August 22, 2012 by jmar198013
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 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?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 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. (Acts 16.22-34 NRSV)
Three brief thoughts came to me as I was reading this passage today. First, when the jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” I think he had something other in mind than what revivalist Christians might think when they hear these words. The jailer had a potential massive prison break on his hands, which would surely have resulted in his execution. This is why he had drawn his sword to off himself–save the taxpayers the trouble, maybe. “What must I do to be saved?” for the jailer was a question born of utter terror at a very earthly catastrophe staring him right in the face. That earthquake didn’t just shake the foundations of the prison. It shook the jailer’s foundations, as well. You want to talk about an earthquake? How about a jailer rushing into find his prisoners all free, yet none of them are bum-rushing him, and two who have been badly abused speak out to wish him good, not harm. I am fairly certain the events of that night challenged just about all the assumptions he may have had about law, order, justice, and a whole litany of other notions that tend to remain abstract until our foundations are rocked by catastrophe. For the jailer it was what Tolkien would have called a eucatastrophe–a happy unraveling.
The second item that gave me pause was the embodiment his salvation took. Believing in Christ was not simply a safe affirmation, a sinner’s-prayer-and-get-out-of-hell-free-card-hallelujah-let’s-sing-“O-Happy-Day” moment. The form of his belief is leading the prisoners he was so terrified would escape out of the prison, binding their wounds, and offering them hospitality. That’s a great image of salvation, if by salvation we mean not pardon from the fiery abyss after this life but rescue from the patterns of violence, oppression, and bondage that characterize this life. The baptism that cleansed his wounds comes after, not before, the jailer cleanses the wounds of these prisoners. We seem to have a discipling process. Before he is baptized, the jailer is already participating in the hospitality God extends to the wounded. Paul’s favorite image of salvation was reconciliation (Rom. 5.1-10; 2 Cor. 5.16-21; Col. 1.15-20). The jailer was practicing reconciliation.
Finally, I don’t want to ignore Paul and Silas. Seems to me that them praising God in a dungeon full of prisoners with raw wounds festering on their bodies is actually an appropriate analogy for a well-functioning church. I find myself often frustrated with my own woundedness, and impatient with the woundedness of others. I want God to hurry up and make perfect all my defects, and yours too. The image of God’s wounded servants singing and praying in a prison reminds me that there are some wounds we need to remind us of our limitations. There are wounds others who are similarly wounded need just to see that they are not alone. And there are still other wounds that remain because God knows that one of your brothers’ or sisters’ discipleship will require them to come to you and bathe those wounds.
May your foundations be shaken.