The Power of Belief 7th Sunday of Easter Pastor Pat Mecham
Acts 16: 16-34 May 29, 2022 John 17: 20-26
In the Harry Potter stories, Harry comes into possession of a small vial of Felix Felices—otherwise known as “liquid luck.” It is said that anyone who takes a swallow of this potion will find themselves successful in whatever they endeavor to do.
Harry’s friend, Ron, is needing a boost of confidence before the big game. Harry appears to pour something into Ron’s drink at breakfast, and Ron believes it to be a dose of this “liquid luck.” He chugs it down, and instantly develops a new-found confidence. And, of course, he plays brilliantly!
Later, Harry reveals that his vial is still full—he never put anything into Ron’s drink. But simply BELIEVING was enough to put Ron at the top of his game. We might call this “the placebo effect.”
When a patient in a controlled study is given a fake medication (a placebo), they often respond positively to the treatment, demonstrating the brain’s role in physical health. BELIEF really makes a difference!
But I also hold that there are different qualities of belief. Many of you know the story of Blondin, the tightrope walker who crossed Niagra Falls to the cheers of the crowd. Then he said to them, “Do you believe that I, The Great Blondin, can again successfully cross over the Niagra River on this tightrope—this time pushing a wheelbarrow?” And the crowd roared, “We believe! We believe!”
Then he asked, “Who among you is willing to ride inside of the wheelbarrow and allow me to push you as I cross on this tightrope?” The crowd went silent. Their “belief” was enthusiastic as long as there was no risk to themselves! No one was willing to entrust their life into Blondin’s hands.
It’s obvious that the words belief and believe have varying levels of meaning. In our Gospel reading for today, we hear Jesus praying on behalf of those who will one day believe in him, and asking that the world may believe that he had been sent by the Father. Then, in Acts, we hear the story about how the jailer in Philippi became a believer in God. This use of the word “belief” indicates so much more than just an intellectual nod toward an idea—it’s indicative of fully trusting oneself into God’s hands. Let’s take a look.
Paul and Silas in Jail
I’ll begin with a poor slave girl who had a spirit of divination and made her owners a lot of money through her fortune-telling. She followed Paul and Silas around, shouting, “These men are slaves (servants) of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Even though she was proclaiming something that was true, it was interfering with their work. (It was also a sad thing, was it not, that this poor girl was possessed by this spirit.) So Paul commanded the spirit to come out of her—and it did! This is good news for the girl, and I only wish we had a follow-up story regarding her fate. Wouldn’t it be lovely if she eventually became a part of the church in Philippi, testifying to what God had done on her behalf? I’d love to know.
But the result of this deliverance was that her owners were furious with Paul and Silas, and stirred up the crowd against them, hauled them to the magistrates, and accused them of introducing non-Roman customs. The magistrates, without a trial, simply ordered them to be beaten with rods and put into the local prison. There, the jailer locked them into the stocks.
Let me explore a little sidebar here. We say every week that “we go nowhere by accident.” It was no accident that Joseph was sold into slavery, hauled down to Egypt, and later put into jail there. It was God’s way of getting him where he needed to be in order to save his family and millions of other lives.
It was no accident that Paul and Silas were unjustly accused and punished and locked up. It was God’s way of getting them where they needed to be in order to save the Philippian jailer and his family! You’ll notice that, while they were locked up, they were praying and singing hymns to God! When the earthquake released them, they stayed put and they called out to the jailer not to hurt himself (as was the tradition when losing a prisoner).
When he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” He washed their wounds, and they washed him and his family in baptism. There was rejoicing that he had become a believer in God.
Those Who Will Believe
Many years earlier, Jesus had prayed for this Philippian jailer and his household: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Paul was also included in that prayer of Jesus, as are you and I.
God’s grace is ready to include each and every person. It was Grace that was flowing through Paul and Silas when the jailer prepared to fall on his own sword (thinking he had lost his prisoners). They showed him mercy, and he responded to it! The slave girl was correct in her declaration that these men, these servants of the Most High God, proclaim a way of salvation.
One of the ways they proclaimed this new way was by singing hymns to God while they sat bound in the stocks. The text tells us that the other prisoners were listening to them. It’s quite possible that the jailer heard them, too, from his quarters by the jail. Had they ever heard anyone singing songs of praise after being beaten and locked up? I doubt it! Their attitude (after being so terribly mistreated) was one of 1. gratitude to God and 2. gracious mercy to those around them—the other prisoners and the jailer. And this said more about their faith than any words might have done. And the church in Philippi blossomed!
Our Belief in Christ
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to spend some time in jail for participating in a non-violent demonstration against segregation. His Letter from Birmingham Jail is a wonderful expression of the same kind of grace and faith, and the Christian Community was blessed and inspired by it—still is!
Friends, I don’t expect that many of you will ever have to spend time in jail. But I know for a fact that there are times when you will be locked into a situation where you are forced to be with people you wouldn’t choose to be with. Might it be possible to adopt this same attitude of grace, this same behavior of belief that God sometimes puts us right where we need to be in order to demonstrate God’s love?!
We say that we are believers—that God’s love and mercy give us life. Are we ready to let that life flow through us to other people that Jesus prayed for when he prayed, “I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
It means that, when we are mistreated, God’s grace will be extended through us to those around us. It throws new light onto one of the teachings of Jesus: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
When Jesus asks us, “Do you believe?” Our response will be, “We believe! We believe!”
And when Jesus asks us to trust, to “climb into the wheelbarrow” or “get out of the boat and walk on water,” we will say, “We believe, Lord. Help our unbelief!” and “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”