By David Zahl
Several years ago, Saturday Night Live ran a brilliant mock infomercial. Maybe you saw it. It was for Joe Romano’s Tours of Italy. It’s Adam Sandler, in an intentionally cheap advertisement, and he’s telling people in the tri-state area around New York City to come on his tours. He would love to take them to see Venice, maybe the Tower of Pisa, and they can make pizza in Napoli.
But then he pauses and he gives this disclaimer. He says, “Every so often, a traveler is disappointed, so we always take care to remind our customers: There’s a lot a vacation can do to help you unwind. We can take you on a hike. But we cannot make you into someone who enjoys hiking. We can take you to the Italian Riviera. We cannot make you feel comfortable in a bathing suit. We can take you to the wine-tasting tour in Tuscany. We cannot change why you drink or the person you become when you do. I want to make this perfectly clear: If you’re sad here, you may also be sad in Italy.”
What they’re nailing is a tendency we have to try to find an external solution for an internal problem. We think that if we changed our context or our circumstances, then we would change ourselves. Sometimes a vacation can have an effect on someone, for a little bit, but if you’re looking for your circumstances to completely deliver you from who you are, well, then they’re probably going to fall short.
You might be someone who’s been waiting to get to June. You’ve been thinking, If I can only get through the school year — or, if you’re parents of small children, sometimes you’re thinking, I hope the school year never ends, because summer vacations are very different for you. Maybe you’re thinking, If I can just make it through this season of my job. If we can make it through the busy part, well, then we’re home clear, and June’s going to be great. Perhaps you think, If I can just get a better job, well then, my change in context is going to solve all my problems. It’s an outside-in approach to life that, unfortunately, rarely works.
But that doesn’t mean that changes of heart never happen. We know that they do, and we see it. And in fact, we see it with crystal clarity in the passage from Acts. This is from Acts 16, and it is one of the most beautiful and powerful instances of a change of heart recorded in the entire New Testament. And for the sake of this sermon, I’m simply going to retell it to you.
It concerns Paul and Silas. They’re on their missionary journey, and they’re in Philippi of Macedonia. Now, you say “Philippi of Macedonia,” and if you’re like me, your eyes glaze over, and you think that’s another world; it’s Bible-land time, and I’m going to tune out. But the reason they say “Philippi of Macedonia” — which no longer exists — is that they’re trying to root this in a specific time and place. They’re trying to say, It’s a Roman colony. This is where it happens. Think of it as saying, In Buffalo of New York, Paul and Silas. We’re there in the heart of the situation.
They get there, and they’re trying to do their ministry, trying to talk to people about God, and there’s a woman who starts following them, who seems unhinged. She’s a fortune-teller, and she’s good at what she does. Apparently she’s good at it because she is oppressed by a demon, by an evil spirit that is both afflicting her as well as giving her some sort of insight.
Instead of having a Jesus-like encounter with her and really talking to her and maybe, you know, telling her everything she ever knew, Paul simply says, “Get lost. Get out of here.” He’s talking to the demon, and she’s healed. But the problem is that when she’s healed, she loses her ability to tell fortunes. She has handlers, owners, people who are making money off of her gift, and they’re not happy. If you want the headline: “Reformed Palm Reader Tries to Peace Out on the Mafia.” They’re not into it.
So they stir up the crowd against Paul and Silas. They have them arrested on trumped-up charges and then have them beaten. It says they’re severely flogged and thrown into prison. The jailer who is guarding them is taken aside and instructed to guard them carefully. Then something odd happens.
Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, says in the very next verse, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” If you picture it, they’re probably still very bloodied from whatever has befallen them. They’ve been tossed into a cell in a foreign land. (I had a friend who once got arrested in Mexico. Let me tell you, that is scary.)
If we have a bad day, we may start to think God is either against us or God doesn’t exist or somehow it’s all for nothing. But they had a horrific day, and their response is not to shake their fists at God but to start singing, praising, and thanking God. Now this is because for them, they see it as a chance to witness further to the truth. It’s an opportunity. It’s almost a blessing that they can testify to God in the midst of their difficulties. What a privilege that is.
Now this display makes a tremendous impression on the other inmates, because it’s simply not what you do. And in the midst of this experience, in the middle of the night, there’s an earthquake, and the ground shakes so much that the prison — and remember, most of these prisons were built into rock, into the mountainside — rumbles and whatever is fastening the inmates to their cells is undone. The doors of the cells all come open.
This is the middle of the night, and there’s no electricity, so you can imagine the jailer’s horror when he comes and sees the door to the jail wide open. You can only have assumed one thing: that all of the convicts have escaped. I mean, can you imagine the trouble that a prison warden would be in if all the inmates under his watch suddenly escaped? And remember, this is the Roman Empire. They mean business. There’s no three-strike policy.
So at this moment, he feels that his life is over, and he’s right to feel that way. He takes out his sword, and he’s about to commit hara-kiri and kill himself. And right as he’s doing this, he hears a voice calling to him from the darkness of the cell. From the open door comes the voice of Paul. And Paul says simply, Do not harm yourself, friend. You do not need to worry. We are all still here. Paul and Silas had made such an impression on the other inmates that they followed their lead when this natural disaster hit. When the doors flew open, Paul and Silas remained there, and so had the other prisoners.
Paul and Silas have put the jailer and his welfare over their own self-interest. They’ve put it over their mission. They’ve put it over the miracle itself, which is certainly God’s liberating work in their life. They are prioritizing their enemy over their friends and, of course, over themselves. It’s clear that their values are the polar opposite of what the jailer assumed they would be, because the jailer lives in the exact same world as us, which is a world built on retributive justice and talks a lot about consequences, retribution, and, let’s face it, revenge. It assumes a certain degree of self-interest on behalf of everyone.
And yet they’re not acting in accordance with this. This is, by the way, one of the reasons early Christians were so attractive: they would put the welfare of other people — not other Christians, but other people — before themselves. When epidemics and diseases came, they would stay in those cities and care for those people at the risk of their own lives. They understood that joy comes from putting others over yourself.
You don’t have to be a Christian for this to be true. The Journal of Psychological Science published an incredible study of 1,200 Germans who were asked about their personal strategies for happiness. Then they were followed up with a year later. Now some of these 1,200 answered with what could be called social goals, like seeing friends and family more, often volunteering with people in need, joining up with a nonprofit or even a church — stuff that put them in contact with other people. But then a big other chunk of this group responded only with individual goals: good stuff, like staying healthy, finding a better job, quitting smoking, things that don’t necessarily involve spending time with other people.
What happened at the end of that year? Maybe you can guess. Those who wrote down at least one social strategy not only followed through but also reported higher levels of life satisfaction. Meanwhile, those who focused on individual goals didn’t improve their life satisfaction over the year at all. In fact, they fared worse than those who expressed no strategies whatsoever.
This is a long-winded way of saying that putting oneself first does not equate to happiness. It never has, and it never will, no matter what people say. It’s an empirical fact. The Christian faith suggests that meaning in life comes from living for the sake of others. It goes even further than that. It comes at us with the radical statement that there is no fulfillment in self-fulfillment. The emperor has no clothes. Martin Luther put it like this: “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor.”
Let’s get back to the story, to see the jailer’s response when he finds out that they’ve all stayed. It brings him to his knees. The text says, “The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
In an instant, this man has made the leap from despair to wonder, from active enemy to devoted friend, and is converted like that. And let’s be clear: Paul and Silas’s action is not conditional. This is the sort of thing that happens all of a sudden. No one expects an earthquake. That’s why it’s an earthquake.
They didn’t think, Maybe if we stick around we’ll get some brownie points with the jailer. Maybe we can even change him into someone we’d like him to be. They don’t ask him or tell him or even expect him to change. There’s no agenda. There are no strings attached. They simply put his welfare above their own.
Note his question. It’s not, How can I be changed? How can I be improved? How do I become more gracious? How do I become someone who can put other people’s welfare above my own? No. He asks them the only question that really matters in life. It’s not the improvement question. It’s the salvation question. He says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Well, to their credit, they don’t say there’s anything to do. They don’t say, Well, you really need to start dressing more modestly and clean up your language. You’ve got to vote for this next person in the Roman Senate, and really what I’d like you to do is stop listening to that awful Macedonian music.
They don’t say that. They say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” In other words, do not trust in yourself and what you can do and what you can engineer through your circumstances. Trust in Jesus Christ, whom the Prayer Book calls “the author of our salvation.” In doing this, they are pointing to the change of heart that they’ve experienced. Only grace has the power to change a self-seeking heart into a self-sacrificing one.
When Paul puts the jailer’s well-being above his own, he’s taking his cue directly from Jesus Christ, who also was imprisoned and arrested on trumped-up charges, who was beaten within an inch of his life, who was scorned by all who came to see him, and who yet stayed the course.
This is the same kind of grace that they’re showing the jailer, the same kind that Christ showed Paul himself when he was on the road to Damascus and he’s taken off his horse. And in the midst of persecuting Christians, he is given a new name and a new life.
This is how a person starts to care about others over themselves. They experienced that kind of love. They don’t summon it within themselves. It is bestowed on them. Paul was not the starting point of this sort of love. Jesus is the one who not only commanded that we love our enemies but who laid down his life for them.
So what about you? Maybe you were ready for the summer because you could use more than a change of pace. Maybe you could use a change of heart. Maybe you are someone filled with anxiety and guilt. Maybe you’re ready to give up on retribution as something to motivate change in yourself and in other people.
Maybe, hearing this sermon, you say, That’s nice, but no one’s ever treated me this way. Everything I’ve gotten out of life, I’ve had to take. Everything I’ve gotten has been what I deserved, no more and no less. Well, the good news for you this evening is not that you somehow are going to leave here treating others the way Silas and Paul treated that jailer, although that would be great.
The good news tonight is that God, in his Son, has treated you this way. God right now calls to you in the darkness of your own life, amid the earthquakes and setbacks from the open doors of a cell that not even death could hold him in. And he says simply, Do not fear. I’m still here. I refuse to repay your antagonism with scorn. And despite what you may expect and even what you might deserve, I will not abandon you.
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries and serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, Virginia.