Acts 16: The Jailer’s Faith

Perhaps you, like me, have been so enamored with the astounding miracle in today’s reading (Acts 16:22-34) that we (I certainly) had overlooked the wonderful witness teaching that we find there.

Historically a number of people have seen—or created—division with the argument of whether our good works lead to our salvation. Some proclaim that, “Since I am already saved, anything I do is OK,” i.e., “it doesn’t matter what I do.” Conversely, some argue that if what I do leads to my salvation, or the alternative, then I’m not saved by Jesus. How can one argue against that—it’s true! Yet one argument or position does not lead irrefutably for or against the other.

The Gospels and Paul’s writings, indeed the whole of the New Testament, makes extremely clear to us that we are saved by faith… faith in Jesus, or by the faith that Jesus exhibits. Yet we still question, How is one saved? What does “being saved” look like here on this side of the chasm of death?

Onward then to Luke’s account of Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in the Roman colony of Philippi, a seaport situated in what is modern-day Greece. Today’s reading recounts the marvelous miracle of the prison doors being thrown wide open by a severe earthquake, which we recognize of course as the Hand of God. Paul and Silas, mindful of the price that the guard would pay should they escape, remain in their cells—a demonstration of Christian agapé (selfless love). Would you or I have stayed, or rather fled for our safety?

Perhaps less astounding or interesting, yet equally as important is the account of what happens next. When the jailer realizes that Paul and Silas had put the jailer’s well-being above their own, he was evangelized or at least realized that they had something greater than his own code of ethics or morality. His response was natural, “What must I do to be saved?” (He had overheard Paul and Silas’ praying and hymn-singing the previous evening.)

The response of course is not unexpected: “Believe in the Lord Jesus!” The jailer being sincere of heart proceeded to the next step (what we term “RCIA”) “So they spoke the word of the Lord to him…”

The jailer’s reaction to hearing the word? “He took them in… and bathed their wounds.” Now, what is the importance of this phrase? It is exactly the point—and result—of true evangelization. When one hears the word, one becomes a disciple and follows Jesus. In this case, the jailer is doing exactly what Jesus would do… minister to the needy (Paul and Silas had been badly beaten with rods). The jailer, upon hearing the word of the Lord, without prompting and of his own volition, follows Jesus and ministers to the sick/needy, sets free the prisoners.

It was only then that he (and his whole family) were baptized. To have allowed himself to be baptized without ministering to those in need would have missed the whole point of discipleship and salvation. But then what happens? The story is not over.

Lastly the jailer brings them (Paul and Silas, his family, others?) into his house and provides a meal. Jesus’ best times were at meals with disciples and others, e.g., feeding of the thousands, Martha and Mary, Last Supper, etc. Just what do they do at this meal? He/they rejoice (express thankful joy, i.e. they pray) at having come to faith in God. What we see here is an early liturgy or Mass along with the sacrament. At our current-day liturgy, we likewise give thanks, we read/pray/study the Scriptures (readings and sermon and prayers and singing).

So this little vignette is a verbal painting portraying evangelization, faith, acceptance of discipleship, worship and liturgy, all in one scene. We see both Baptism and Holy Eucharist and the Mass, which is our meal of faith. A fine model for us, and a demonstration of how our Catholic practices are biblically-sourced from the first generation, and following Jesus’ tradition as articulated by the first generation of Christians.

Yes, the jailer was saved by his faith, itself a grace from God, and his response was what we call “good works.” His good works did not save him, but rather were a manifestation, or natural demonstration, of his realization of his salvation effected by Jesus Christ.

One last question, “Who was set free in this narrative, Paul and Silas, or the jailer?”

—Eric Wolf