Acts 16/Mothers’ Day

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Rome, Italy, is prone to earthquakes. One occurred when I lived there in the 1980’s; fortunately, it was a mild one and I hardly felt it.

A much more powerful quake occurred when St. Paul was in a Roman prison. The dramatic story of that event and its consequences is told in today’s First Lesson.

The story begins with Paul healing a slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit. That spirit had allowed the girl to foretell the future, and her owners made money by selling her predictions.

Paul cast out the demon and freed the slave from her demonic possession. But the girl’s owners weren’t happy about this healing miracle, however, since they could no longer make money off of her fortune telling. So they had Paul and his companion Silas beaten and put in chains, and thrown into prison.

Then came the earthquake. It was so severe that, the Bible says, the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors of the cells sprang open, and everyone’s chains were unfastened. Since the quake happened while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns, the other prisoners attributed the tremors to an act of God. They believed that God wanted to get the Christians out of jail!

In fact, God had a different lesson to teach! The text goes on to say that the jailor believed all his captives had escaped from the prison; he was afraid that he would be blamed. So to spare himself the shame of being accused of dereliction of duty, the guard prepared to kill himself by falling on his sword.

Just in the nick of time, the text says, “Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’”

The text goes on: “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.’”

Paul then preaches to the jailor and his family, explaining to them what Christian belief entails. After the jailor attends to the wounds that Paul and Silas received during the earthquake, he and his family are baptized. The writer notes in conclusion that the jailor “and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.”

A story with lots of drama! Also a story about how the early church grew. For notice that the jailor wasn’t converted as an isolated individual. He and what the Bible terms his “household” were all baptized at the same time.

Now we could attribute this group conversion to the social conventions of that period. In history, a husband generally set the tone for his wife, his children, and other relatives or servants who happened to live with him. If the head of the household decided to embrace a completely new religion, everyone else in the house was expected to go along with him.

This rule wasn’t always followed. Some wives acted independently and they secretly embraced the Way of Jesus. Last week, one of the lessons told the story of Lydia, a woman who brought her household into the church.

In any case, the head of a family wouldn’t carry such influence today. A Roman Catholic husband who started attending a Protestant church couldn’t expect his ardent Catholic wife or his children or his housekeeper to follow him automatically into a new religious community. Especially in America, with our strong tradition of freedom of religion, people make their own choices in matters of faith.

And yet, the story suggests that faith isn’t entirely an individual matter. The jailor’s influence over his family is a good one: the family members are brought into the church. Moreover, the lesson notes that Paul preached to the household before he baptized them. So the members of the family were able to play a role in their conversions.

So the lesson suggests that we should pay more attention to how our faith is influenced by other people.

St. Paul himself claims that it is permissible for a Christian woman to marry a pagan man because the pagan might later be converted through his wife’s prayers.

One obvious example for many of us will be the households we grew up in. Today, some of us may recall that we had faithful mothers—mothers who prayed for us and taught us about Christianity – until we finally felt God’s call.

Or you may have been influenced later in your life by friends. As a college student, you might have been invited to a chapel service by a roommate and found yourself converted through the dormitory “household” you happened to be part of while going to university.

We might even stretch the notion of “household” and think of it in an urban sense. It might, for example, be your apartment building.

In cities where people find themselves far from their biological families, their neighbors often are like relatives. Some members of our own congregation were introduced to this church by neighbors from their building “household.”

So, too, St. Paul at one point calls the Church, “the household of faith.” We at Incarnation sometimes refer to our congregation as our “parish family.”

The basic idea in these examples is that we don’t come to God by ourselves. Our faith, our religion, our entire lives are inextricably linked with others.

Faith is shared. As is often remarked, it’s impossible to be a solitary Christian. You can perhaps be a “good person” by yourself, but you can only be a good Christian in community. Faith is meant to be shared.

And this fact can be very reassuring when we are experiencing problems of faith. For example, we don’t need to think of ourselves as bearing intellectual doubts by ourselves. We’re not alone. Other Christians are there to support us.

I’m thankful myself for some Christian philosophers and scientists who contributed to my religious formation. They showed me that the material doesn’t rule out the spiritual—that science doesn’t undermine religious belief.

For instance, they have convinced me that evolutionary theory doesn’t prevent belief in a divine Creator of the universe. They don’t deny the scientific truth of evolution as far as it goes; they just argue that evolution is compatible with divine action in the universe.

I don’t have to be a scientist or a philosopher, then, to find intellectual support for my belief. I can get it from fellow members of my household of faith.

And, finally, as we conclude this service of Morning Prayer, we can recall what St. Paul and his companion were doing when that earthquake hit. They were praying.

And whatever else we do to aid and comfort each other, we can always pray. The Prayer List in this parish includes many people who aren’t members of this congregation but who—as our friends and family—are strengthened by our prayers.

One more way that we build up the household of faith.

As you sit, let us pray.

“Almighty and ever living God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

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