A sermon preached by the Revd Aaron Kennedy on the 7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16, 17, 20-end; John 17:20-end
I was forcibly reminded
when I began to prepare this sermon,
of the need to set aside my baggage as I approach scripture.
And by baggage I mean my assumptions,
preconceptions, associations etc.
Because, as I read the passage from Acts we’ve just heard,
I couldn’t help but hear all the dialogue in a strong Ulster brogue.
And not just any Ulster brogue,
but that of an Ian Paisley, or a Willie McCrae.
So, forgive me, but I heard:
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they answered,
“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
It took a very conscious effort of the will
to lay aside my baggage about this passage;
to open my heart and mind
to the possibility that where I thought to find a dogmatic, sectarian gospel,
I might actually find something new, something life-giving.
The problem with the baggage we all carry around,
is that our assumptions and preconceptions,
are like water on dry kindling,
which prevents the fire of our imaginations from sparking into life.
And as the anglican priest Kate Bruce has said
the imagination is the human point of contact for the divine.
In other words, when we hear God speaking to us personally in Bible,
it is because our imagination is alive.
But the good thing about imagination,
is that it can be sparked back into life,
both by our willingness to suspend our preconceptions
and with the help of a little bit of empathy.
I don’t know if you’ve ever found this,
but when I did set aside my Ian Paisley related associations about this text,
and tried to understand things from the point of view of the jailer,
really tried to put myself into his shoes,
the sparks began to fly again.
And the first thought that came to my mind was,
why did the jailer come out with this question,
what must I do to be saved?
What did “salvation” mean to that man,
in that place, in that moment of history?
Now, on one level I can never know such personal details.
But on the other, I don’t need to know;
I just need to give God the oxygen of my imagination
to get the fire of prayer going.
So, I imagine he was a hard man.
He’d need to be.
Roman jails can’t have been comfortable places,
even for jailers,
and he was responsible for keeping people locked up there.
It is unlikely the prison service laid on cooked food,
clean sheets and a rec room either.
Many prisoners probably died of starvation,
or from diseases caught from living in their own filth,
and among the vermin.
No doubt our jailer often had to punish people physically,
and no doubt he was hardened too
by the abuse and aggression he faced from his prisoners.
In a way then, I imagine the jailer as the sharp end
of a stick called the Roman Empire.
Which, like all human governments,
exerted control over its subjects
through the threat and reality of violence.
Our jailer was an end point in that system of control.
He was an enforcer of the rule of the emperor.
And so, the earthquake hits.
He wakes from his slumber with a start,
he sees that the foundations of the prison are cracked;
he sees all the doors are opened and everyone’s chains are unfastened.
And his heart sinks.
Just because he deals out and enforces the violence of the Empire,
doesn’t mean he is protected from it.
He knows, that having had a mass break out of the prison on his watch,
will likely mean his death is imminent.
So, in a toxic rush of fear
fear of the cruel torture he will be subjected to,
and in deep despair that he has been dealt such a hand,
and that there is nothing more he can do to protect his family,
he lifts the knife to his own throat to do the needful,
when he hears the most unlikely sound:
‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’
Now this was completely unexpected.
And it confounded
all the worldly knowledge
and experience he had built up through years of soldiering and keeping jail.
Unbelievably, a shadow of doubt
is cast over his deep certainty
that a prisoner set free will always run.
A crack of light
breaks across the darkness and hopelessness of his soul.
His imagination just got fired up.
And I, in my imagination,
begin to get a feel
for what the concept of salvation meant for our jailer.
And if I had to pick one word to describe this,
it would be: the world.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading,
prays that his disciples may be one,
so that the world may know that he was sent by the Father.
The disciples are being formed in the likeness of Christ,
through spending time with him,
by having an interactive relationship with him,
and as such stand out from the world around them.
They contrast starkly with the world
by virtue of their knowing God, and Jesus Christ his Son.
The world, on the other hand, does not know, God yet.
Which brings to mind a verse
that can be found earlier in the same chapter as our Gospel reading:
Now this is eternal life:
that they know you,
the only true God,
and Jesus Christ,
whom you have sent.
The distinction between church and world is unavoidable.
To know God – to have an interactive relationship with God
(not just know a few things about him),
is to live eternally, to be saved.
This is the difference that makes a difference.
But the church is not called apart
so as to stand in superiority or judgement,
but rather to be a light to lighten the world,
and to reveal God’s love to it.
The world as the jailer knew it,
in all its violence, treachery and vengeance,
its upside down, normalisation of wrong things
such a lying, injustice, intolerance, inequality,
and the strong likelihood of a tortuous execution…
this is what I think the jailer craved salvation from.
The complex interplay of the various sins – common to all people,
arranged and normalised politically, institutionally, socially.
And I suppose the jailer knew that there was some alternative available.
He may have heard the words of the hymns
that Silas and Paul were singing,
or he may well have heard them preach to their fellow inmates.
Neither of which would have been at all common behaviours
for occupants of his jail.
But if he needed any further convincing,
it came in the form of this voice
emerging from the chaos and gloom
of the settling dust in that broken down prison:
‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’
If this scene reminds you of another small, dark, stone room,
broken open by the light and power of God,
the stone rolled away,
you are clearly paying attention.
This is resurrection.
The jailer’s mind must have boggled:
what sort of person could this be?
Not a normal person.
Someone formed by a different set of values.
Someone with a dramatically different character
to possibly anyone he had ever met.
Where he expected to selfishness and self-interest,
he instead found self-denial, sacrificial care
and enemy love.
And of course it caused him to repent,
to change his mind – completely,
about life as he knew it,
and embrace this distinctive way of Jesus.
Maybe some of this has been new to you,
or hard to swallow.
Maybe it raises questions or doubts,
makes you uncomfortable or wary.
Maybe you feel the temptation to dismiss it,
or bits of what I’ve said.
And that would of course be a reasonable thing to do.
You would be wise to check anything I say
with other more learned folk.
But perhaps you are also feeling a tug in your heart
to set aside your assumptions, your preconceptions,
your easy dismissals.
And give God’s word,
the oxygen of your imagination.
For if we give God the benefit our doubts,
suspend our preconceptions, uncertainties,
and build our empathy muscle,
and explore the Bible prayerfully and imaginatively,
the sparks of resurrection life will surely begin to fly.
For when we spend time with the living Christ
we become like him,
so that we too will take on the distinctiveness of character,
that truly sets followers of Jesus apart from the world around us.
And so be like a city set on a hill,
or a lamp set up on its stand
to give light to the world around us,
which Jesus came to save.
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