I’ve had more requests for this sermon based on Acts 16:16-34 than any in a while. I think it’ s because it’s a clear explication of grace. At least I hope it’s not just because of the hot dog story at the end. You can also listen to it (or a version of it – I preached it without a manuscript or notes) here.
A friend of mine told me about a call she received. When she picked up the phone a voice said, “You have WON! You have won a FREE trip to Disney World!” The prize included airfare, hotel, food, and tickets to Disney.
My friend was understandably very excited. She said, “That’s great! How can I get this free trip?”
The person on the phone responded, “Well, what you have to do to start is to give me your credit card number. There’s a $250 processing fee . . . for your free trip.”
My friend hung up.
Was that really a free trip?
I received a mailing a few years ago. It said you and your family can come to Williamsburg for three days and two nights. All expenses paid! It was a gift from the company who mailed it. They would put us up in a nice place, feed us, even give us tickets to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens. So I called the number on the mailing.
When I called they said, “Yes, the trip really is free. It’s our gift. All you have to do is agree to go to a brief presentation about buying timeshares. You just have to experience this presentation to the end to get your free trip.”
I didn’t go.
Was that a free trip?
I want you to keep those “free trips – those “gifts” – in mind today as we talk about the answer to one of the most important questions in Scripture. It’s also one of the most important questions in our lives. It is the question the jailer asked Paul.
“What must I do to be saved?”
What does GRACE – God’s underserved, free gift of love and salvation, really mean?
Let’s briefly look at the context of the jailer’s question before we really get into that.
Paul and Silas are taking the Gospel to the Gentiles – to the non-Jews, to people like most of us. Last week we heard about Paul’s conversion and that God had chosen Paul to take the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles. Today’s reading takes place a few years later when Paul, along with Silas, is doing just that. They have gone into Europe for the first time, specifically in a Greek city called Philippi. We know it from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Now in Philippi there was a woman who followed Paul and Silas wherever they went. She was a slave who had a spirit or a demon inside of her that allowed her to tell the future – or to appear to be able to tell the future. As she trailed Paul and Silas, she kept shouting something that was true but must have gotten annoying after a while – “These men are slaves of the most high God who are telling you the way to saved.” Eventually Paul got annoyed enough that he turned around and, in the name of Jesus, cast that spirit or demon out of the woman.
This made her owners very angry. She was making them lots of money from her purported fortune-telling, and now that was over. So the owners accused Paul and Silas of saying things against the Roman Empire and dragged them before the town council. The council had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown into jail.
They are put into the deepest part of the jail – the darkest, most isolated place. And they are put into stocks so they cannot move. What do Paul and Silas do?
All night they sing praises to God.
Later that night the earth trembled and rumbled. The earthquake was some kind of miracle because it causes the prison doors to swing open and the prisoners to be unbound.
The earthquake shook the jailer awake. He saw the open doors of the prison and figured that all the prisoners under his watch had escaped. The jailer feared he was in so much trouble that he might as well end it all. Just as he was about to kill himself a voice came from deep inside the prison . . .
“Stop! We’re still here! We didn’t leave!”
The jailer was so impressed by this that he asked Paul and Silas The Question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
“How can I get what you have? How can I get the kind of FREEDOM where you don’ thave to walk out of the prison when the doors swing open? How do I get the kind of FREEDOM that when I’m inside a prison, I can sing praises to God? How can that happen in my life?”
What do we need to do to be saved?
Last fall, a local church put this on their church sign:
What do I have to do to be saved? Nothing.
As you might imagine that sign caused lots of conversation. People called and left messages on the church voicemail. People in the congregation were talking about it. (Isn’t that a good thing, to have people discussing salvation?)
I thought that was a good thing so I posted that sign on my Facebook page where it caused more conversation. People talked to me, they messaged me. “How can that be right? How can that be? How can we need to do NOTHING to be saved?”
One conversation went back and forth and I made a blog post out of it (with their permission).
You see, we are OFFENDED by that, by the idea that we don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s too easy! It’s too wide open!
If that’s true, then just ANYBODY could get in!
But what was Paul’s answer to the jailer? When the jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved,” Paul responded, “Believe in Jesus Christ.”
That’s something, isn’t it? Believing is certainly not nothing.
But is it something I do? Is believing something I have to do to be saved?
Can I decide to believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins? Can I decide to believe that Jesus Christ is the King of the Universe, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?
I don’t think so.
Neither did Martin Luther.
Luther wrote this at the beginning of his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ.”
In other words, believing in Christ is something we are not capable of doing. Belief is something the Holy Spirit creates in us. It’s not something we can take credit for.
So if all we have to do in order to be saved is to believe in Jesus Christ, then there is nothing we have to do because that is something the Holy Spirit does in us.
The most beautiful picture we have of that in the church is baptism. Parents bring a little baby to the font. That baby hasn’t made a decision for Jesus Christ. That baby hasn’t been asked if she wants to be baptized. But at the baptismal font water we pour water over that child believing that God will create faith in that child. Believing that through the water and the Word God will claim that child as God’s own. Believing that through the water and the Word that child is forgiven of their sin and sinfulness. That child does nothing, and yet that child is saved.
Our human nature is to want to take some credit for our salvation.
What about repentance? Doesn’t the Bible say you have to repent? Sure it does. But we have a mistaken idea about repentance. Sometimes we think of repentance as making a to-do list of our sins and then checking them off as we solve each one. That’s not what repentance is at all. We are never going to get to the end of that list! We’ll be working on it until we die. And if we have to finish that list before we’re saved then we are all in deep, deep trouble.
Repentance, Biblical repentance, means a change – a transformation – of our hearts and minds. We can’t do that. Repentance is something the Holy Spirit does inside of us.
Salvation is God’s work, not ours. It is Christ’s work on the cross where he said, “It is FINISHED.”
Ephesians Chapter 2, verse 8 . . . “For it is by grace” – God’s GIFT of undeserved love and salvation – “by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
The GIFT of God.
But some of us want to make god into a telemarketer telling us that salvation is a gift but there is a processing fee.
Some of us want to make God into a timeshare salesman saying that salvation is a gift but you have to do this stuff in order to earn it.
God is neither of those things. God loves us and if God says that our salvation is a gift then it is a gift. No strings attached.
My dad, like all dads, could be embarrassing sometimes. He had his hangups, those things that really bothered him. One of them was, “Buy one get one free.” It was not beyond him to find a “Buy one get one free” special in a store and ask for the free one. Of course he’d be reminded that you had to “buy one” to “get one free.”
“Then it’s not really free, is it,” was my dad’s response.
I think some of the confusion comes from conflating two questions into one. “What must I do to be saved” is one question. God is the answer to that one – the Cross is the answer to that one.
The other question is “What must I do,” or the way I like to think about it, “What do I GET to do once I’m saved.” Because then there is stuff we are called to do, that we need to do, that we are commanded to do, that we even have to do.
But not to earn our salvation or even to keep it.
On this Mother’s Day I talked during Children’s Time about my mom. Growing up, there was stuff I had to do in my house. If anyone asked me what I had to do, I would have told them that for one thing, my mom says I have to make my bed every day. But the truth was – and parents you may want to cover your children’s ears – the truth was that maybe one day out of each week I actually made my bed. Which honestly is better than I do now.
But you know what, I “had” to make my bed. But when I didn’t do it, when I didn’t do other things mom said I “had” to do, mom didn’t disown me, she didn’t stop loving me, I didn’t get kicked out of the family. I was still loved.
There were consequences, sure. And certainly there are consequences when we don’t do the things we have to do as followers of Christ. The biggest consequence is that our relationship with God and our relationships with other people are damaged. But God still loves us, God doesn’t kick us out of the family – we are still God’s children.
Do you know why this is such good news? If salvation is all up to God, we never have to worry, we never have to fret, we never have to wonder if we’ve done enough. Because when Jesus Christ said, “It is finished” on the cross he meant it.
That’s very good news.
Our job – our main job – is to do what Paul and Silas did in that prison. We are to go out into the world and to live out our freedom. We are free from sin, we are free from having to earn our salvation. That is what enabled Paul and Silas to sing praises to God even confined in the stocks, it is what empowered Paul and Silas to remain in the jail even when the doors were opened. Paul and Silas lived their freedom and the jailer asked, “How can I get what you have.”
We are called to live out our freedom so that those who don’t know the good news about Jesus will say to us, “How can I get what you have?” Our freedom is not to do whatever we want, our freedom is to proclaim Christ through what we say and what we do.
I’m going to close with a small example. I’m reluctant to share this story because it’s one of the times I think got things right, but I’ve shared with you enough of the times I messed up . . .
Last Monday evening, Philip and I went down to DC for a Nationals game. I know some of you are thinking that’s not what I got right; I should have gone to an Orioles game. But anyway, it was raining. It was a miserable night. I wasn’t in the best of mood because of the rain it looked like the game was going to stop and we’d gone all the way down there . . .
But 15 minutes before the game began I told Philip I was going out to the concession stand and get us a couple of hot dogs. I figured I had plenty of time before the game started. So I got to the concession stand and, you know what – this is an amazing thing! – at this major league baseball game before it even started they were out of hot dogs. There were three kinds of hot dogs – Nats Dogs, Kosher Dogs, and Beef Dogs – and they had none of any of them.
And they were taking people’s money and then telling them they were out of hot dogs so you had to wait.
I’m one of those people who wants to see every pitch of the baseball game. I keep score in my little scorebook. And I missed the beginning of the game waiting for two Nats Dogs. One for me and one for Philip.
Then when the Nats Dogs finally came and I took out my credit card and tried to pay the lady at the register said, “I don’t know how to take credit cards” and pointed me over to another register where I had to wait again to pay for my two Nats Dogs. The lady there finally swiped my card and I was free.
So I was walking back to my seat and thinking about what she had charged me and I realized she had only charged me for one Nats Dog. So I’m sitting there watching the top of the first inning – at least as much as I got to see – thinking “What should I do about this free Nats Dog?”
“Well I deserve this free Nats Dog because they made me stand in line and miss the beginning of the game!”
But when the top of the first was over I said to Phil, “I’ve got to go back.”
So I went back to the concession stand, got back in line, and when I got to the front I said, “You only charged me for one Nats Dog, here’s my receipt . . . and here’s some cash to pay for the other one.” So I gave the cashier my $4 and she said, “Wow! At least your honest.” And I managed to say something about how my faith required me to be that way.
Now she didn’t fall down right there and shout out, “Sir, what must I do to be saved!”
But maybe, just maybe, a seed was planted. That Christians are different. In a good way. And who knows what God might do with that seed.
And Phil is 23, but maybe, just maybe, I can still give him some good examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Because there have been plenty of other kinds of examples.
We are saved by the grace of God. Salvation is a gift. It is all God’s action. Because we are so grateful, because we want other people to know about and experience that joy and that grace, we go out into the world and live lives that invite other people to ask, “Tell me, what do I need to do to be saved.”
(Originally preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville May 11, 2014.)