Texts: Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-27
It’s pretty unbelievable, right? All that stuff in the book of Acts. It’s quite the story. That’s a real challenge with the bible sometimes. Who can believe in it? And what does it have to do with us anyway?
And yet. This whole narrative is told in the first person by Luke as a matter of actual, personal experience. He went with Paul, Silas, and probably a handful of others, to pray as they regularly did. Luke was there and saw a demon-possessed slave girl following Paul and Silas, announcing loudly that they were slaves of the Most High God.
Luke saw Paul cast out the outspoken demon, and the annoyance of her owners over their loss of income potential. He saw the men being tried, convicted, and punished in the marketplace where the court was convened. He witnessed their imprisonment for disturbing the peace and promoting their Jewish faith even though they had gone to a place set aside for people of many kinds of faith to pray together.
Luke does strain our credulity as the narrative continues, it’s true. Maybe not the part about Paul and Silas singing and praying of course. Their commitment to Jesus and to proclaiming the gospel is well documented in Paul’s own letters. But from the earthquake on Luke moves us into an increasingly unlikely scene.
The cell doors fly open but the prisoners stay put. The jailer is ready to die for failing to do his job. But he reverses roles as he listens to Paul and begs him for mercy. It all dissolves into a tidy and very satisfactory story of conversion as Paul and Silas tell the story of Jesus and the man decides to “Believe on the Lord Jesus” whereupon he and his entire family are baptized “without delay”.
There are, to be sure, plenty of questions that remain about the whole story. What happened to the slave girl who no longer had the spirit of divination? What about her litigious owners, what became of them? And though Paul and Silas were freed, fed, and had their wounds tended, what happened to the rest of the prisoners? Not to mention the jailer’s household – don’t you wonder why they all rejoiced when he became a believer in God?
Here’s the thing. Luke didn’t tell this story so that we would believe him. Though in his experience, every word of it was the gospel truth. Luke didn’t tell this story so that we would believe in the bible either. He told this story for the exact same reason that every bible story is passed on. So that we would become believers in God.
Believers in God. Hear what this means. It’s more than a personal faith statement that starts with “I”. As in, I believe in God.” Here the emphasis is not on “I”, really. It’s on being in God.
Belief comes in many forms. And Jesus taught his followers to first place themselves in God. This is why prayer came before anything they did. All their belief was to be formed by God.
Luke’s great ambition in the Book of Acts was to show everyone what being conscious to God can do. It alters our belief. And therefore how we see our world and how we live in it.
Luke had another purpose too – which is revealed by that detail about the jailer’s family and household. They all rejoiced when the jailer became a believer in God. We can only imagine how he viewed the world as a jailer. But placing his faith on Jesus as Lord, that new point of view inspired a remarkable transformation, to the greater benefit of all around him.
The Revelation to John, despite some fearsome images along the way, ends in a similarly communal promise. The revelation was directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor, to encourage them in their work together. John’s final word about work, reward, blessing, invitation and future hope is for the churches working together as active communities of faith.
Living out our belief is not a solitary activity. Our faith, and the belief that God calls out of us, are meant to be lived out in community. And as much as we exasperate one another, we are better together.
We can hold one another accountable for what we say and do. We can bring a variety of gifts and skills to the table. We can endure stress and tragedy together. In place of personal reward and honor, we learn how much more may be accomplished when we act together in faith.
The core value and effort of the faith community is always to share God’s invitation to “Come”. All who are thirsty come to the water; come be restored to life in God. God is everything, after all; our sustenance, our hope, our beginning and our end.
The world in which we live is always trying to claim and form our faith. To believe this, that, or something else. And to live in the world on the basis of that belief. But Jesus reminded the disciples that the world does not speak for God, or of God. It is not in the best interests to the world to do so.
Unique to the gospel of John, Jesus’s most prolonged prayer was that his disciples would remain unified after his resurrection and ascension. This would be their greatest asset. After his departure only by their mutual commitment to the teaching of Jesus and to one another would they be able to resist the world’s divisive effects.
This heartfelt and solemn prayer can be reduced to this: Let the love that Jesus lived out be the bonds of your community. Jesus consistently taught that the love he lived was sourced from beyond himself. His presence and purpose were to show us God’s love. Love that is effective and substantive, love that has no beginning and no end.
When we believe in God we are formed to bear and share Godly love together. The community of faith witnesses to God and becomes the love of God to all. Ever to the glory of God.
As we center ourselves in God, we are formed in belief. It is a process of expanding awareness, of surprise and joy. As Luke said, “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a girl who had a spirit of divination…” And just see what God did!
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.