Meeting Jesus: The Roman Guard

“Meeting Jesus: The Roman Guard”
A Message on Acts 16:25-34
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 2, 2019
By Doug Wintermute

Acts 16:25-34 (NRSV)

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer[a] called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord[b] to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

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Today I want to start off by asking you to think of your favorite sports team. It can even be one of the Jacksonville Indians sports teams. Okay, got it?

Now, think about that team’s arch rivals. Think about the team that is the nemesis of your favorite team.

That’s easy for me to do. My favorite sports team is the Texas Rangers. I have been a fan through thick and thin (and there has been more thin than thick with them through the years). I also like the Houston Astros, but they are secondary to my Rangers.

I also have a team that is a rival of the Rangers and now the Astros, too. I like to tell people my three favorite baseball teams are the 1. Rangers, 2. the Astros, and 3. whoever is playing the New York Yankees.

I just don’t like the Yankees. It goes back to the days of George Steinbrenner and spending ba-jillions of dollars on players in order to win championships. I didn’t like the Yankees’ owner, I didn’t like their management, and with few exceptions, I didn’t like their players actions off the field. To be truthful, I just don’t like New York City, either..

Okay, so think of your favorite sports team’s rival, something similar to my view of the Yankees. Okay, so what would it take for you to do a 180 turn and instead of disliking the team become a fan of that team? A big fan. What drastic measures would it take for you to love what you loathe?

Hmmmmm. It would take something really drastic for me to be a fan of the Yankees. Really drastic!

Okay, now let’s take that thought and apply it to the scripture we read today from the book of Acts. As you heard in the first reading, Paul and Silas come across a slave girl who is also a diviner, or a fortune teller. The girl’s owners take advantage of her gift by using her to make money. She tells people’s fortunes, and they get the money.

Well when she sees the apostles she God reveals who they are to her. She started following them and cried out over and over, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She did this for several days, which, if you ask me, would get pretty annoying.

Finally Paul invokes the name of Jesus to remove the spirit that is within her. When word gets back to her owners they are ticked. There goes their money maker. Without the spirit within her, she can no longer tell fortunes, and thus, no longer make them money.

So they drag Paul and Silas before the authorities. They are beaten on their bare skin with rods and then thrown in prison.

Now let’s talk about ancient prisons for a while. They weren’t nice places to be. Even modern ones are not pleasant places to be, but back in the first century they were very much inhumane. We’re talking real bad.

The ancient historian Sallust described one such Roman prison, in which Paul would later be incarcerated, as “Foul from neglect, darkness, and stench, it is an altogether terrifying sight.”

Get the picture?

Paul and Silas were put in the most secure part of the prison, the innermost cell. Their feet were put in stocks, which kept them from even moving about the small cell.

So what do Paul and Silas do while they are in prison, hurting from the beatings they had received? They sing. They sing and pray. Aloud. They minister to the other inmates who are locked in the hellish prison with them.

And then there is an earthquake that shakes the building, opening all the doors to the cells and and unshackling the chains that bind the prisoners.

When the jailer checks on the prison and sees the doors all open, he draws his sword to kill himself. Now why would he do that? Because under Roman law the jailer was responsible for the prisoners. If anything happened to them the jailer would be beaten, tortured, and executed. The jailer knew that, so he was choosing the less painful of the options before him.

But Paul cries out to him and tells him that the prisoners have not run away, even though they had the ability to do that, and that they are all still there.

That in itself is a miracle. Prisons in those days were not for long term incarceration. Prisoners stayed in them only a short while, usually a matter of days, before they were convicted and punished. Many of them were put to death.

So for these prisoners to have the ability to run for their lives–literally–and to not take advantage of that is significant.

Now I make an assumption, and I think it’s a safe one, that the jailer probably wasn’t very nice to his prisoners. I grew up on a farm and know that you don’t make pets of livestock that are bound for your deep freeze. (Pam’s dad used to choose names for his cows that made this a little easier, names like “T-bone,” “Hamburger,” and “Sirloin.”) I think the same principle would apply to doomed prisoners, as well.

He had probably treated Paul and Silas and the other prisoners very roughly. He had probably been mean to them and perhaps even mistreated them. But when the earthquake happens and nobody runs away, he does something incredible and unexpected: he fell down before them.

The man responsible for guarding the prisoners throws himself down at the mercy of the prisoners. He realizes that this God they worship and the Jesus that they follow are not only real, but also powerful. And he wants to have “some of what they’re having,” what Paul and Silas have, a faith that is so deep that even when they are severely beaten and thrown into prison they still sing praises to their God.

Now here is something that I find interesting about this scripture, and why I included it in this sermon series. This whole series is about people in the Bible whose lives are changed by an encounter with Jesus. But in the scripture we read today from Acts, Jesus has already been dead, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. And we have to remember that Paul, one of the main characters in this true story, never encountered Jesus while he was in human form on earth. Paul converted from persecuting Christians to becoming one of the movement’s leaders after his experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Here’s the important part: the only Jesus the Roman guard knows is the one that has been shown to him by Paul and Silas. The only Jesus he knows is the one he encountered through someone else.

This is theologically very significant because as Christians we are called to let others encounter the risen Jesus Christ through us by our words and actions. The only Jesus unchurched people may ever experience may be through us. The only picture they may see of Jesus is the one our lives draw for them.

In the case of the Roman prison guard we find that he sees a portrait of Jesus that has been painted by Paul and Silas while they have been in prison. Their focus on God, their care and concern for other prisoners instead of themselves, and their unwavering faith in a time of crisis had a powerful effect on the guard, so much so that he and his whole family were baptized and become Christians.

(This scripture is one of the reasons we, as United Methodists, believe in infant and children baptism. The scriptures say the guard and “his entire family were baptized without delay.” When it says “entire family,” we interpret that to mean children as well.)

So my challenge to you this week is to let Jesus be visible to others through you. Let us live our lives in such a way that our words and our actions paint a portrait of Jesus Christ that others can see.

Years ago there was a contemporary Christian song by Joy Williams titled, “Do They See Jesus In Me.” The words to the chorus were:

Do they see Jesus in me
Do they recognize Your face
Do I communicate Your love and Your grace
Do I reflect who You are
In the way I choose to be
Do they see Jesus in me

Let others see Jesus in you.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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