At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. (Acts 16.33)
Inasmuch as the ancient world trafficked in stardom, Paul qualified as a minor celebrity. He won early notoriety as an anti-Christian activist prominently involved in the prosecutions and persecutions of first-century believers. Then he reversed his position to become the Early Church’s most outspoken, fearless, and widest-traveled figure. Whether or not he was a recognized name to the general public we don’t know. But he was clearly a person of note to the religious and political establishment. If he were alive today, in our age of 24/7 gossip and scandal, his every exploit would be grist for the mill. One imagines catching items in the CNN news ribbon: Paul outrages Greeks with sermon… Paul survives shipwreck… Paul and associate, Silas, arrested for disturbing peace in Philippi…. That last item would generate several updates. Promoters bring public suit against Paul and Silas for exorcising Philippi’s top psychic… Paul and Silas flogged and imprisoned in Philippi… Local jail destroyed when earthquake strikes Philippi; all prisoners accounted for… Paul and Silas save Philippi jailer from suicide attempt… Jailer and family convert to Christianity; late-night baptism held at jailer’s home… Charges dropped against Paul and Silas in quake aftermath….
Like so many stories told in headlines, sensationalism bruises the humanity in this tale. When Acts 16 surfaced in lectionary readings a couple weeks back, a number of astute and unique perspectives restored the humanity for me—most notably in From Captivity to Freedom, a superb rendering of the story by our associate pastor, Larissa Kwong Abazia, and Claire’s compelling take on the jailer, Signs. The two dovetail perfectly, as Larissa challenges us to recognize how unusual experiences alter our perceptions of the mundane, while Claire leads us through the narrative inside out, placing Paul and Silas in service of the jailer’s story. I’ve reread the story numerous times since then. Every time, I’m shaken by verse 33: “At that hour of the night the jailer took them [Paul and Silas] and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.” For me, at least, that’s where the real earthquake happens.
Prisoner of Fear
As Larissa points out, Paul and Silas’s imprisonment is largely due to the Apostle’s annoyance with the psychic. She’s been trailing them all over town, declaring them “servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” (v17) Paul’s concern about being made a spectacle of rouses him to disable the psychic’s gifts and inadvertently puts him and Silas center stage—the very thing he wants to avoid. He’s not overly mindful about what will happen to the psychic—a slave to several hucksters—now that she’s stripped of her gifts. She’s a problem and he just wants her to go away. That's why his self-interest backfires. He and Silas become slaves to the same corrupt regime that exploited the psychic. Curiously, they don’t seem to get this. There’s no record of any remorse on their part. Instead, they persist in their impetuosity. When the earthquake hits around midnight, they’re entertaining the other prisoners by “praying and singing hymns to God.” (v25) Such bravado!
The jailer is the story’s true prisoner of fear. He’s an order-taker whose job depends on loyalty to the bosses, with no confidence it will be repaid. He’s an easy target if things go wrong and the blame-game starts. Despite their indifference to the psychic’s fate, Paul and Silas shouldn’t be jailed in the first place. The psychic’s owners are guilty here, first for exploiting a gifted woman and second for fomenting controversy to humiliate and silence Paul and Silas. Since they, not the disciples, are in bed with powers that be, they’re whom the jailer fears most. In the aftershock, he sees the jail doors flung open and starts to commit suicide. Better to die than suffer the same fate as those he keeps. Now we see Paul’s compassion. In the shaking, he’s come to his senses. “We’re all here,” he shouts. The jailer asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v31) He’s looking for pragmatic advice—what to do to keep his job. But Paul and Silas offer him something greater: freedom from fear. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (v31) What we see next is simply amazing.
The jailer and his family believe and are saved. In Early Church times, baptism immediately followed a convert’s confession of faith. In Acts 2.38, Peter tells the onlookers at Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism “sealed the deal” and inducted new believers into the Christian household of faith. But the jailer won’t wait for proper induction. His faith secures his inclusion before it’s officially acknowledged. Instinctively, he honors Christ’s command to do for others what he would have them do for him. Before a basin of water is drawn for his baptism, he draws water to wash Paul and Silas’s wounds. He ministers to them first.
We Can’t Wait
Once we remove the headlines to discover its humanity, what does this story say to us? A number of things, actually, all of them loosely connected to a random geological event, a shaking that alters perceptions and topples traditions. First, we shouldn’t revere church leaders as ideals. They're human, every bit as vulnerable to impatience, impetuosity, and shortsightedness as we are. They will make mistakes that perplex us and get them in trouble. Second, we need not live in fear of powers that be. A Higher Power capable of shaking the very foundations of power, loosing shackles, and opening doors, exists. But third—and most important, I think—we can’t wait for proof of inclusion to obey Christ. Instinctively, we must make washing wounds our first priority.
The jailer could have balked at Paul and Silas’s message of faith. “Fix this mess first,” he might have said. “Then I’ll believe.” He could have looked at their wounds and said, “Once you accept me, I’ll take care of you.” But he didn’t. We can’t, either. In the rubble of allegedly secure structures, we can find faith to believe. Before we’re fully accepted or acknowledged, we can heal. When the jailer washes Paul and Silas’s wounds, he baptizes them. The water he pours into their injuries witnesses the Spirit that flows through him prior to formal acceptance. May that same Spirit flow through us. May washing wounds be a ministry we share.
We can’t rely on leaders to live up to our ideals or structures to remain sound. We can’t wait for acceptance to wash wounds. We can’t—we won’t—be afraid.