Sermon: May 16 Easter 7C (St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church)
Acts 16:16-34 Paul and Silas in Prison
Wrestling with the circumstances, events, and transitions of life, is all a part of the rich narrative of God’s work of redemption in the world.
There was a married couple who after several years of deliberation, finally decided to leave their home and move to a new area of the country to pursue graduate studies. They both liquidated their retirement accounts and sold the home they loved and lived in for years. They packed it all up and moved far, far away. They struggled for three years, they faced enormous economic hardship, long hours of study, work, and prayer. There were times that anxiety and uncertainty kept them bound in a state of fear. It was a prison that was paralyzing. Somehow they overlooked the obvious presence and peace of God in the midst of the circumstances.
There were times when the stress was so great, that faith was a hard thing to come by. Many times they asked, “What were we thinking, why did we leave our home, our friends, our family, why are we having to endure these hardships? These questions never ceased to emerge especially in the difficult times? It would have been so easy to allow the circumstances to overshadow the grace of God that was all around them, present through the love of others. God was with them in the journey.
The difficult circumstances of our lives like that of Paul and Silas, can be very real prisons with bars and walls, barriers that bind us and hold us captive to our own fear and anxiety. These prisons prevent us from accepting the freedom in Christ.
Christ did not promise that the journey would be easy, but He promised to be with us
In today’s gospel, we hear about Paul and Silas’ experience in a Roman prison. They were in the real thing with walls, bars, and stocks on their legs. This was not a pleasant place to spend an evening. They were flogged, scorned and locked up and this was their reward for declaring the Good News of God in Christ. This was what faith and obedience brought them … ridicule, pain, and imprisonment. Is this the promises of God? We sometimes forget that Our Lord never promised us that our lives in Christ would be without pain, fear, or anxiety. But consider for a moment what Christ does promise.
“All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” And the greatest promise of all …. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There is a teaching out there that encourages us to believe that our faith is only at its strongest, when all in life is going well. It’s easy to trust God when all around you is hunky dorey. It is when the “going gets tough,” that we struggle to rely on God’s grace. This is the time that we are drawn into the freedom in Christ, the love of Christ, the promises of Christ.
The Freedom we have in Christ resonates clearly out of the promise that God is with us in all of life’s circumstances, even unto death.
Living in the promises of God requires a deep trust, a particular mindset, a new attitude, a new-found reliance on the Great Lover of our lives. For some of us it is difficult to let go of our own desire to control our destinies. In our culture, we pull ourselves up from the depths, we are self-made men and women, we can do anything we set our mind to do. I am in charge, out front leading my own destiny. But our call is to walk WITH God, not in FRONT of God. Our freedom in Christ is an acknowledgment, a mind-change, a new attitude that God is with us in this journey. Through God’s presence with us, we are participating both individually and corporately in God’s redemption of the world. God in Christ is drawing humanity back unto Godself. God came to us in Christ. Christ suffered death. Christ understands our fear, our pain, our fragile nature. We serve a God whose love is faithful even unto death. It is that love that Christ overcame death through the resurrection.
For Paul and Silas in prison (beaten, shackled and locked away),the earthquake, the breaking of the chains, and the doors shaken ajar, stood as a dramatic epiphany that God was present. It was through Paul and Silas’ faith in the midst of prison, that the jailer came to understand salvation. The jailer who was in despair, considered killing himself over failing in his duty to maintain order in the prison. Even so, the faith of Paul and Silas was a part of this man’s restoration to relationship with God. This narrative may seem like an isolated incident that only involves a few people, but it stands as a testimony to us even today, that God is working to restore us to a loving relationship to himself.
Our Freedom in Christ manifests when we recognize that we can be at home with Christ in the peace and knowledge of the love of Christ.
Have you ever seen a caterpillar as it changes to a Chrysallis? A Chrysallis is a chamber in which the caterpillar encloses itself before the next phase of its transformation. A tightly bound cocoon of sorts can resemble a prison I guess. The caterpillar remains in this shell for some time and then at some point it emerges, re-born into a new creature. It is as if the cocoon were a place of incubation for resurrection. When we grow closer to a deeper commitment and love of Christ, when we face the reality of God’s presence in all the events of our lives, we come to know that nothing can stand between us and the love of God. What freedom that is! Nothing stands between us and God’s love. True freedom comes not when our tragedies, challenges, trials are magically removed from view, but when we recognize that the long journey with God is one in which we are being incubated for new life in Christ. Cole-Turner a UCC professor writes that “Believing….means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God’s story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption” (Feasting on the Word). This is God’s grace.
Are you aware of God’s grace in everything around you? Does your Work, Home, your experience of creation, even the prisons of your life, the trials, the challenges, the pain, illuminate your path with God’s grace?
We all can identify with the concept of home. Home may be a house bought and paid for, it may be memories of a home in which you grew up, it may be an apartment where your stuff is located now, it may be a friend’s house in which you live only by that friend’s generosity and love. Home is a place of all that is familiar. It can be a place of peace, comfort, reassurance, security, re-birth, quiet, rest, and even affirmation. God calls us to such a place. God calls us to know He is with us. God whispers into our ear, “I love you, I’m right here, I love you.” Take rest in God’s loving presence, Find comfort in God’s promises, accept the security of God’s love for us, find re-birth, rejuvenation, quiet, rest, and affirmation in God’s embrace.
How? There’s no magic formula for that quest. But we are drawn to pray. In prayer, we can ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to God’s love? Just a simple phrase, nothing elaborate. It is something you can lean on at all occasions, in all circumstances, and in all places. Simple prayers can be something you grasp when anxiety runs high. “Lord have mercy.” “Jesus your are near!” “Holy, Holy, Holy.” “God, show me your love.” Simple prayers acknowledge that God is near, God cares, God loves you, God is with you. Simple prayers of awareness and love directed to God can help call you back home, and out of the fear of some of life’s circumstances. Will the circumstances change? Maybe, but the central notion is that prayer changes our minds and brings us closer and closer to Christ. We are drawn ever closer to a deeper Commitment and love of Christ. Prayer is like an earthquake that shakes the very essence of our souls and draws us out of the depths of the prisons of insecurity, anxiety, and fear, and lifts us to a great knowledge of the presence and love of God.