Acts 16:16-34 (CEB)
One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days.
This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.
Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.
Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”
The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.
Part of my nature and my personality is being a fixer. When I hear someone has a problem, my gut reaction is to offer advice, or resources, or solutions. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes, and maybe often times, people who come to you and tell you a problem don’t actually want your advice. I learned this the hard way more than once, me jumping to fix-it mode, and then finding out that nothing about what I said was helpful. So rather than jumping to conclusions about someone’s situation, or trying to predict what they need, the best thing for us to do is stay and listen.
Even if we think the advice we are about to offer is good, and even if it is good, one has to be ready to receive it, and they have to be the one to ask for what they need in that moment.
In our scripture today from Acts, we see not only the power of the Holy Spirit, but also, we learn that our actions as disciples rally can be transformed and look different, depending on if we are truly open to listening.
“Believe in Jesus, and you will be saved”, Paul and Silas said.
Salvation. It’s a scary word. It’s been used over and over to demonstrate this active component that often we are told is necessary in order to live a good life. This kind of salvation gets talked about often when something bad happens. When someone gets a bad score on a test, or when someone isn’t sure the next step, it can be common to respond, telling them to pray about it, or better yet, pray harder. When non-Christians show up in our lives, it’s common to think that them saying a prayer and being ‘saved’ is going to fix whatever in their life was upsetting before, like the fact that they didn’t know God is why they were having issues. The problem with this, is that in doing this to people, in assuming what they need, in assuming what salvation is for them, we are taking away their free will, and even more, we are not listening to the needs of others.
This passage today brings starts with conflict. Paul and Silas are heading to go and pray, a normal thing for them. And then they meet a slave, who also told fortunes, which was apparently a pretty lucrative skill to have. This slave, who has no name, a writing strategy that speaks to a person’s status, she is following Paul and Silas around, and shouting about them. This went on for days, and eventually, Paul got sick of it. The passage says he was annoyed, and so he exorcised the demon he saw in her, and once he did that, she no longer had that power to tell fortunes.
Let’s be clear here. Paul healed this girl, but he didn’t do it because she asked him to. He didn’t do it because it was necessarily harming her being, or anybody else’s being. He did it because he was annoyed she was talking to him.
The second instance in this story, where we see people not listening, happens later, after Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. After the earthquake caused the prison doors to open and the chains of the prisoners to come loose. There is chaos happening around them, and Paul makes an effort to comfort those in the jail.
The jailer enters, turns on the lights, and he was terrified. He looks to Paul and Silas, and he says to them, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”. The jailer asks to be rescued, not saved. But Paul and Silas give a religious response, even though he’s asking a concrete question: What am I supposed to do after y’all made this earthquake happen, now that everything is destroyed?
This passage in Acts shows us two instances of what might happen if we don’t listen to the needs of others. Our call can’t be to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ, if we’re only willing to do it our own way. We need to listen, to hear stories, and to ask what someone actually wants.
The ‘salvation’ Paul was looking to provide to the fortune telling woman was not necessarily what she wanted. And the salvation Paul and Silas helped the jailer get was not what he asked for. Rather, he was looking for a way to survive the wrath of his boss after this huge earthquake had destroyed his place of work while he was on the clock.
Religious folks often give religious advice or answers to what is a really concrete question, like where will I sleep, how will I eat? There’s a difference between physical balm and spiritual salvation.
What if salvation could be accepted by providing for physical needs, rather than telling someone they needed to pray harder or go to church more?
This weekend, Annual Conference was especially important, because it is the first meeting of all Alaskan United Methodists after General Conference. AC is a chance to get together with one another and talk to each other. It seems incredibly mundane, but for us in Alaska, it’s not often we get to speak to each other, asking what the others need or what would be most beneficial for each of our unique ministry settings.
Too often in fact, we exist in very different ministry settings across the state, each of us serving according to our own church’s needs, which is a great thing for our church. But then it can be easy to think that each church elsewhere looks and acts like ours does, like the needs of Willow UMC are the same as the needs of our church. That Annual Conference space acts as a physical balm for many of us there, a means of connection and togetherness, in a place where isolation is inevitable.
Those who planned the conference could have given us all three days, jam packed with meetings and business. Instead, they listened, and they allowed for us to listen too. They gave us space to worship, to fellowship, and most importantly, to listen to one another, about what our future needs to look like as a church. The top decision makers, the people in power, our bishop and our conference superintendent, they could have simply offered up what they thought was best, ‘saving’ us in a way like Paul did to the woman. But they chose not to. They chose to ask how they could help, by allowing us to share what we really needed.
Listening is powerful, and holy, and full of love and even more, full of salvation. Through listening, we allow the full story to be spoken. We allow for salvation to look like different things, like a plate of food, like a warm blanket, like a chosen family who supports one another, like bread and juice.
The sacrament of holy communion isn’t holy because we have the answer immediately, because we know every step of how the event happens, because we know exactly why we do it. The sacrament is holy because it’s mysterious. It’s complex and untimely and exactly the perfect time. It’s holy because our own perceived wisdom does not impact its power and goodness. It’s holy because it knows no limits, and through that limitless, we become unwilling to do anything besides listen and receive.
Friends, as we begin our time together of holy communion, may we remember to listen, to allow for the words of others to dictate our own actions, to honor the experiences of our siblings and honor our own call to make disciples through relationship and love.