Sunday Sermon: Start With the Basics

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: Acts 16:25-34
Series: “Gearing Up for a Fantastic Fall”

Now that cruise ships are seeing passengers return, I am reminded of the story I came across years ago, at a time when cruise ships were about as ubiquitous on the open seas as semis on the Interstate. The story had to do with the captain of one such ship who was admired by the officers under his command for his skill in piloting the large ship. And yet those same officers were puzzled by a ritual they saw the captain perform each day. Every morning, before going to the bridge, he would unlock a special compartment in his office, remove a lockbox, unlock it, take a slip of fading paper out of it, read it, return it to the lock box, lock it, and replace it in the compartment, which he would then relock. When the captain finally retired and left his office for the last time, the first, second, and third mates, knowing where the captain had kept the key, rushed to the office, opened the lockbox, and pulled out the fading piece of paper to read it. They were breathless as they did so, anticipating the great wisdom that had guided their captain over the years. Imagine their surprise when the fading paper read: “Starboard is right. Port is left.” The captain, despite his years of experience, still felt it important each morning to begin his day with the basics.

I wonder how many mishaps in life might have been avoided if people had only attended more carefully to the basics. But you know how it goes. People get a little experience under their belts and start to take things for granted, foundational things, things which they have assumed they would never forget. But somehow they had, and they lived to regret it. It matters not what area of life you’re talking about – business or music or sports or academics – if you find yourself struggling to hit your stride, it’s never a bad thing to go back and revisit the basics. And certainly this is so when it comes to matters of faith.

So, what are the fundamentals of our faith? What is basic to our belief and the one thing we must ever keep before us? The answer to that question is found in this story I’ve read for you this morning from the book of Acts. 

You know the story of Acts is the advance of the gospel message from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth. What began as a sidebar movement with Judaism has now branched out into the Gentile world, with the conversion of non-Jews like the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion Cornelius, and now a Philippian jailer who had been on the verge of ending his life by falling on his own sword. The jailer’s conversion story is significant on a number of levels, though none is more important than the fact that his conversion represents the first Gentile who comes to faith in Jesus who did not have any previous experience with Judaism. Hence, with him, the gospel is indeed moving out to the uttermost parts of the earth.

So, how did this jailer come in contact with the good news of Jesus? It all began with Paul and Silas’ visit to Philippi, a significant Roman colony in the eastern part of ancient Macedonia. You’ll remember that Paul had received a vision to cross over from Asia Minor to preach Jesus to those cities, and Philippi was the first city Silas and he had come to. 

As was their usual practice, they first concentrated their efforts on Jews and their Gentile sympathizers, one of whom was a businesswoman named Lydia. Along the way, they began to be pursued by a fortune-telling slave girl who was making big money for her owners. But when Paul silenced the spirit that had given the girl this ability, her owners became incensed, dragged Paul and Silas before the local authorities, and had them thrown into the city jail, a dungeon that had been carved out to house the most dangerous of criminals. There Paul and Silas languished in prison, fettered and chained.  But instead of ruing their fate and complaining of its injustice, they lift their voices in song, singing of their faith even to the stroke of midnight.

And God responds. In a region known for earthquakes, a most violent one occurs, so violent that it shakes the foundations of the prison so that the prison doors fly open and every prisoner’s chains come loose. But that’s not all that is shaken. The jailer wakes up and sees what has taken place.  He draws his sword, prepared to take his own life. After all, his superiors won’t be pleased if any prisoners have escaped, no matter that their escape would have been made possible by a natural occurrence. Consider it a basic rule. A jailer must secure the prisoners under his care, under the penalty of death. And just when he is about to finish himself off, he hears the sound of good news coming from where his two Jewish prisoners had been locked up. It’s the voice of Paul. “Don’t do it! Don’t harm yourself! Everyone is still here!”

Now the jailer is really shaking. He calls for lights and rushes in to where Paul and Silas are waiting. And bringing them out into the open air, the jailer asks what he knows in his heart is the right question, the most important question he’s ever asked: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

To be honest, his question is not as theological as we might have imagined. More than likely, the jailer simply wants to know how these two Jews who have been singing in the night and who have in some way been connected to this earthquake might help him get out of the mess he’s in from no fault of his own. But Paul, recognizing an opening when one comes his way, jumps at the opportunity. “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” he tells the jailer. “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”

And therein lies the basic commitment from which everything else in Christianity unfolds. Is it the full truth of our faith? Of course it isn’t. Paul knew that. But he was operating out of an emergency situation, one in which a prison has just collapsed. He didn’t have time for a detailed explanation. That, however, would come later, as the jailer invited Paul and Silas to his home, where Paul was able to go into more detail with the jailer and others in his house. Here, Paul only had time for the basics.

“Believe.” The word has little, if anything, to do with head knowledge; it has to do with heart knowledge. Remember, the jailer was clueless about Judaism and its priority on commitment. But he understood duty and aligning your life around the one to whom you owe it. 

“Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Lordship language the jailer understood, as did everyone under Caesar’s rule. But now, Paul was telling him that there was another Lord than Caesar. Jesus is Lord, and he holds authority over everything and everyone.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Most forms of deliverance are transitory. You may be delivered from something today, only to find yourself in an entirely different place of danger tomorrow. But the salvation that Jesus brings about is something that is secure for today and tomorrow and forevermore. 

Have you made such a commitment? Can you remember the moment your journey of faith began? Do you have a relationship with the Risen Jesus so that he guides and directs you in everything you’re about?

Sometimes I’m afraid we make Christian faith much harder and more complicated than it should be. We tend to get bogged down in theology and eschatology and ecclesiology and countless other “ologies” when the core of our faith hinges on a person’s willingness to trust in Jesus. 

I’ve shared with you before my indebtedness to preaching professor Fred Craddock for his poignant stories that inspire me to follow Jesus. Being back home last Sunday reminded me of one of Craddock’s stories. Those of you who grew up in small towns know how that works. You know everyone. Everyone knows you. And people get reputations that can be hard to overcome.

Craddock grew up in a small town himself. In one of his books he tells about another boy that grew up there with him, a boy that other boys mistreated because he was, as they called him, “slow-minded.” By that, he meant that the boy would believe everything others told him – hook, line, and sinker.

“They’re giving away watermelons down at the courthouse.” “Really?” And off he’d go to the courthouse. “Did you know we’re not having school next week because the school building burned down?” “It did? That’s so sad.” “The President of the United States is going to be here next Saturday.” “Where’s he going to be? I’m going to get there early.” He’d believe all of that.

One week an evangelist came to their little church and stood at the pulpit and preached, “God loves you. He cares for you. He sent Jesus to redeem you. He wants to be your Savior and Lord. Believe in him and be saved.”

And that boy got up from his pew, went forward, and accepted Jesus as his Savior and Lord.

There were some people who said he was “slow-minded.” “Maybe he was. I don’t know.”

None of us knows the state of another person’s mind or heart or soul. But what I trust you do know is that when you trust in Jesus, Jesus brings to bear the authority of God on every circumstance and situation you face in this life, especially the most distressing ones. 

Talk about distressing situations, we may be on the verge of entering yet another one, a situation in which we’ll need the assurance that only faith in Jesus can provide. So, pay close attention to what’s of utmost importance. Only then will you know your right from your left and be ready to launch out into uncharted waters where hazards are everywhere. But if you trust your life’s journey to Jesus, you won’t have anything to fear. The Lord Jesus will see you through. Believe in him, and you will be saved.