Isaiah 58:1-9a, Acts 16:16-34
July 20, 2014
We all know the phrase “Actions speak Louder than Words.” We know that, don’t we? Well, I think our story for today speaks that message louder than words! This is the story of the Philippian Jailor. As you just heard it read, Paul and Silas had been arrested in the city of Philippi. Philippi is of course the city from whose name we get the title of the New Testament book “Philippians.” So they were arrested, and they were thrown in jail.
Now, I would be quick to point out that a jail in those days was not like our jails today. They had none of the amenities that prisoners have now – including defined sentences. When the religious leaders put the disciples in jail in Jerusalem, to silence them, that “sentence” may well have been indefinite! They were there for good! They were there to be silenced!
So for “the boys” in Philippi, it may have been the same thing. They may not have been there for a sentence of X number of years, with the possibility of parole, or of an early release for good behavior. And this was no “picnic,” either! There was no cable TV, or library, or exercise yard, or “free access to the legal system.” They had none of those things. All they had were bars, and stocks, and chains. And the Romans used them!
Of course, as it turns out Paul and Silas were only to be there a short time, as we would soon see. But even so, while they were there, they weren’t treated very well, and they had no idea what was going to happen to them. Luke tells us they had been “beaten with rods.” As he describes it, the guards had “inflicted many blows upon them.” Can you picture that? The Romans had become very good at such punishments! So, besides being “in prison,” with their feet “in stocks,” Paul and Silas were also “in pain.”
So, that makes the first amazing part of this story what it is. They were there in prison, in that condition, and what they were doing? They were praying and singing hymns. We can only imagine what they were singing! I would guess the Psalms. That was their hymnbook in those days. But whatever they were singing and praying, they were heard by the other prisoners. Luke tells us that. And we can only imagine how bizarre that would have been! But, it made an impact, as we’ll see in a moment! The singing and the praying were the first actions in this story that spoke “louder than words!”
Well, the next thing that happened was the earthquake! Luke tells us that it was violent enough to shake the building “to it’s foundations.” He also tells us that all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were released. So I have to wonder about this next part. Because Luke says that, even though everything was opened, the prisoners didn’t leave! That’s an important part of this story! Because when the jailor saw what had happened, when he saw all the doors opened, he made ready to kill himself. The reason for that is that, in Roman times, if a jailor lost his prisoners, if they escaped, he would be put to death! So, if this guy killed himself, he would only be speeding up the inevitable!
But that didn’t happen! Paul cried out from inside, “Wait! Stop! Don’t harm yourself!” And then he said, “We are all in here!” Now think about that. They were all there? Even the other prisoners? The previous sentence said, “all the doors were open, and everyone’s fetters were unfastened.” So did the singing and praying of Paul and Silas affect all the other prisoners so much that they too stayed? Wouldn’t you think that at least one or two of them would have bolted? We don’t hear that much about the other prisoners in the rest of the story, but you have to wonder. Did Paul and Silas’s actions speak to them “louder than words!”
Well, the focus of the story is on the Jailor, and for him their actions did have an impact! When he saw what happened, when he saw the courage and compassion shown by Paul and Silas in not leaving the prison, he said, “What must I do to be saved?” “What must I do to have what you have?” He was afraid, where they were not! And it was their actions are what made him ask what they had.
So, what about us? What do our actions say to others? It is true that our actions speak louder than our words! So we should ask ourselves specifically, what do our actions say about our faith? Are the words of the old song true about us, that “They’ll know we are Christians by our (?) love.” Will they? Will they know we are Christians by the we act? Or will they doubt our Christianity by how we act? Think about your everyday lives. What kinds of things do you do whereby others might identify you as God’s people? Or a tougher question would be, what kinds of things do you do that would speak otherwise?
When we think about evangelism, we often feel like we need to have words. “I don’t know what to say to people about my faith.” “I’m not very good talking to people.” And of course there are things to learn there. But like this story, it’s often what we do that’s most effective! The jailor here heard the hymns and the prayers from these beaten and chained men. But it was their actions that made him ask!
Later, Peter would write, “Always be ready to give answer to anyone who asks about the hope that lies within you.” (I Peter 3:15-16) When Paul and Silas were singing in the prison, the others saw that hope. When they had compassion for the jailor and stayed in the open prison, that’s when he asked them.
So, what about us? What about the hope we have within us? Or do we even have that hope? Our actions show what’s inside us, don’t they? If we’re bitter and angry inside, if we’re self-centered or egotistic, won’t those things come out in the way we act toward others? Maybe we need to concentrate on knowing the hope! Because when we have that hope, it will show in our actions!
Well, the jailor (we never really do learn his name!) took Paul and Silas to his own home, he treated their wounds, and then he called together his family so they could listen to them. Years ago, we use to talk about something called “the right to be heard.” And “the right to be heard” had to do with gaining the confidence of a person or a group. It meant having the “in” with that group to the point that they become willing to listen to you. And part of gaining that “right” with people has to do with our actions. It was after this experience with Paul and Silas that the jailor became open to listening to them. It was their actions made all the difference.
It’s the same with us. Sometimes we need to minister to people before we can speak to them. Sometimes we need to show them(!) love and compassion before they will listen to us. Is that not true? Oh yes, they might say, “You don’t know what I’m going through.” And we might say, “No, I don’t. But let me show you that I care about you, and therefore earn the right to be heard.” That’s how it works sometimes.
So then, this week I’d like you to concentrate on your actions. Think about what you do that shows the love of God to others. Don’t worry about words. Actions speak louder anyway. Try to tell people, without words, that God loves and cares for them – and so do you! And while you’re at it, try to catch yourself if you’ve done something, or if you’re about to do something, that would say otherwise.
As you do that, think about Paul and Silas, beaten, chained, and jailed. Remember the hope they had that allowed them to sing and pray even in that terrible place. Remember what happened to those who heard them. We can have that same hope. We can know God’s love and peace no matter what the circumstances of our lives. And it can make a difference, for ourselves, and for others!
Eternal God, we thank you for your steadfast love and mercy toward us. Help us, we ask, to be loving and merciful people. We’ve heard your word, now help us to live your word. Help us to show your love to others in the way we live our lives. Help us to know of the hope inside of us, the hope you give us every day. Now, and in all circumstances, we give you our thanks and our praise, and we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.