Slaves, Felons, and the Church
June 02, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
John 17:20-26 Acts 16:16-34
Here’s a weird question: Is it important to be respectable?
I have read several opinions that say that the ministry of the church started to come off the rails and lost its ability to do the work of the kingdom when it became respectable. Maybe it was in the third century when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, maybe it was every time that the church was endorsed by royalty, maybe it was when the church became the empire, maybe it was when John Wesley’s followers advanced socially and instead of being coal miners, laborers, and street people, the church was filled with storekeepers, doctors, and bankers, and maybe it was when each of us became more worried about how respectable we looked than we were about doing the work of the kingdom. And, maybe it was all those things.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for his disciples and for everyone who has put their faith in him. Jesus knows that following him and doing the things that he taught them to do, wouldn’t be an easy thing. It would be easy to compromise. It would be easy to be distracted by the world and by the cultures of wealth, greed, lust, comfort and pleasure that surround us. And so, Jesus prays for them, for us, that God would hold them close so that they would persist, hang on, and endure in their mission until the day that they could meet face to face at the throne of God. In John 17:20-26, Jesus said,
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that 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 you known 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.”
Jesus prays that all of those who follow him, and all of those who would come to faith in him through their message, would find unity and become one in their faith. Then Jesus prays that all these followers would endure until the end so that they could be with him in heaven and see his glory. But Jesus also prays that because he has made himself known to us, that he would continue to make God known in the world, through us, so that the love of God might be in us, and that Jesus might live within us.
You might notice that respectability is never a consideration on the part of Jesus. What Jesus wants for us is to be united together in our faith, that our faith would endure, and that we would make the love of God, through his son Jesus, known throughout the world. But before I belabor that point, I want to read the story of one Paul’s missionary journeys found in Acts 16:16-34.
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.
There is a lot going on in this short passage and many sermons have been written about it in a great variety of themes, but there are a few things that I want to point out that coincide with the title of today’s message. First, as Paul and Silas and their team preach, they are followed by a slave girl who can foretell the future because of a spirit, or a demon, that inhabits her. She, and her demon, are well aware of who Paul and Silas are, and whom they represent. One can only imagine that, although she was telling the truth, it became difficult for Paul and Silas to approach anyone and have sincere conversations about Jesus with this girl constantly shouting to the community around them. And, at some point in his frustration, Paul orders the demon out of the girl, but doing so has some unintended consequences. Once the slave girl’s owners discover that her demon, her gift of fortunetelling, and their profits are gone, they press charges against Paul and Silas and stir up the crowd until the judges of the town have them arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail.
Paul and Silas are now outsiders, foreigners, rabble rousers, and felons. But never once do they stop telling the people around them who they are or why they are there. During the night they pray and sing praises to God and even though an earthquake shakes open the doors to the prison, neither Paul, nor Silas, nor anyone else, make any attempt to escape. But, because he knows that allowing a prisoner to escape is punishable by execution, the jailer is prepared to take his own life rather than be tortured to death. But Paul hears him draw his sword and saves him from himself simply by declaring that everyone is still there.
Having confirmed that this is true, the jailer understands that what has happened is supernatural. Earthquakes open door and jam doors shut, but they do not open locks and loosen chains. Earthquakes do not compel a prison full of felons to remain in place despite having been freed from their chains. And realizing that this was a supernatural event, and remembering that Paul and Silas had been preaching a message of repentance, forgiveness, rescue and salvation, the jailer immediately wants to hear that message again and know how he, and his entire family, can know the love of Jesus Christ and be saved.
We don’t know whether the jailer had heard Paul and Silas preach in town, or if he had heard the stories about the slave girl, or (most likely) if Paul and Silas had kept on preaching in the prison as well as praying and singing. But somewhere the jailer had heard that these two foreigners, miscreants, and felons were representatives of a powerful god and were telling others how they could be saved from death.
And he, and his entire household, were saved.
Being respectable was never a part of the story.
Respectability, or upward mobility, or fitting in with the “right” social circles, was never a concern for Paul, or Silas, or their team. And although we might be tempted to think that respectability might have improved their witness, that wasn’t what the jailer was looking for either. The jailer sought out the witness of Paul and Silas because he recognized the truth. He could see that even though these men were foreigners, strangers, rabble rousers, and felons, they were just as obviously the representatives of a powerful god and carried with them a message of great importance.
The followers of Jesus were never intended to carry a message of respectability.
Our calling has always been to carry a message of truth and love from a God who was willing to send his own son to be born in poverty, be disrespected, and die in humiliation, so that we could be rescued from our own crimes against God, be forgiven, and live with him forever.
The story of Jesus was never respectable.
The story of Jesus’ disciples was never about respectability.
The very real danger is that when we attempt to be respectable, that we will water down the real message or misplace its importance altogether.
Jesus never prayed that God would make us respectable.
Jesus prayed that we would find unity and become one in our faith.
Jesus prayed that we could endure until the end, be with him in heaven, and see him in his glory.
Jesus prayed that, just as he made God known to us, that we would make the love of God, and his son Jesus Christ, known to others.
It is by sharing the love of Jesus with others that we discover the love of God in ourselves and the way that Jesus come to live within us.
Don’t worry about being respectable.
Just focus on the mission.
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