May 8, 2016 – The 7th Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In the spring of my second year of seminary, I went on a mission trip, but this was unlike any mission that I had ever been on before. Instead of rebuilding after a hurricane or helping a congregation in a developing country put on a vacation bible school, our mission team went from Cambridge to Billericay—a two-hour train ride that cost about £10. Billericay is a commuter town 25 miles east of London and about half the size of Decatur. It has all the pleasantries of a pit stop on the motorway and all of the challenges of a post-rural, post-industrial, post-Christian bedroom community. I was only there for a week, but I learned quickly enough that Billericay may be the place where 23,000 people sleep, but not very many call it home.
We went to Billericay because a vicar there was an alumnus of our seminary, and he had invited a team to come and lead his congregation in a good old-fashioned mission. Around here, we’d call it a “revival,” but in England the term “mission” meant sprucing the place up, hosting a few community dinners complete with salsa dancing lessons, holding worship services for several evenings in a row, and, most importantly, culminating our efforts with an evening of evangelical talks that were designed to convince non-Christians to start coming to church.
The day before the big talks, we split up into teams and spread out all over the parish, leaving flyers in every mailbox. We promised a free home-cooked meal. We promised upbeat live music. We promised an opportunity to pray for the needs of the whole parish. By this point, we had been working with the clergy and lay leaders in the parish for almost a week. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm on our team. When it came time to figure out who would be giving the talks, I jumped at the chance to volunteer. People seemed surprised, but I knew I wanted to do it. I had some experience as a child of being skeptical about the church, and my conversion moment was a clear and powerful story of discovering the fullness of God’s love. I wanted to tell that story. I wanted people to hear it and decide to become Christians.
That night, there was a buzz amongst the vicar and the lay leaders in the parish. “He’s coming!” one of them said. “Who?” we asked. “Our town councilman! He’s not a Christian and has never had anything good to say about the church, but someone invited him to come and mentioned that there would be a lot of people from the community here, and he said yes!” The pressure was on. Two of us were responsible for giving the talks, and I went first. I poured my heart out. I spoke honestly, plainly, and emotionally about how hard it had been for me to accept the Christian faith. I told the audience that, by the time I went to university, I could feel that there was something missing in my life, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept trying to fill that whole with going to church and saying the right prayers and trying to be a good person, but it didn’t work. The agonizing hole was still there. Finally, exhausted by a spiritual search that had turned up nothing, I met a man who put me at ease. He told me to stop trying to save myself and let God do the work. It hit me like a lorry speeding down the motorway. I hadn’t found Jesus. Jesus had found me. And the hole in my life was finally filled.
I don’t remember what the other speaker said. She was a decade or two older than me and had had a fruitful career as a lay minister in the church. I am sure that what she said was lovely, but I was still trembling and my ears were still ringing after I stepped down from the stage. I don’t remember much about that moment, but I do remember very clearly what the councilman said once we were both finished. He looked at me and pointed a long, powerful finger right at me and said, “Everything you just said…meant absolutely nothing to me. It was hollow. But you,” he said, pointing to Alyson Lamb, the woman who went second. “You were brilliant. That’s what I needed to hear. I think there might be something to this church business. Maybe I’ll come back.”
What does it take to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a hyper-secular, post-Christian culture like that of twenty-first century Europe? What words or actions could get through to an audience that considers Jesus to be nothing more than a passing fad? How do you capture the hearts and minds of a people who aren’t willing to give their time, money, or attention to Christianity? Maybe we should ask Paul, who, in today’s reading from Acts 16, became the first Christian missionary to bring the gospel of Jesus to Europe and, as a result, found himself in a world of trouble.
Speaking to the spirit of divination that had taken hold of a slave girl, Paul said sharply, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” The exorcism worked. The spirit left, but with it went the money-making power that had earned the slave girl’s masters a lot of money. Not unlike the many demons that had recognized Jesus during his earthly ministry, this spirit caused the girl to keep crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God!” over and over again until finally Paul couldn’t take it anymore. Paul carried with him the power of Jesus’ name, and, in its presence, the spirit within the girl could not help but cry out. It was as if the ungodly spirit was unable to ignore the power of God that dwelt within Paul. But Paul was annoyed, exasperated, worn down by her shouting. His own spirit couldn’t handle it either. These two contrary forces could not coexist, and the power of Jesus won out. The spirit of sorcery was gone. The girl was quiet. She was at peace. She had nothing else to say. But her owners didn’t like it one bit.
They didn’t care that Paul wielded a superior power. They refused to acknowledge what this exorcism represented. Instead, blinded by greed-induced rage, they threw Paul and his companions into prison and ordered the guard to keep them locked up tight. But, in the middle of the night, while the prisoners were singing songs to God, a great earthquake came and shook open the doors and broke loose the chains—another sign that God’s power could not be rivaled. And, when the warden saw that all the doors were opened, he drew his sword to kill himself, knowing that an even worse fate awaited him when the townspeople discovered that the prisoners had gone free during his watch. But Paul stopped him in the act. “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Again, now for the third time, the power of God took hold of the situation. “Sirs,” the jailer said to them, “what must I do to be saved?” And, by saved, he didn’t just mean “go to heaven.” He meant, “What will save me from an execution?” Regardless of what he was hoping for, the answer was the same: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” They told him the good news, and the jailer got up and washed the wounds of the prisoners and fed them a meal, and that very night he and everyone who lived in his house were baptized and became followers of Jesus.
The powers of this world seek to bind us in chains, but the power of God will set us free. Even the fortune teller, whose power came from an ungodly spirit, recognized where true power was to be found, and the power of Jesus’ name set her free. When God’s power showed up and shook open the doors and the chains, the jailer knew that he had been beaten and that death was the only option, but God’s power didn’t come so that he could die. It came to set him free and to give him life. That’s what the world is eager to hear—not that something else is missing from their lives but that, finally, something has the power to set them free, and that something is Jesus.
God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but that, through him, the world might be saved—liberated, set free. Jesus holds the power of freedom—the power to set us free from guilt and shame and disappointment. The name of Jesus has the power to set us free even from death itself. What will it take to get through to a world that isn’t interested in hearing any more good news? Freedom and the unconditional love that brings it. God didn’t send his son to conquer us. Jesus came to set us free. God’s love has set us free. Share that life-giving, life-freeing love with the whole world. Believe in the power of that love. Believe that it can set the whole world free.