we were immobilised, therefore it’s up to God. We can’t do a thing. God is huge and we are helpless.
- The idea that it’s all up to me, goes along with a mindset that interprets the love of God as a commodity to be utilised – that our free will is there for a purpose and that it’s completely dependent upon us as to whether we make use of God’s salvation or not. God is no longer an actor in the process.
In neither of these extremes do we relate to God. In neither of them do we pay much attention to God. In the first God is a bit scary so you just keep quiet. In the other he’s irrelevant. He’s like someone who has built a road through the jungle and then disappeared. You use the road and ignore the road builder.
But when we look at Scripture neither of these extremes on its own is the complete picture.
I used the term earlier that there is a secret to working with God. I said ‘working with’ purposefully because I’m not just talking about salvation, I’m also referring to how we co-operate with God once we are saved. i.e. how we live out our relationship with God.
We are unable on our own to make any approach to God. We are indeed dead through the trespasses and sins, as Ephesians 2: 1 tells us. But God does something. God initiates something. The death and resurrection of Jesus form a kind of bridge over which we can travel from isolation from God to companionship with God. Verse 4 says, 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved.
From the Acts reading we see that Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi, singing hymns, when God cracks the whole place open with an earthquake. The jailer recognises that salvation accompanies the God who frees people unjustly imprisoned. The grace of God is displayed before him.
He also recognises that there is a human response required and he cries out, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’
Paul is of course only too happy to oblige and he says, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ God’s initiative is to break open the prison; the jailer’s response is to believe in Jesus.
No salvation is possible without the initiative of God. Neither is salvation possible without our response.
In our Gospel reading Jesus prays and says, 25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
God’s initiative is to send Jesus.
Our response lies in Verse 20, ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.
Our response is to believe. It’s the same response Paul and Silas recommended to the Philippian jailer.
Belief or faith is the response that appropriates God’s initiative of grace towards us. God’s initiative is one of grace and our response is one of faith.
That is how we come to salvation, how the destructive work of the Fall is reversed and how we re-engage in relationship with God.
So what is the secret then of working with God, how do we work with God now that relationship is re-established? Well, Paul says to the church in Colossae So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, (Colossians 2: 6)
We were created for relationship and any relationship with God is dependent upon faith. We received Christ by faith and we live by faith.
The one thing we cannot do, is think we can make use of the salvation Jesus has provided in a technical sense (possibly through repentance and faith) and then either ignore Jesus or try and pay him back.
We were made by God for relationship with God. It is what God longs for. It is in fact what God demands. We encourage that relationship in faith.
There are 3 crucial Scriptures that teach just that:
- Romans 1:17English Standard Version (ESV)
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,[a] as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (The righteous are those who have been made right – who have been saved)
- Galatians 3:11 English Standard Version (ESV)
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
- Hebrews 10:38 English Standard Version (ESV)
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”
So the secret to working with God is to build relationship through ongoing faith.
- we are created by God, for God and in his image for relationship; therefore we have free will. We are not mindless robots.
- we are fallen creatures. Something happened as reflected in the Genesis 3 story that severed us from God. We have been in rebellion ever since.
- God loves us and his rescue of us is given effect in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in following Jesus and in being what Paul calls “in Christ” that our salvation is found.
If we give any serious thought as to how we follow Jesus we are confronted with how that happens. Do I wait for a sense of God’s initiative, or do I approach God?
The wonderful thing is that frequently our approaches to God are in response to his promptings anyway.
Either way we respond in faith and Paul tells us that not only do we appropriate the salvation of God in faith but we live by faith too.
How does that happen? I’m not speaking about the ‘faith’ required to believe that a chair will hold me when I sit down. I’m not speaking about the mundane; what I refer to is responses to God that stretch us.
It is only as we are stretched that our faith grows.
- When Michael feels the urge to try out a new or unusual piece of music, in doing so he is stepping out in faith
- When we host Tear Fund as we did last night in a special service that involved musicians of international renown, we are acting in faith.
- When you prayerfully share Christ with someone, you are acting in faith.
When we do anything with God (not for God: that is law – not against God: that is licence or rebellion) we act in faith. Acting in faith enhances relationship – and it is that, that God is after. He loves us! He wants to be with us!
And the final word on the secret to working with God, whether in salvation or in everyday life we give to Hebrews 10: 39. But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.