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Encountering Faith

Date: 29/05/2022/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Easter Encounters: Encountering Faith
Acts 16:16-34
29 May 2022

Good morning! For the sermon today, you can join us on to share your responses and insights.

Last week, Miak spoke about Encountering Healing, and the important difference between being healed and being cured. If you missed that sermon, you can find it in our Youtube channel.

One significant element that is closely related to healing is that of faith. The issue of faith and healing is quite tricky because I have heard Christians berate others for having a “lack of faith” or correlating a person’s sickness or non-recovery to the amount of faith one has. I think that is at best simplistic, and at worst, it can be very harmful and damaging.

One of my friends, who was serving in full-time ministry, discovered that she had cancer at a relatively young age, and some of her church friends told her the reason why she wasn’t recovering was because of her lack of faith, or perhaps “some hidden sin” in her life.

What a horrible thing to say to someone who was already suffering so greatly! It broke her heart and almost broke her spirit. She eventually recovered, thankfully, but her experience reminds me how important our conversations around faith are.

Today we are looking at a passage that I hope will give us a fresh understanding of faith.

Acts 16:16-34 (The Inclusive Bible)

Once when we were going to prayer, we met a household worker who was possessed by a spirit of divination, and who made a great deal of money for her employers through its fortune telling. She began to follow Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These are faithful followers of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!” She did this for many days. Finally one day Paul lost his temper, and turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this woman!” It left her that moment.

When her employers saw that their profitable operation was now hopelessly dead, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities in the public square. They brought them to the chief magistrates and said, “These people are Jews and are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attack on them, and the magistrates stripped them and ordered them to be flogged.

They were whipped many times and thrown into prison, and the jailer was told to keep a close watch on them. So, following these instructions, the warden threw them into the innermost cell of the prison and chained their feet to a stake. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened. Suddenly a severe earthquake shook the place, rocking the prison to its foundation. Immediately all the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains were pulled loose.

When the jailer woke up and found the doors wide open, he drew a sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here. The jailer called for a light, then rushed in and fell trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, and, after a brief interval, led them out and asked them, “What must I do to be saved?”

They answered, “Believe in Jesus the Savior, and you will be saved—you and everyone in your household.” They proceeded to preach the word of God to the jailer and his whole household. At that late hour of the night he took them in and bathed their wounds; then he and the whole household were baptized. He led them up into his house, spread a table before them, and the whole family joyfully celebrated their newfound faith in God.

In this story, we see how faith changes not just the individual, but how it has the potential to change the lives of those around them. There was the household worker, or slave girl in some translations, and how she was exploited by her employers (or owners) because her fortune telling brought them a lot of money.

Paul commanded the spirit that was possessing her to leave her and it did. But that brought a whole host of other problems.

Paul and Silas were dragged before the authorities, stripped and flogged many times before being brought into the innermost dungeon and had their feet chained to a stake.

Question 1 (Word Cloud)
How would you have responded if you were Paul and Silas?

The power of this story is how Paul and Silas react to their wrongful imprisonment. They could have become bitter or angry. Or fearful for their lives or just feeling hopeless. I know I might have. But they respond by worshipping. Praying and singing hymns to God, to be exact.

Can you imagine if you were one of the other prisoners? In the midst of the darkness, suddenly you hear one voice singing and you wonder, “Am I hearing things? Who in their right mind would be singing in a place like this?” Then you hear another voice joining in. And soon the entire prison is filled with prayers of faith and songs of hope. You cannot help but feel drawn in, and a sense of peace and comfort comes over you.

Then out of nowhere, a huge earthquake shakes the whole prison. And you are shocked to see all the doors flying open, and everyone’s chains are pulled loose. Your chains are unfastened and you are free! At that moment, you realize it’s not just physical freedom you’re experiencing. There is something deeper, more profound – something has changed deep within you, and it is as if your inner chains have been pulled loose and unfastened.

Question 2 (Word Cloud)
In what ways do you feel shackled in your life? Ways of thinking, feeling, acting?
I want to tell you it’s okay. You’re not alone, and it’s not just dependent on your own faith. Have you ever had people tell you, “Just pray and have more faith, and everything will be okay?” The problem with such messages is that it doesn’t actually inspire more faith in a person. If someone were to say that to me while I was going through a difficult time, I would probably feel more inadequate and guilty for not having more faith.

But you notice in verses 25-26: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly 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.

Everyone’s chains were unfastened. Not just the ones praying and singing. But everyone.
Although it was only Paul and Silas who were praying and singing hymns, yet it was all the prisoners who were freed. Like somehow the faith of two was sufficient for the whole group. And we also see later that the faith of the jailer led to his entire household hearing the gospel and being saved too.
Sometimes you may wonder if you have enough faith, or if you have the right kind of faith, but something Nadia Bolz-Weber said makes a lot of sense:
“Faith is never given in sufficient quantities to individuals…it’s given in sufficient quantities to communities.”
– Nadia Bolz-Weber
Because faith isn’t an individual competition, it’s a team sport.
It’s not about whether I have more faith than you, or if your faith is better than mine.
God has provided in us all the faith sufficient for our freedom. Like a revised version of the story of the paralytic, we just have to take turns being the ones lowered through the roof to Jesus and being the ones doing the lowering.
There’s enough faith to go around. There’s enough love. There’s enough freedom.
We need to realize we can rely on the faith of others, the songs of others, the prayers of others. And we need to also become people that others can rely on. Can others rely on you — your faith, your songs, your prayers?

I reflected on my own life and whose faith, songs, and prayers I have relied on to get here. There are many people who have made a difference to my life. But one story I heard as a child remains etched in my memory.

My father has 12 siblings. My grandfather’s first wife died while giving birth to her sixth child — a girl. Due to cultural superstitions, the extended family considered this girl a jinx and insisted that she would bring bad luck to the family if she was not buried with her dead mother. That was a horrific custom and people were reacting out of fear.

The only reason my auntie survived was because a grandaunt stood up and spoke up for her. She said, “I am a Christian. I know I am a minority in this family but I don’t believe this baby girl is a jinx, and she does not bring bad luck. If no one will take her, I will take care of her and bring her up myself.”

My auntie stayed with this grandaunt’s family for a while, and eventually returned to her own family after a few years. Every time I think of this story, it gives me chills because I can’t imagine what would have happened to my auntie if this grandaunt didn’t speak up.

It was because of her faith that my grandaunt spoke up. She knew there was nothing to be afraid of – whether it was bad luck or being a minority voice. What she was sure about is that this baby girl is a beloved child of God. She had to do everything in her power to protect this young, innocent life. At that time, she probably thought she was just saving this baby’s life.

But the interesting thing is one person’s faith can often leave a heritage, even if you may not live to see it.

Both my parents didn’t come from Christian families. When I was younger, my parents identified as free thinkers. But over time, three quarters of my dad’s siblings and their families became Christians along the way, even that auntie who was saved as a baby. And it wasn’t because this grandaunt tried to convert everyone. In fact, she didn’t even try to share the gospel. She just let her actions and love speak for itself. Her family was known as that kind and generous Christian family.

When I was born, my parents decided to name me Pauline, after one of their friends. ‘Pauline’ means small and cute. But this name was originally not in my birth certificate because my grandfather objected to us having English names. But my whole extended family called me ‘Pauline’ anyway.

Later on, my mum and I became Christians around the same time, and then brought my siblings and dad to church. I decided to get baptized when I was 19, and I chose to keep ‘Pauline’ as my baptism name to honour my parent’s choice of name for me, and also because ‘Pauline’ is the female form of Paul. And I thought that was meaningful.

I didn’t know what plans God had for me but surely God knew. And perhaps my name was just God’s way of showing me that God truly knew me even when I was in my mother’s womb, and that God had wonderful plans for my life. And I know it’s true for you too. God knit you together in your mother’s womb and knew the plans for your life.

Every generation has something, someone, some people group we need to stand up for.
For a church that accepts and affirms the lgbtqia+ you may think it’s enough to just speak up for the lgbtqia+. After all, many of us are considered part of a minority group that is actively discriminated against. Whether it’s because you are a woman or identify as lgbtqia+ or a member of a minority race, you may experience discrimination in various ways.

But I want you to also be aware that each of us are complex intersectional beings. We may experience oppression in some ways but we are also privileged in many ways. For example, I am a woman and identify as lgbtq, and there are various ways I experience discrimination. However, I am also Chinese (which is the majority race in Singapore) and I have had opportunities to be relatively highly educated. That affords me some privileges that gives me access to certain arenas that someone of a different race or educational level has no access to. So let’s take a minute to look at our own lives and identity.

Question 3 (Open)
In what ways are you oppressed and in what ways are you privileged?

We are all complex intersectional beings. What this means is we cannot continue living solely under a “victim mentality” because our minority status is not everything that defines us. I must be careful here to say I’m not saying forget about your oppression or ignore how you are discriminated against. No, we must heal, speak up, resist and work towards a better world.

But I want us to appreciate the marvelous, complex, courageous, strong beings that we are. What defines us first and foremost, is that we are children of God – God’s beloved. And based on that foundation of love, we have been created to have a unique identity with a combination of strengths and weaknesses, and in this world, there are places where we are oppressed and places where we are privileged.

I am talking about our identity because faith is something we engage with all our hearts – with every part of who we are. Paul was a Jew who taught others about Jesus, and that made him a minority. During his time, some people viewed him with suspicion and disgust because they thought he belonged to a cult. But Paul was also a Roman citizen. He knew how to use this privilege to speak truth to power and participate in extending God’s kin-dom.

So the prison is shaken, the prisoners are released, and the jailer – who is himself also a prisoner but in a different way — finds a new way of living in the world. His household has a new song to sing. He and his family share a table of fellowship with the prisoners, and that is a picture of the kin-dom of God.

Faith leaves a heritage, even though we may not be able to anticipate the outcome. Paul and Silas didn’t know what their prayers and singing would lead to. And of course it wasn’t just their prayers and singing that led the jailer and his whole household to faith.

There was also the earthquake, the chains being loosened (and I think there were physical and metaphorical chains being loosened that day) as well as Paul and Silas’ thoughtful consideration for the jailer’s life.

My grandaunt’s action of saving my auntie as a baby wasn’t the only factor that led many of my extended family members to faith. Each person, each family experienced different things that came together to lead them to faith.

Salvation and transformation come through a combination of divine and human actions. But our one action might play a role in someone’s salvation or transformation.

“To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘prayer changes me and then I change things. ‘ – Oswald Chambers

So when you pray, are you ready to be involved in God’s answer to your prayer?

I know all this may sound a little daunting. But faith is not a competition between individuals. We are not meant to do it alone. It is a team sport. The writer of Hebrews tells us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith.

When we sing hymns or worship songs, we join our voices to those who have sung before us – Paul and Silas in prison and the early Christians in the upper room, the dessert fathers and mothers escaping persecution, the civil rights marchers who walked the path of faith and resistance so that every human being can live with dignity, and people like my grandaunt who spoke up for a helpless baby.

We may not realize it but there is so much prayer and faith surrounding us all the time and it has an impact on us in ways we don’t even know.

Question 4 (Word Cloud)
Who in your life has had an impact on your faith?
Was it an auntie, uncle, friend, teacher, parent, etc.? I want you to see that the people up there on the screen are not special saints. They are people like you and me. If you are a parent, aunt, teacher….you have the potential to make a difference in someone’s life.
Our heritage of faith involves the people who have gone before us, the people presently here with us, and the people whose lives we may potentially impact for generations to come because we choose to use our voices, our lives to speak up for and embody love and justice.

Our faith needs to be a wholehearted faith, not a fragmented one.
To love the Lord our God with all our hearts, bodies, minds, and souls.
Heart and mind. Body and soul.
Love that consumes and envelops the entire self.
No holding back. No fear.

We cannot live the life of faith half-heartedly.

When asked by a religious teacher to name the most important command of Scripture, Jesus quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, something the Jews were very familiar with. It’s a prayer called the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And Jesus then added an extra part to it, “And the second is like this: love your neighbour as yourself.”

To live out our faith wholeheartedly is to love.

Love God.
Love our neighbour.
Love ourselves.
Love our enemy.

We have the opportunity in this generation to stand up, speak up and embody love in the spheres that God calls us to. Prayer changes us and then we change things. Will you sing songs of freedom, songs of praise, songs of love, songs of liberation, songs that uplift another’s soul even in the darkest night?

Remember that we are not meant to do this alone. Paul and Silas had each other. Until the pandemic, I didn’t realize what joy it is to be able to hear another voice singing together with me in worship! I don’t know if you feel the same way but if I was Paul or Silas, hearing another voice singing in the dark would definitely strengthen my heart and uplift my soul.

Jesus knew that we needed one another for faith to be strong. That is why it is exactly what he prays for in one of his last public prayers. The Gospel reading today is of Jesus’ prayer at the end of his ministry on earth. It is the night of the last supper. Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples, washed their feet, given them a new commandment to love as he loves, and told them of his leaving. And then he prays.

John 17:20-22 (The Inclusive Bible)

I don’t pray for them alone (meaning the disciples).
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all may be one,
as you, Abba, are in me and I in you;
I pray that they may be one in us,
so that the world may believe that you sent me.

I have given them the glory you gave me
that they may be one, as we are one— I in them, you in me—
that they may be made perfect in unity.
Then the world will know that you sent me,
and that you loved them as you loved me.

Jesus prays to the Father not just for his disciples, but for those who will believe as a result of their testimony – that means us. Jesus is praying for us. I just want us to pause and consider that for a moment. You are surrounded by prayer – even Jesus prayed for you.

Jesus does not pray for our tolerance, our getting along, or just us being nice to each other. He does not even pray that our differences would be eliminated. Instead he prays for our oneness. He prays that we would be one as he and Abba are one so that our oneness would be the revelation of God’s presence to the world.

That does not mean, however, that we lose our identity or individuality. Remember your identity is very important! You are uniquely who you are for a reason. And we bring our whole selves — not our half-hearted fragmented selves – but our whole selves to the table. We practise a wholehearted faith.
Oneness is less about numbers and more about the quality of relationship. Jesus and the Father are one because they love and give themselves to each other. Oneness is a quality of life – God’s life. Jesus’ prayer for oneness is ultimately that we would be like God.
Oneness is not about eliminating differences. It is about love. Love is the only thing that can ever overcome division. That is why over and over, Jesus tells us to love with our whole hearts, minds and souls.
Love God.
Love your neighbor.
Love yourself.
Love your enemy.
Our love reveals God’s presence in the world. We can practise a wholehearted faith because God has given us enough faith as a community so we can take turns lowering each other down to Jesus. We are blessed with a rich heritage of faith — those who have gone before us, the faith that exists now between us, and the faith that we leave to generations after us.

Today, we will be closing with a song. It’s an old song called ‘Find Us Faithful’. I first heard it when I was a student and I found it quite moving and inspiring at that time. Yesterday, I was listening to this song on repeat and I started tearing. The two emotions that I felt were gratitude and motivation. Gratitude that you and I are not doing this alone.
We are where we are because of the prayers and faith of many – some of whom we know and some of whom we don’t. Motivation because in the same way that others have prayed for us and loved us, I pray that our faith, prayers and songs will do the same for others who come behind us.
O may all who come behind us
Find us faithful,
May the fire of our devotion
Light their way.
May the footprints that we leave,
Lead them to believe,
And the lives we live
Inspire them to obey.
O may all who come behind us
Find us faithful.