Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Faith Under Pressure

Acts 16:16-34

Here we find the story of the first prison ministry. Not really. I think technically that honor would go to Joseph. But maybe this is the story of the first successful Christian prison ministry?

We are picking up where we left off two Sundays ago. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke are in the city of Philippi in the region of Macedonia. They are going to the place of prayer, which was outside the city walls. The reason is that Philippi, a Roman colony, had a law against allowing any foreign religions gathering inside the city walls. So the Jews that lived there met outside the city walls at a “place of prayer,” a substitute for the traditional synagogue.

They meet a slave girl who is possessed by an evil spirit that gives her the power of divination, foretelling the future. The original Greek says that she is a Pytho, or “having the spirit of a Pythoness.” These same words were used to describe the famed “Oracle of Delphi,” the most famous fortune teller in the ancient Greek world. Greeks, and Romans, too, for that matter, believed certain individuals were given a spirit of divination and they frequently visited these fortune tellers. No clue whether or not she had a 1-900 number.

She follows them around for days, telling everyone, “These men are servants of the Most High God here to tell you how to be saved.” Well, that seems like really good free publicity! Right? The problem is that if this is allowed to continue, then the gospel is being associated with divination, a demonic power, and that was not something Paul wanted. So Paul calls on the name of Christ to drive out this evil spirit. He sets her free. I’m sure she was happy.

Her masters, however, somewhat less so. It has hurt their bottom line. Those 1-900 numbers are a good business, apparently. And plenty of people in this world are willing to put profits ahead of people.

Paul and Silas are dragged before the authorities. They are accused of “teaching people things contrary to our Roman customs.” Remember, Philippi is a Roman colony. The citizens of Philippi, which would not be everyone, living someplace didn’t make you a citizen in that world, were also citizens of Rome. They were expected to live by Roman laws and customs. And one of the frequent complaints of Rome was the intrusion of “eastern religions” and their “foreign gods” into Roman culture.

Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten. In Roman law, it was illegal to beat a citizen without a trial. But Paul and Silas don’t mention their citizenship. Not yet, at least. Now if you weren’t a citizen, well, then they would beat you in order to extract evidence or a confession out of you. Innocent till proven guilty? No, not at all! Then they are thrown in jail and placed in the stocks. Stocks were a torture device. They would hold your legs, arms, and sometimes head, in uncomfortable positions for hours.

Well, in spite of not having a good day, at midnight, Paul and Silas are praying and singing praises to God. The other prisoners were listening. An earthquake struck, and miraculously, the doors are opened and the chains fall away.

When the jailer sees this, he is ready to kill himself. By law, if the prisoners escape, then he is put to death in their place. And in Roman culture, it was expected that you would commit suicide if you were dishonored. But Paul stops him.

He rushes to Paul and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” At least by reputation, he already knows something about Paul, Silas, and their message.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved; you and your household.” Why his household, too? Well, in Greco-Roman culture, the father was master of the household. Everyone followed his lead, including his religion, at least typically. Children, slaves, wives, everyone would adopt his religion.

Paul and Silas preach the gospel. They believe and are baptized that very night. And the first thing the jailer does is to treat their wounds and feed them. If your experience of Christ does not make you kind to others, then others might wonder whether or not you have really received Christ as Lord.

The story reminds us that persistent faith, especially faith that stands up under difficulty and suffering, is a powerful witness for Christ. It’s easy to speak of our trust in Christ when things are easy. But what if you were unjustly arrested, beaten, tortured? Could you still sing praises to God? What does our faith look like when we go through trials, difficulties, losses, illness, or tragedy? Other people will notice.

If we want to have a powerful witness to our faith, then we must build up the kind of faith that can stand up under bad circumstances. That kind of faith doesn’t happen overnight. It has to be nurtured and built over time. Faith, like any muscle,

must be exercised to make it grow stronger. You can’t wait until the time of trial to build a strong faith.

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