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For the past few months, I have been conducting a very unscientific survey among PWPAs (Persons With a Presbyterian Affiliation). I think I've talked with around a hundred folks. I asked: "What does it mean to be a Presbyterian today?" The most frequent response is a glazing over of the eyes, a couple of mumbles, followed by, "Gee, I wish I knew." I often have followed this up by asking, "Then why do you stay?" The most frequent response? "I don't know. (Sigh) I just don't know."I wonder if Paul or Silas ever puzzled over questions like that. Perhaps, but no longer by the time of our story. That familiar account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer begins with Paul and Silas curing the madness of a young woman of the city whose insanity had been used by some unscrupulous men for their own personal gain. There was the belief in those days that insanity was a strangely special gift from the gods, a tool which they used to convey their messages to mere mortals; it was based on the idea that since the insane girl had no mind of her own, the gods could put their own divine thoughts out on earth through her. Thus, she was thought to have a gift for soothsaying or fortune-telling, a most marketable commodity in that era and indeed in ANY era. Obviously, since she was insane, she was not the one to do the marketing, nor was she the one to profit from it. So when she was healed, those wonderfully SANE people who had taken advantage of her were suddenly out of business. They did not like it, trumped up some charges against Paul and Silas, had them beaten and thrown into jail.
Needless to say, the missionaries were not all that happy about that, but they made the best of the bad situation, even to the extent of spending half the night singing hymns and praising God, despite being locked up in the deepest part of the dungeon, in stocks, chained in an upright sitting position with a chain around the neck as well - if you nodded off to sleep, you would begin to choke. The song? Who knows? Something from the psalms, no doubt. We can read the minds of their fellow prisoners who listened to the midnight concert: "The looneyness of that lady must have been contagious."
Suddenly, an earthquake...a not uncommon occurrence in that part of the world...that shook the prison so much as to let door locks come undone and chains become unfettered. When the tremor was over, the jailer, who had been asleep when the quake hit, came rushing in expecting to see the prisoners gone and ready to run himself through with his own sword; after all, a jailer was responsible for keeping prisoners in prison, and the punishment which was scheduled for anyone who might escape would then be brought down on the warden. Death was the easier way out. But Paul shouted to him that there was no necessity for that: the prisoners were all present and accounted for.
You can imagine the sense of relief that the jailer must have felt, but apparently, he felt something more. His response might have been to dash around and put all the chains back in place and lock all the doors, but instead he came up with a question: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" No, this was no theological inquiry; his concern was not salvation from sin but salvation from his situation, and who could blame him. But Paul's answer was not temporal; it was eternal: "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." And ever since that night, it is the answer we have all heard when we finally acknowledge our need.
"Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." The question raised at the beginning of this comes again. What does that mean? You can be sure that the jailer wondered about it. What is this BELIEF, this FAITH, that can SAVE?
First of all, it is rational. Someone once asked a youngster for a definition of faith and got the response, "Faith is believing something even when you know it isn't true." Cute answer...but wrong. That is not faith; that is stupidity. Actually, exactly the opposite is true.
If you drive up to a busy intersection in your car, see that the light is green, and proceed on through, you exercise a certain faith based on reason that another car coming in your direction from the right or left will stop on the red and let you through. You have a certain faith in the system that tells you that only those who would drive responsibly to the extent of honoring reds and greens would be given a license. To be sure, that faith is not always vindicated, but most often it is. In effect, you are willing to put your life on the line because you have that kind of faith.
One thing should be noted here: faith does NOT require 100% understanding. A young gentleman of profound intellect and high culture announced to a group of friends one day that he would not believe anything he could not understand. An old farmer chanced to overhear the remark and, turning to the young man, he said "As I was riding into town today, I passed a common on which some sheep were feeding. Do you believe it?"
The young man nodded that he did.
"Not far from the sheep," said the farmer, "some calves were feeding. Do you believe it?"
"Why not," said the young man.
"Not far from the calves, some pigs were feeding," the farmer went on. "Do you believe it?"
"Of course," the young man replied.
"Not far from the pigs, some geese were feeding. Do you believe it?"
"Well," said the farmer, the grass that the sheep ate will turn to wool; the grass that the calves ate will turn to hair; the grass that the pigs ate will turn to bristles; and the grass that the geese ate will turn to feathers. Do you believe that?"
"Yes," the young man answered promptly.
"Do you understand it though?"
"No," the young man replied.
"My friend," said the farmer, "if you live long enough, you will find that there are a great many things you will believe without understanding." (2)
To put that into the context of our adventure into traffic, there is no need for us to understand the workings of the computer that changes the lights from red to green to let those lights govern the way we travel. To immerse ourselves in the details of the electronic operation might be an interesting intellectual exercise but not much other than that, at least as regards the way we drive.
And that brings to mind something else about faith: it is more than merely an intellectual exercise. You might say to yourself that the rules of the road demand obedience to reds and greens and that such an order is good for all of society. But upon coming up to a red light yourself, if you decided to ignore it and dash on through, your agreement to the concept would be totally worthless. Your agreement has to mean something.
Which says one more thing about faith: it makes a difference in the way you live. If you did NOT believe that people will routinely obey the rules of the road, you would not dare to cross another intersection ever again - it would be suicide. And if you believed that strongly enough, you probably would never leave your house, much less go out on the road. What you believe makes a difference.
Now, move all that up to a higher plane. Faith in Jesus Christ must also be rational even if we do not have 100% understanding. How could Christ's sacrifice take care of all the sins of humanity past and present? How does one win victory over death by dying? Why could not God have just said to the whole world, "I FORGIVE YOU," and let it go at that without having to go through the cross? Why would a God who loves us so much as to send Jesus to die for us let ANYONE perish? Big questions...and lots more where they came from. There ARE answers to them, and it is a stimulating study to search them out, but the answers are not really necessary to our faith.
But faith in Jesus Christ is more than just an intellectual exercise. Faith in Christ will make a difference in the way we live. What happened to that Philippian jailer when he came to faith? Scripture says, "he took [Paul and Silas] and washed their wounds; then...The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them;" This same man who, only hours before, had been content to let these missionaries languish in the worst filth his prison could offer now was treating them as honored guests. Faith made a difference to him...as it must for anyone.
To be sure, an understanding of what faith is can be helpful to us, but it can also be frustrating if, for all our knowledge about it, we do not know how to go about getting it. The glorious message of the scripture is that we do NOT go about getting it; it is a gift that is given to us by God. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the GIFT of God." (3) And God gives us that gift through the circumstances of our lives.
See how it works. The Philippian jailer came by his faith through a particular series of events:
How about you? Was it at a particular church or camp or conference or meeting? Or might it have been in the home where you grew up - Christ was the head of the house and his Lordship was a part of everyday life; coming to faith was a natural as having breakfast. Or might your faith have come through the witness of a friend? God uses the circumstances of our lives to give us the gift of faith.
Note something else. The Philippian jailer did not come by his faith by himself. He had Paul to help him. For all his willingness to trust Jesus Christ as Lord of his life, he would never have been able to do it until someone first TOLD him about Jesus. There is every likelihood that until Paul and Silas came along, this jailer had never heard the name of Jesus mentioned. The point of it all is simply this: NO ONE comes to faith all alone.
What a challenge that is to us! If we realize that there are friends out there who would respond to the Gospel IF WE BUT TOLD THEM, how can we keep quiet? Paul and Silas could have kept quiet; they had every reason to sit in sullen silence after what had happened to them. But they did NOT, and that jailer was changed for all eternity.
Has your faith changed you? I hope. We will think about that in depth this summer as we spend some sermon time on the details of our Christian faith. I hope you will be a part of it. Our goal will be that when someone, somewhere, someday asks YOU what does faith mean, you have an answer. And it will be a faith that makes a difference.
1. Ross Jackson, "What Presbyterians Need to Read," Presbyterian Outlook, 5/14/07, p. 13
2. Walter B. Knight, ed., Knight's Master Book of New Illustrations, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1956), pp. 185-186
3. Ephesians 2:8