Why do we serve others?

Acts 16:16-34

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

A fellow finds himself in front of the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explains that its not so easy to get in heaven. There are some criteria before entry is allowed.  For example, was the man religious in life? Attend church? No? St. Peter told him that’s bad.

Was he generous? give money to the poor? Charities? No? St. Peter told him that that too was bad.
Did he do any good deeds? Help his neighbor? Anything? No? St. Peter was becoming concerned.

Exasperated, Peter says, “Look, everybody does something nice sometime. Work with me, I’m trying to help. Now think!”

The man says, “There was this old lady. I came out of a store and found her surrounded by a dozen Hell’s Angels. They had taken her purse and were shoving her around, taunting and abusing her.  I got so mad I threw my bags down, fought through the crowd, and got her purse back. I then helped her to her feet. I then went up to the biggest, baddest biker and told him how despicable, cowardly and mean he was”.
“Wow”, said Peter, “That’s impressive. When did this happen”?
“Oh, about 10 minutes ago”, replied the man.

            We are called as Christians to do good works.  Not because that is what will “save” us, but because following Jesus always means serving others.  And like Jesus showed us, we are called to help those that can’t help themselves.  These are the marginalized, the people on the fringes of society.  The typical example of this might be helping at a soup kitchen.

            If you talk to someone that has served at a soup kitchen, you might hear them say something like, “Oh, it felt so good to help.”  And if you are like me, you might actually get a little critical of that person because they seem to be helping these people on the margins of society only for that personal feeling of satisfaction.  They almost can seem like they are doing charity work for selfish purposes.

            Well as I studied our scripture for this morning, I feel like I have come to the conclusion that there are worse things in the world than helping people on the margins for selfish purposes, worse things like not helping at all.

            In our scripture for this morning, Paul and his companions are going to the place of prayer, which in Philippi would have been either beside the river or in the home of Lydia whose house became the first meeting place for the church in Europe.  But as they were going to pray they were met by a slave girl that was possessed with a demon that could predict the future.  And evidently she was good at predicting the future, because she was making her owners a lot of money. 

            This girl seems to recognize immediately that the Spirit of the Lord was among these men because she starts calling out repeatedly, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Paul and the others must have been a little excited by this at first.  This is some good advertising, and it is free!

            But this goes on for days and days.  It reminds me of the little kid sitting in the back seat, “Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?”  Sure, she is right.  But this would get on anyone’s last nerve.  Over and over like a broken record, “These men are slaves of the most high God.”  So Paul and the others decide to do something about this girl.  So he turns to the girl and orders the evil spirit out of her and it leaves her that very hour.

            So as I was preparing for today’s message and doing my studies in the scripture and reading through the commentaries, I found a number of scholars saying things like, “This text calls us to look beyond ourselves, and especially to become advocates for those at the margins of society.”  The implication here is that Paul heals the servant girl because she is on the margins of society.  She is an outcast, she is a slave, and she is possessed by a demon.  So Paul is having mercy on her, caring for “the least of these.”

            Does the Bible teach us to care for the least of these, the social outcasts, and those on the margins of society?  Absolutely, without a doubt!  I believe that is a central message in the Bible.  However, I get frustrated when people try to make a passage of scripture say something that it is not saying so that it will fit into their nice and tidy box.  Paul doesn’t heal this girl because he has compassion on her because she is on the margins of society.  Paul heals her because she is annoying him!  The NIV says that he was bothered by her.  I think that it is clear that he didn’t heal her as an act of compassion, he healed her because otherwise she was going to drive him up the wall.

            Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave the commencement address at the University of South Carolina on May 8th and he shared a story that I found quite interesting.  This is from a transcript of his message:

I am reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln. According to the story, Lincoln was riding with a friend in a carriage on a rainy evening. As they rode, Lincoln told the friend that he believed in what economists would call the utility-maximizing theory of behavior, that people always act so as to maximize their own happiness, and for no other reason. Just then, the carriage crossed a bridge, and Lincoln saw a pig stuck in the muddy riverbank. Telling the carriage driver to stop, Lincoln struggled through the rain and mud, picked up the pig, and carried it to safety. When the muddy Lincoln returned to the carriage, his friend naturally pointed out that he had just disproved his own hypothesis by putting himself to great trouble and discomfort to save a pig. “Not at all,” said Lincoln. “What I did is perfectly consistent with my theory. If I hadn’t saved that pig, I would have felt terrible.”

            Did Lincoln act out of selfish purposes?  Did he only save the pig to relieve his own conscience of guilt?  Maybe.  But is that a bad thing?

            I believe that God made us the way we are for a reason.  God gave us a spirit of compassion and when we don’t utilize our strengths, our gifts, our resources to help others, we have feelings of guilt.  God designed us this way.  So I don’t really see a problem with Lincoln’s reason for saving the pig being that he wanted to avoid the feelings of guilt that would have come upon him.  In the end, the pig was saved.

            So should I be disappointed in Paul for not acting right away to heal the slave girl?  Maybe a little, but the truth is that in the end, Paul did what was right, even if he only did it because there was something in it for him.  For some reason, the slave girl did not pull on Paul’s heart strings enough to bring him to heal her out of compassion, but maybe God made Paul’s patience limited so that he would heal her.  And that is what he did.  In the end, the girl was healed.

            But I don’t want to pigeonhole our friend Paul as someone that only acts out of his own self interest, because I believe that Abraham Lincoln was wrong.  Human beings do act for other purposes than for their own pleasure.  There are times when we do something to glorify God.

            As we continue in our scripture for this morning, we find that the owners of the slave girl that Paul healed were not too happy with the healing that had taken place.  Their income had just been slashed by this act of healing because they were doing pretty well off her ability to predict the future.  So they haul Paul and his companions into the city square and begin to plead their case against them to the magistrates.  Then Paul and Silas get thrown into jail for disturbing the peace.

            Later that evening, around midnight, Paul and Silas are singing hymns while they are in jail, and there is a large earthquake which shakes the foundation of the jail and the walls topple over.  The gates of the jail swing open and there is the opportunity for Paul and Silas to run!  They are free!  If they are going to act solely upon their urges to experience joy and happiness, then they are going to take this opportunity to run as fast and as far as they can.

            There’s just one problem…the jailer.  The jailer will be punished severely for allowing them to escape.  No, it isn’t his fault.  There was an earthquake for crying out loud.  But that doesn’t matter.  The jailer knows this and Paul and Silas know this.  The jailer’s life will be in jeopardy if the prisoners escape because he failed to do his job.  So rather than allowing himself to be put through the intense punishment that will come his way, the jailer decides to take his own life.

            This is when Paul and Silas do a very selfless thing.  Paul calls out to the jailer, “Don’t harm yourself.  We are still here.”  Paul and Silas sacrifice their own comfort, their own freedom for the jailer.  I don’t think that they stayed in the jail because they would feel guilty about running away.  They stayed because they are followers of Jesus Christ.  And just like Jesus, they were willing to take the punishment if it meant that someone else could be freed.  That, my friends, is a selfless act.  That is a pouring out of love for another.  That is a pouring out of love for an enemy.  That is Christ-like agape love.

            So we have now seen Paul act on behalf of someone on the margins of society, healing the slave girl, and we have seen Paul act on behalf of someone in the mainstream of society who didn’t have control over his own life, the jailer.  God’s love does not discriminate, but we see throughout the scriptures that God does seem to be on the side of those that cannot help themselves.  And so should we.

            My son is four months old today!  And like so many other parents, I believe (know) that my son is ahead of the curve.  About two weeks ago he started to roll over.  But he could only roll from his back to his belly.  He has only turned from his belly to his back a couple of times and it seems much more difficult for him.  Usually when we put him on his belly he just gets frustrated and angry.  He doesn’t like to be on his belly for long.  I assume he feels stuck there.

            So this wouldn’t be a problem, except he rolls over so effortlessly that he does it in his sleep.  We swaddle the heck out of that little boy, but he still just flips right over, right in the middle of the night.  And like I said, he doesn’t like being on his belly.  So what does he do?  He calls out for help!  One night last week he called out for help four times in one night!

            So Sonya or I have to get out of bed and turn him back onto his back so that he can go back to sleep.  It doesn’t usually take long.  We just have to roll him over, swaddle him again, and sooth him a bit.  So I usually hold his hand and I say, “It’s okay buddy.  Daddy loves you.  I’m right here.”

            Sure, it is frustrating to have to get out of bed every two hours or so.  And maybe, just maybe there is a part of me that wants to say, “Little man, you got yourself into this predicament, you need to get yourself out!”  Sometimes I wish he would just learn already that if he rolls over he will be stuck on his belly.  But while there are times that a good father needs to be tough so that their children can learn from their mistakes, a good father also will recognize when their children are in no position to be able to help themselves.

            Who are the people that cannot help themselves in our society?  How about those that have gotten into serious debt because of mounting hospital bills?  What about the mentally handicapped?  What about the immigrants in Arizona?  How has God called us to help those that can’t help themselves?

            I know that it is hard to help people in need sometimes, especially when we can see a string of bad decisions that they have made.  Sometimes we can look at someone else’s life and say, “If only you would have done this or done that.  If only you had paid the few extra dollars for health insurance.  If only…”  Or maybe we look at someone else and say, “When will they learn?  They seem to keep falling into the same situations over and over.”  And there might be times when if we help someone we are only enabling them to continue in a destructive lifestyle.  But I believe that sometimes God puts marginalized people in our midst for a reason.

            John chapter nine tells us a story about a man who was born blind.  As Jesus and his disciples are walking through the town they come to this man and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned to cause this man’s blindness?  Was it something that he did, or was it his parents?”

            Jesus replies to them that both options are wrong.  And if you look at a couple different translations you will see that what Jesus says next is what we might call an incomplete sentence.  Jesus doesn’t say “He was born blind so that God’s work might be made known through him.”  What Jesus says is more like “But that God’s work might be made known through him.”  Our translations often add something to that sentence because that sentence alone does not make sense.

            I think that what Jesus is saying is that sometimes suffering, marginalization, poverty, sometimes these things just happen in a fallen world.  Our job isn’t to understand why they happen.  Our job is to make God’s work known, to make God’s kingdom know.  I think that the reason that Jesus went around healing people was to give them a taste of the kingdom of God that is to come.  Have a taste right now and soon you will feast in the kingdom!  Maybe we don’t have the ability to give sight to a blind man, but we do have the ability to help those that are in need along the way.  We do have the ability to make God’s work known, if only in a small and incomplete way.

            When Paxton rolls over in his sleep and he gets stuck on his belly, I help roll him back over to his back and I comfort him.  He can’t get to his back on his own.  He needs my help.  And sure I get frustrated that he can’t seem to help himself, and sure I get frustrated that he keeps doing it over and over again.  But I love him.

            And surely I act out of my own selfish ambitions sometimes.  When I roll Paxton back to his back at 2 a.m., I’m not thinking “To God be the glory. I have done a great thing for another person.”  No, I just want to get back to bed.  But sometimes, regardless of what our motivations are, good things can come about.

            Paul healed the slave girl because she was annoying him.  But he stayed in the jail so that the jailer’s life might be spared.  In both cases, I think God’s love and compassion was made known.  And in the case of the jailer, we know that he and his entire household became followers of Jesus Christ.

            Who are we called to roll over?  Who are we called to comfort?  Who are we called to give a small picture of the kingdom of God?  I’m not going to say our motivation doesn’t matter.  But what matters most is that God is glorified, that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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