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Past Pain, Present Gifts
(formerly – Violence, Division, and Unexpected Gifts)
May 29, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
John 17:20-26 Acts 16:16-34 Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21
Mary Todd Lincoln was crazy. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, was a sufferer of an undiagnosed mental illness and was extraordinarily difficult to live with. By making a long-distance examination from historically documented accounts, historians of today guess that Mary Todd Lincoln may well have suffered from bipolar disorder and, in an era far removed from a diagnosis, let alone a treatment of any kind, her disorder often made life in her household unpleasant.
Other husbands of that era might have, and sometimes did, have their wives and family members with such a disorder committed to an insane asylum. Many of them clearly were not insane by our modern standards but were simply so difficult to live with that they were removed to the care of someone else. Abraham Lincoln didn’t do that. He loved his wife Mary, he cared for her, and he found it within himself to withstand her rages, outbursts, depression, and other manifestations of her disorder.
Our nation benefited from his suffering. Historians speculate that the mental fortitude of Abraham Lincoln, forged and strengthened through years of caring for Mary, and enduring the suffering that went with it, made him singularly qualified to stand against the stress, arguments, negotiations, and other mental and emotional difficulties that were thrust upon him during the American Civil War. Anyone who had not lived through what he had already endured, might not have been able to cope with the demands of the presidency in that era.
In an odd sort of way, his suffering was a gift.
But what does any of that have to do with us? Well, before we get to that part, let’s begin at the beginning and remember when Jesus explains what the purpose of life will be for his disciples and all who would choose to follow him. We hear that story in John 17:20-26 as Jesus prays…
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made youknown to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
In this short prayer, there are a few things that I want to highlight. First, Jesus asks that our relationship with God be the same as his, that just as God is in Jesus, we might also be in them. More specifically, Jesus says that he passed the glory of God that had inhabited him, on to his followers so that we might be one, in the same way that Jesus and God are one. And because of the glory of God that dwells within us, and because of our unity of purpose and togetherness, that the world would know that God loves us.
Second, Jesus asks that his followers would be able to come to where he is, and to see his glory. And third, that Jesus’ purpose in revealing God to us, was so that we might be filled with the love of God. And we can see that this last one, combined with Jesus’ command to go into all the world and preach the good news, tells us that God’s goal is not to rule the world, but to fill the world with his love.
But how do we do that? How do we reveal God’s glory and God’s love to the world around us? Certainly, there are more ways to do that than we can count, but one particularly dramatic way is found in one of Paul’s missionary journeys recorded in Acts 16:16-34 where we hear this:
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment, the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
I cannot even begin to count how many sermons can be, and have been, written about this passage. But for today, I want to look at two specific things. First, that this earthquake was extraordinarily specific. It was strong enough to wake everyone up and to shake the foundations of the prison, but where earthquakes ordinarily collapse buildings and jam doors shut, this one unlocks and opens doors, opens padlocks, loosens chains, and releases feet bound in iron stocks. That is particularly specific and not at all the way that earthquakes and other natural disasters usually work, and this is how we see God in the story.
Second, when the jailer discovers that this has happened, he draws his sword to kill himself rather than be tortured to death, which was what usually happened to anyone who allowed a Roman prisoner to escape. But Paul hears the sword come out of its sheath, knows what the jailer intends to do and calls to him that everyone is still there. Once again, this must be an act of God. Even if Paul and Silas convinced the other prisoners not to escape, the chances of no one leaving are so slim that this is also evidence of God’s hand because they were all there.
And the jailer comes to faith in God because he saw, with his own eyes the hand of God at work in the world on behalf of Paul and Silas. He witnessed that the doors were unlocked, the chains loosened, and the iron shackles unbound, and he witnessed the power that kept a jail full of prisoners from escaping when the doors stood wide open. And he experienced the simple act of human kindness that Paul showed to him. All that Paul had to do to escape was to leave. All that Paul had to do to get revenge for the beating that was inflicted upon him was to remain silent. But Paul did not remain silent. He did not try to escape or to pursue revenge. Instead, Paul showed kindness to the jailer.
And he, and his entire household, were saved.
And we connect the dots by remembering the words of Jesus that we find in John’s Revelation contained in chapter 22:12-17, 20-21. Jesus said:
12 “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. 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, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
15 Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give youthis testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the water of life.
20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
The important idea here are that there will be a judgement but that anyone can come into the kingdom of God. Everyone is invited and sharing the gift of eternal life is a gift that each of us can give to all the people that we care about.
God’s goal is to share the message of the gospel throughout the entire world so that the world is filled with God’s love. Paul brought that jailer and his family into the kingdom of God simply through an act of kindness when anyone would have understood his desire for revenge. And sometimes, suffering and pain are the doorway through which we must pass in order to receive an unexpected gift.
Abraham Lincoln’s struggles made him strong enough to bless a nation.
Paul and Silas’ suffering allowed them to rescue the jailer and his entire family.
What can you do this week, to point others toward the kingdom of God?
How might the pain of your past bless others in the present, or in the future?
How many of the people around you might you give the gift of God’s love?
And how many of those people are separated from eternal life by one… simple… act of kindness?
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.