The first reading from worship last week has been sitting in my head for a while now. I didn’t even preach on it…I preached on the Gospel reading (as I usually do). But it’s the first reading, Acts 16:16-34, that’s been on my mind. I’ve been thinking about what it means to “be saved.”
I have to tell you the story first. Here it is: the early church leaders Paul and Silas get themselves arrested in Macedonia, for healing in the name of Christ and basically disturbing the peace. Paul is thrilled; Paul likes nothing more than being in prison for the Lord. (Silas probably thought the guy was nuts, and I for one agree. But anyway…) That night, there’s an earthquake, and the prison security system is completely compromised. Doors fall down. Chains break. The security cameras stop working. That sort of thing. Well, apparently this prison was under the care of a particular man, the jailer. Let’s call him Jailer Jones for the purpose of this argument. It was his Jailer Jones’ job to see that the prisoners were kept secure. The authorities in Macedonia didn’t really care how Mr. Jones did his job, so long as he did it…so long as when they called him to bring certain prisoners to court or wherever, he could do so. I imagine he was paid reasonably well for his trouble.
So when Jailer Jones, who lived near the prison, heard and felt the earthquake, he quickly ran out to check on the prison. Bloody hell, he thought, as he looked at it. The front door was completely demolished. That couldn’t be good. He quickly realized that he had failed. That the prisoners had escaped. He knew this would not be forgiven by the authorities. There was only one way to save his family’s honor…he would have to kill himself. He pulled out his sword to do the deed, and I’ll let Luke pick up the story here:
28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:28-31, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis mine)
So here’s what strikes me about this passage. Jailer Jones is distraught to the point of suicide, but then runs in and finds the prisoners still there. This was absurd…no one could blame prisoners for leaving when an “act of God” freed them. Not even Paul liked prison enough to stay when he didn’t have to. Why were they still there? That’s the question I would have asked: “Why the hell are you still here?” But instead, Jailer Jones asks them, “How can I avoid being thrown in hell?” (That’s what it means to be saved, right? “Saved” means you get to go to heaven instead of hell, right?) Why would he ask that? Because he wanted to make sure that the next time he tried to commit hari-kari, that he’d go to the right place afterward? Why would he think that these prisoners would have an answer to that question anyway? What do heaven and hell have to do with this story at all?
Well, I’ve been leading the jury, because I believe heaven and hell don’t have anything to do with this story. I don’t think that’s what Jailer Jones was asking at all. I believe that he was actually asking them, “Why are you still here?” What if that’s what being saved actually means here? Perhaps Jailer Jones was saying this: I can see that you do not fear being in prison, or what will happen to you next. I can see that you are compassionate, caring more about my well-being than your own safety. Clearly you have been saved from fear and from being self-centered. How can I be like you?
I recognize that it’s a bit of a stretch to get this out of Jailer Jones’ words. But is it any less a stretch to say that he was asking about the afterlife? Either way, you need to fill in the gaps of what “being saved” means. And I think my interpretation makes a whole lot more sense with the context of the story. And also with the context of our lives.
The two words “being saved” don’t mean anything by themselves. You have to finish the clause: being saved from what? “Jesus saves” doesn’t mean anything without finishing the clause: Jesus saves from what? And I just don’t buy that the primary thing Jesus saves us from is eternal damnation. That would mean that this life is meaningless, and the only point in living is to make sure that we get on the right side…Jesus’ side, so that we can be in the right place at the end. But that doesn’t mesh with the God I read about in the Bible. The God I see throughout scripture isn’t one who throws away this life, who views this life as some kind of “test” or something. The God I see is one who comes into this life, and lives with us. Who comes into our darkness, and shines light. Not just the promise of a future light if we believe the right thing, but light today, here and now. Sure, if you’re scared about your eternal destination, then Jesus can save you from that fear. But there’s a lot of other things Jesus can, and does, save us from.
I think in my case, one thing Jesus saves me from is being scared to talk about my mental illness. So many people have told me that I’m brave for sharing what I’ve shared on this blog. And it is scary. It’s scary because even with those affirmations (which I deeply appreciate), I don’t know how the next post will be taken. I don’t know if it’s okay to bare my soul this way. I don’t know whether it’s safe. And I never will. It’s not safe. But it’s okay, because I believe that God’s telling me the truth that I will be okay. I believe that God’s telling me the truth that I have a purpose. I believe that God’s telling me the truth that I’m not alone. Or at least I want to believe those things. And every time I press that “Publish” button, I am acting on that belief. Every time I can hit that button, it’s because I recognize that I’m saved, at least for that moment.
What’s God saving you from?