The conversion of the Roman jailer in Acts 16 was a favorite text of mine in my evangelical beginnings. What was it that compelled the jailer to become a follower of Jesus?
I hardly think it was the message itself. There is nothing in the text to suggest that the jailer’s conversion had anything to do with the reasonableness, truthfulness, logic, coherence, or appeal of the message itself.
What made the difference was the jailer’s experience of the message lived by Paul and Silas. It was the earthquake and what transpired afterward. Paul and Silas refused to flee. Had they fled the jailer would have been held accountable for their escape. It may have cost him his life. The jailer is emotionally, psychologically, and physically shaken. He comes trembling: “What must I do to be saved?” It was his experience that changed his perspective, that opened and readied him to receive the good news Paul proclaimed.
It has been fascinating to observe the cultural shift in perception and opinion in recent history with regard to gay marriage. When President Obama publicly endorsed gay marriage, he called it being on the right side of history. There has been a kind of historical shift. The question is: What prompted it?
Do you know what it is? Do you know why the tide has changed? Do you know what has changed peoples’ minds? People’s experiences. Some years ago, before there was a historical shift, a mother told me that when her son came to her and confessed that he was gay, she knew right then that this was not a choice, that her son was simply being true to who he was. That kind of experience is fueling the fire of change.
It’s not the theological, psychological, or social arguments, as important as they are. More sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors and loved ones are openly and publically acknowledging their same-sex orientation, and as a result, more and more people are seeing the issue through the lens of their experience. New experiences are changing people’s thinking.
For the jailer, it wasn’t the message itself that made the difference, it was his experience of the power of the message that he witnessed in the lives of Paul and Silas.
What do followers of Christ need to learn from this? As important as it is to articulate a transforming vision of discipleship to Jesus, it is even more important to live what we believe and embody what we say. As important as the contents of our message, how we live and validate the message through our experience is even more important.
Persuading people of the goodness, truth, and power of a life of discipleship to Jesus will take more than expounding on the reasonableness, logic, coherence, and beauty of the message itself – though, I certainly believe that the message we proclaim must be a good, beautiful, coherent, credible, compelling message. But that alone is not enough. The message must be lived, fleshed out, incarnated, and validated through our experience.
When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the
he also came healing, restoring well-being, and welcoming all manner of
sinners. The power and truthfulness of the message of the kingdom was confirmed
in the many experiences of people, as Jesus made people whole and radically
welcomed and accepted them through the practice of table fellowship. He lived
and demonstrated the message. kingdom of God
When the good news of God’s love expressed through Christ is validated through our life experiences, it demonstrates the power of the good news to incite hope, to bring about a new sense of identity and belonging, to make persons, families, and communities whole.