Philippi: The Church of Open Hearts

Acts 16:11-40

Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned this phrase in his poem, Youth and Age: “Friendship is a sheltering tree” – perhaps describing what everyone of us has experienced in those wonderful relationships where we have a friend in whose presence we can relax and experience shelter and refuge and nourishment and encouragement.

Perhaps not so literary, but just as illustrative is my friend Winnie the Pooh. One day Pooh Bear is about to go for a walk in the Hundred Acre woods. It’s about 11:30 in the morning. It is a fine time to go calling – just before lunch. So Pooh sets out across the stream, stepping on the stones, and when he gets right in the middle of the stream he sits down on a warm stone and thinks about just where would be the best place of all to make a call. He says to himself, “I think I’ll go see Tigger.” No, he dismisses that – “I’m not ready to be pounced today.” Then he says “Owl!” “No, Owl uses big words, hard-to-understand words.” At last he brightens up! “I know! I’ll go see Rabbit. I like Rabbit. Rabbit uses encouraging words like, ‘How’s about lunch?’ and ‘Help yourself, Pooh!’ Yes, I think I’ll go see Rabbit.”

It wasn’t the biggest city Paul would ever preach in, but it became his favorite. Paul’s letter to the Philippians would be written almost a decade after he first set foot in their city, and it has been called Paul’s love letter to a church. They are the ones who will stick by him when everybody else says “you’re on your own.” They are the model church that Paul will brag about to the Corinthians when he writes about the Macedonian churches who gave out of their severe poverty because they had first given themselves to the Lord and then to us.

Philippi represents another wave of taking the gospel to all the world as Paul plants the first church in Europe (when Paul set sail from Troas and crosses the Aegean Sea he was leaving the continent of Asia and entering European waters.) It is the first church in Acts where we get a sense of the individuals who are a part of the church – and again this is very likely a reflection of the part Luke plays as an eyewitness participant. In fact, more than that – remember last week we noticed Luke’s autobiographical use of pronouns (they…they… they…we). As Luke describes their activities in Philippi, it is in the 1st person – we, we, we – but in vs. 40, as the mission team gets ready to move on – it is “Then they left.” Luke stays in Philippi and works with this new church as Paul and company head to Thessalonica. And he will remain there until Paul’s 3rd missionary journey comes through Philippi in Acts 20 when we read in vs. 6, “But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread and five days later joined the others at Troas…”

Paul’s first encounter in Philippi is with a group of women who are having a prayer meeting. It is the Sabbath, and there is no synagogue in Philippi. What do you do? When we go to an unfamiliar city we look in the phone book for a church to worship at. Paul heads for the river expecting to find a place of prayer. And he did – a group of women had gathered there to pray. Luke tells us one of them was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, and she is a worshiper of God (probably, a lot like Cornelius – a gentile who adheres to the Jewish faith and customs.)

I love Luke’s description of what happened next – “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” If you still think that evangelism is a human transaction – you convincing someone else with your brilliant arguments and your vast knowledge of scripture – think again. God is at work long before you get involved. The scriptures tell us that the HS convicts people of sin, the Word is planted in people’s lives, and that God opens the hearts of people to the gospel. It’s not all about you. You have a part – an important part in leading someone to Christ – but God is already at work before you say a word.

And the Word takes root in Lydia – she and all the members of her household were baptized – that morning. Their hearts were right, the message was powerful, they responded – the church is born in Philippi.

And the thing I love about Lydia – she doesn’t take a year to get used to being a Christian before she gets involved. She immediately sees a need and jumps in to meet it. This mission team are strangers in a strange city – they need a place to stay – “You’re staying with me, and I won’t take no for an answer.” And Luke says, “She persuaded us.” Lydia’s house becomes the base of operations, and the meeting place for the new church.

Paul’s second encounter comes as a result of a series of other encounters. They hadn’t been in Philippi too long before they were met by a slave girl with a spirit of divination – she predicted the future. As you can imagine, she made a lot of money for her owners by fortune telling. But when she met Paul, something clicked inside her. She started following Paul and the others around town shouting at the top of her lungs, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” At first, it must have seemed like good promotion, but she kept at it and at it – several days of this until Paul couldn’t take it any longer. He finally turned around, pointed his finger at her and said to the spirit inside of her, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!”

Immediately the spirit left her and she became silent – too silent. Along with no longer irritating Paul, she no longer could tell the future. And that meant she was no longer a moneymaker for her owners. And that infuriated the owners. They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They couldn’t just out and say it was because of their greed, so they made up an official sounding charge – “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” By this time they have quite a crowd gathered and they have them stirred up against the two.

So the magistrates do what they always did – flog them and put them in prison – we’ll decide their guilt or innocence later. After the movie, The Passion, I’ll never read a passage about flogging the same way again. Luke says they were severely flogged. So when they are put into their prison cell and their feet locked in the stocks, they are in a world of hurt. They are bleeding and traumatized with massive physical injuries.

Under the best of circumstances – falsely accused and thrown into prison – none of us would be very happy. We’d be complaining and grumbling and threatening lawsuits. But under the worst of circumstances there’s not a word of complaint from Paul and Silas. Instead, in the middle of the night they are praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners are listening to them.
Suddenly, an earthquake strikes and the foundation of prison is shaken, doors fly open, chains come loose, the jailer wakes up! What he sees has him so frightened and seeing the prison doors open, he assumes that all of the prisoners have escaped, which will mean his own torture and death in the morning. He pulls his sword to kill himself. But then, out of the depths of the prison comes Paul’s voice – “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Let me tell you something I learned about the jailer this week. I wondered about what kind of person he might have been and what kind of role he played. He was most likely retired Roman military – Philippi was a kind of retirement community for the Roman army – a Roman colony on the outskirts of the empire. It’s kind of like a restaurant offering free meals to police officers – there’s security in having them around – it tends to scare off the bad guys when they see a uniform or two. The Roman Empire made good use of its military even when they were no longer battle ready. But make no mistake – he was a hardened veteran of many battles – he had shed his share of blood – there was a no-nonsense, do your job attitude about him. And the other thing I learned? The role of a jailer was more than locking the cell doors and delivering prisoners. The jailer was often also the one who delivered the flogging – in Mt. 18 when Jesus talked about the man being sent to jail – he was “turned over to the jailers to be tortured.” Think about that for a moment. If this jailer was also the one who flogged Paul and Silas, and then at the moment that he’s about to kill himself, Paul stops his hand – that is a huge act of grace.

Can you put yourself in his sandals for a moment? The sense of guilt, the flood of relief, the overwhelming gratitude, the escape from certain death. When he hears that voice of assurance from inside the prison, it is the voice of grace – the voice of salvation, literally. He has been given a second chance – a new life. He rushes to Paul and Silas, and falls trembling at their feet and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” I’m not sure he understood the theological implications of the question (he’s in a whole different world than those Jews in Jerusalem who asked that same question in Acts 2). All he knows is that his life has been handed back to him by people who had every reason to hate him and they have answers to questions he’s never thought of asking. “What must I do to be saved?”

And their answer – “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Well, of course the jailer had no idea who this Jesus was or why he should believe in him, and so Paul and Silas go to his house. And in the middle of the night, the jailer and his family listen to Paul and Silas tell them about Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection and his call to obey the gospel. And then in vs. 33 – “At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.”

The next morning, the jailer is still the jailer. And the magistrates send orders for him to release the prisoners, and I imagine he was relieved to go to them with the good news that they can leave. And he tells them, “Go in peace.” But not so fast. Paul and Silas pull a trump card and tell them, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”

You have to understand, Roman citizens were exempt from arbitrary punishment or imprisonment. There was a protection that was accorded to every Roman citizen throughout the empire, and it was a serious offense to violate those rights of citizenship. Suddenly, the city officials find themselves on the defensive, and they rush to the prison to apologize and make amends. They escort them from the prison and then request that they leave the city. They’ve gone from being treated like criminals to VIP’s. Paul and Silas take their time, they return to Lydia’s house and meet with the new Christians and encourage them in their faith, and then they leave Philippi and the church in the spiritual care of Luke.

So we see this newborn church in Philippi, a model of faith and loyalty. Its charter members are a wealthy woman of means, a battle hardened retired Roman soldier, and a slave girl. Kind of kicks all of our modern church growth theories of homogeneous churches out the window. And that is the beauty and the power of the gospel – to take people from every background and every walk of life and destroy the barriers and make them one in Jesus Christ. That’s what it did then, and that’s what it does now.