[Texts: Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have a little local diner here in Spartanburg that’s been here as long as I can remember. It’s just a small place– it’s not a chain or anything– and it’s probably the best place in town to get a real, authentic Southern breakfast: hash browns, grits, eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon, coffee– the works. They’re open twenty-four hours a day, and you can get anything that’s on the menu at any time of the day. So if you’re ever in Spartanburg and find yourself desperately in need of a Trash Can Omelette and some sweet tea at four in the morning, fear not: they have you covered.
My fiancee, Megan, waits tables at this little diner. She normally works third shift, so she gets there just before the supper rush and leaves as the sun is starting to come up.
Something she loves about her job is that she gets to meet all kinds of interesting people. There’s usually a handful of college students there who come to get coffee and food as they cram for an exam or crank out a last-minute paper. Then there’s the people who are just passing through Spartanburg, often by way of the Greyhound station that’s just a block or so away from the diner. And then, of course, there are the drunk people. Megan refers to third shift as “the whole range of the human experience”.
On Wednesdays, there’s yet another interesting group of people that she encounters: the Bible study folks. A whole bunch of them come in on Wednesday evenings to eat supper before heading over to First Baptist for their service. They’re notoriously awful tippers, and often opt for leaving religious literature in lieu of a tip, much to the frustration of the waitstaff.
Megan, who is not originally from the Bible Belt, came home very confused after her first Wednesday shift. A customer had asked her whether she was “saved,” and she hadn’t been sure how to answer, or what the guy was even talking about. She was asked the same thing several more times by the end of her shift.
“What does ‘saved’ even mean?” she asked me when she got home.
In the reading we heard this week from Acts, Paul and Silas are asked a very similar question: “What must I do in order to be saved?”
Part of the reason this is such a tricky question is because that little word “saved” that Megan was confused by is a word that a lot of us are confused by. Did you know that there’s actually a whole branch of Christian theology dedicated to the study of what salvation is, exactly, and how it works? The study of salvation is called soteriology, and it’s a fascinating field. Soteriology comes from the Greek σώζω (SODE-zo) which is often translated as “I save”. σωθῶ (SO-tho), the word that the jailer in our story used, is just the passive-voice form of σώζω– putting it into the passive voice makes it mean “I am saved” rather than “I save”. (Now you can brag to your friends that you had a Greek grammar lesson today.)
Of course, like most words in other languages, σώζω can be translated into English a couple of different ways, depending on how it’s being used. It’s a pretty common word; it’s used over a hundred times in the New Testament. It can mean a couple of different things.
In some contexts, “I save” or “I rescue” is definitely the right translation. If you were talking about a lifeguard saving someone from drowning, or a fireman rescuing a cat from a burning building, σώζω would be the word you would use. It’s used this way in Matthew 14, when the disciples are all out on a boat and there’s a huge storm and they start freaking out and asking Jesus to rescue them from the physical danger posed to their lives by the storm.
However, most of the time, when some form of σώζω is used in the New Testament, it’s not talking about saving or rescuing someone from physical danger. It’s talking about salvation in the theological sense. When it’s being used this way, a better translation for σώζω might be “I make whole” rather than “I save”.
That means, of course, we would translate its passive form σωθῶ as “I am made whole” rather than “I am saved”. So the jailer is really asking Paul and Silas how he can be made whole.
Paul and Silas tell the jailer that he has to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and he will be saved. The word they use– πιστεύω (pis-TYEU-oh), “I believe”– comes from πίστις (PIS-tiss), which means “faith”, as in “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.”
So, in order to be saved– or, rather, to be made whole in Christ– we must have faith in him. Right?
Well, kind of.
I mean, that’s not a false statement– there’s nothing theologically wrong with it. I think it’s a perfectly fine summary, actually.
But there is something theologically wrong with thinking that we can be made whole just by believing certain things, or being able to affirm certain things. It can’t stop there– a conversion that consists only of believing the right things is an incomplete conversion. A faith that is only expressed as belief is an incomplete faith.
What do we see the jailer do next?
Well, he does two things:
By being baptized, he enters into active fellowship with the Body of Christ. At this point in Church history, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation weren’t two distinct rites yet, so being baptized served as both a person’s full initiation by water into the Church (what we now know as baptism) and his or her mature, adult profession of faith (what we now know as confirmation). The Church hadn’t quite developed its theology of the sacraments in the first century– that came a bit later. In any case, by being baptized, he is received into the household of God.
By washing the wounds of Paul and Silas, he lives out his faith by doing the work of the Kingdom. He cares for the people whom God has put in his path by attending to their needs in a loving, compassionate way. Paul and Silas are, in many ways, “the least of these”. Not only are they a part of a despised minority religious group, they are also prisoners. The jailer (I wish we knew his name) sees their suffering and acts, showing mercy and grace that reflect the mercy and grace of God.
This is the faith we are called to profess as Christians. This is a complete faith– one by which we will be made whole.
It is by this faith, this hope, that we receive eternal, abundant, endless life.
None of us gets to escape physical death– the book of Hebrews says that there is a time appointed for each of us to die (Hebrews 9:27, paraphrase), and we experienced that just a few weeks ago in a very tangible and sacramental way, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday of our eventual return to the dust from which we came. But, like Christ, who defeated death, none of us will stay dead forever.
To quote one of my favorite Easter hymns:
My flesh in hope shall rest
And for a season slumber
Till trump from east to west
Shall wake the dead in number
Had Christ, that once was slain,
Ne’er burst his three-day prison,
Our faith had been in vain.
But now hath Christ arisen!
(Note, please, that the word “trump” here refers to St. Gabriel the Archangel’s trumpet, as in, the musical instrument. It has nothing to do with certain presidential candidates who shall remain nameless, whose rhetoric only has the power to make the dead turn over in their graves. That isn’t quite the same as raising the dead.)
As Christians, we believe that, on the Last Day, we will rise with the saints and lay claim to Christ’s promise of everlasting life. The resurrection of Christ secured for us that promise. That’s why, at funerals, we express our hope and belief that the deceased will “rest in peace and rise in glory.” Yes, there is that rest to which we will all eventually succumb, but the period of rest that we experience in death is only the first half of the equation. It’s not final. It’s only for a season. Death is not– and indeed, cannot be– the end for those whose hope is in Christ.
This is the faith we profess as Christians: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
This faith is not a faith that is ultimately about where you’re going to go when you die, or what statements about God you can affirm or deny, or how much you can annoy someone who makes less than $3.00 an hour by leaving them religious literature instead of a tip. There is no formula you can recite or magic prayer you can say that will “save” you. We are not made whole by what we think or don’t think.
We are not made whole in the blink of an eye– by a single, emotional moment in which we make some grand decision.
We are not made whole by the god of our own subjective imaginations, separate from community, nor by any god so small that he fits inside the box of human understanding– even when that box is shaped like a book.
We are made whole by faith in a God whose mercy surpasses anything we can understand, whose love flows like a river, whose grace cannot be contained by any law or logic.
We are not made whole, or holy, by a faith that simply believes. It is by our faith that we are saved, yes– but that faith must be a faith that acts.
Speaking of Acts (see what I did there?): Going back to the jailer’s question, something else that jumps out at me is that he uses the word ποιέω (poy-EH-oh), which is translated here as “I do”, as in “What must I do in order to be saved?”
“I do” and “I make” are actually the same word in Greek: that word ποιέω that we just learned. This is also true in Latin– the Latin word facio (FAW-kee-oh) means “I do” or “I make”. Machen (MAW-ken) in German can also mean both “I do” and “I make”. We don’t really have a word in English that means both, so that’s not a concept that’s familiar to most of us, but a lot of languages do have a word like that, and Greek is one of them.
So, in addition to “I do”, ποιέω can mean “I make”, “I carry out”, “I bring about”, or “I produce”. There’s a connotation of something new going on– something being created, or brought into existence.
Our faith is in a God who is constantly making all things new. We are made whole by the God who is always making and remaking, building and rebuilding, giving life and giving more abundant life.
Something new is happening. Our faith must be a faith that compels us to partner with God in the business of creation, and of resurrection, for all of God’s people. Our faith must call us continually into restored relationships with one another, into caring for the least of these and lifting up the oppressed, into loving the prisoner and the outcast and the stranger, into insisting that all people be treated with dignity.
And thus, as we partner with God to do– or, perhaps, to make– something new, we are made whole.
To quote Dorothy Day, “Holiness is not a state of perfection but a faithful striving that lasts a lifetime. It is expressed primarily in small ways, day after day, through the practice of forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, and compassion”
That is what being “saved” means.