Changing Allegiance in Philippi

Acts 16:16-34

I Pledge Allegiance

Did anyone else begin their school day with these words? “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

When I was older, I made a different kind of vow to my wife, one that ended with these words: “And thereto I pledge thee my faith.”

When I was older still, I took one more oath. “I, (state your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

True Faith and Allegiance

One of the most interesting books that I’ve read in the last few years was written by Matthew Bates and entitled Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates argues that Greek word most often translated as “faith” in the New Testament really ought to be translated as “allegiance”. He presents some compelling evidence from Greek literature to back that up.

Faith, he says, is not just belief and he is certainly correct there. Faith, as it is used in the New Testament, involves believing the gospel to be true, but it is not a mere opinion about facts. Neither is faith the same as feelings or experiences, although our faith can create powerful feelings as we live in it.

Before I read Bates, I had settled on “trust” as the closest synonym for faith. Faith is like trusting the doctor enough to take the medicine or undergo the surgery. Faith is entrusting your entire life to Jesus.

But I think Bates may be on to something. Faith is a kind of belief and trust, but it is also a kind of allegiance. Commitment. Loyalty. Faithfulness. One of the main themes of the New Testament is fidelity in persecution. In facing opposition to God’s kingdom, the way of faith is the way of faithfulness. Faith is taking up one’s cross and following the master wherever he leads.

To become a Christian, then, requires a shift in allegiances. In Acts 16, Luke tells us about a Roman jailer who changed  his allegiances in a most surprising way.

A Roman Colony

Philippi, where this story takes place, was the first city Paul visited after entering Europe from Asia and the Book of Acts correctly identifies it a Roman colony.

Philippi was, in fact, a very Roman town in every way, perhaps the most Roman town outside the Italian peninsula. You can see evidence of Philippi’s Roman identity in the remains of the Ancient Greek city. Over 80 percent of its inscriptions are in Latin, not Greek, a far higher percentage than any other colonial town.

How did Philippi, some 800 miles from the city of Rome and located in the Greek speaking fringe of Europe, come to be so thoroughly Roman?

In 42 BC, a civil war raged between the conspirators who murdered Julius Caesar and the man who would later be known as Augustus Caesar. The decisive battle took place near Philippi, and Augustus emerged as the victor. Augustus gave the city to his soldiers as a place to live in their retirement.

In Rome, when soldiers retired, they did not receive a life-long pension. They received land. There are many cities dotted across the Roman world that were established as homes for former soldiers.

Over time, the town was given the legal status of an actual Roman city. Philippi was not just under Roman rule or influenced by Roman culture, it was a little bit of Rome itself. So even though Philippi was located far from the city of Rome, it always saw itself as more Roman than Greek. Philippi was Rome away from Rome, a Roman colony with deep military roots.

Roman Patriotism

Since we’ve been talking about faith as allegiance or loyalty, you probably know that Rome took loyalty very seriously. We might call it patriotism, except the Roman version of patriotism was filled with idolatry. Good citizens were expected to offer sacrifices to the gods to maintain the empire. Caesar himself was regarded as a son of a god. Roman soldiers had their own pantheon of gods that they honored in their ceremonies. Anything – any act, speech, or behavior – that undermined a Roman’s undivided loyalty was unpardonable.

A Soldier’s Oath

I mentioned that I took an oath when I became an officer in the Army. It’s the same oath that all officers and public officials take in the United States.

Roman soldiers also took an oath. It’s likely that the jailer, as a public official in a Roman soldier town, was himself a soldier retired from the field.

As I pledged my loyalty to the constitution, Roman soldiers pledged their loyalty to Caesar. As I pledged conditional loyalty to one nation under God, they pledged unconditional loyalty to Caesar as a god.

They pledged their loyalty at the cost of their lives. Violations of the soldier’s oath were punishable by death. There was no higher loyalty expected of a soldier than loyalty to Caesar, and in Philippi this was especially true.

In Latin, the soldier’s oath was known as a “Sacramentum”. Does that word sound familiar? It’s the same word that Latin-speaking Christians used to describe the ritual of baptism. Those early Christians understood that, like the soldier’s oath, the sacrament of baptism is a pledge of loyalty with life and death consequences.

Competing Loyalties

For Christians, there is no allegiance greater or higher than allegiance to the triune God.

When I became a Christian, there were some loyalties that I needed to abandon completely. In baptism, for example, I turned my back on Satan, and all his servants, and all his works.

Other allegiances need to be reordered and put in their place. I pledged to be faithful to my wife when I married. I took an oath as a soldier and a voter and a potential juror. I owe a debt of loyalty to my community, my neighbors and my family. All these subordinate allegiances must all fall in place under the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The Jailer is Baptized

The Romans, however, were not big on subtleties. You were either all-in for Rome, or you were a problem.

So, imagine then, that you are the jailer in Philippi. How deeply are you invested in maintaining the status quo? It’s hard to change your allegiances. They are deeply ingrained. They seem as natural as breathing.

You live in one the most pro-Roman towns in the empire and it’s all you’ve ever known. Your neighbors and your friends all think like Romans, talk like Romans and act like Romans.

You offer sacrifices to the gods of Rome and you always have. You fought and bled and watched friends die in Rome’s wars. You’ve knelt before the Roman standard and you’ve paid homage to the emperor. You’ve sworn to defend Rome with your very life.

But you also know the fear of serving Rome, the shame, dishonor and punishment awaiting those who fail to do their duty. Those who live by the sword can indeed die by the sword.

Your roots are so deep in the empire that you now enforce Rome’s power by torturing its enemies.

Paul and his companions, who are sitting in your prison, are enemies of Caesar, and you spent the better part of yesterday causing them great pain. With their backs still bleeding from the whip, you fastened them to a tree, contorting their bodies in agony. You locked them in a hot, dark, airless cave where they sat motionless in their own filth.

But now, overnight, you’ve also seen and heard Paul’s faith – his joy in worship, his confidence in God and his unwavering allegiance to Jesus in the face of the suffering and injustice.

You’ve seen how God saved Paul from your instruments of torture by literally shaking the foundations of your entire existence. To the jailer, this must surely have been a sign that God approved of Paul and his message.

And so, you listened to Paul as he told you the story of Jesus, how Jesus was unjustly tortured, sentenced to death and nailed to a tree, how God raised him from the dead, how he ascended to reign at God’s right hand in heaven, and how he will come again to judge the living and the dead. And, what’s more, Paul explained to you how God offers forgiveness to all who turn to the Lord in trust and allegiance, even to God’s enemies, even to those who tortured God’s people.

What is going through your mind? To become a Christian is something much more than changing your religious opinions. It’s even more than risking your life as a supposed traitor to Rome.

It’s being willing to examine and change everything – everything you know or think you know about how life is supposed to be –every value and belief – every commitment and social relationship – everything that makes you who you are today.

The Roman jailer was going to kill himself because he was afraid of what might happen to him if he failed to secure the prisoners. What would happen to him if he pledged his allegiance to Christ in baptism?

What would happen to him and his family if he affiliated with Paul and Timothy and Silas and all the other members of this suspicious assembly?

What can give a person the courage to make this kind of change? To disrupt one’s life like that? Only God can make this kind of transformation in in a person’s life.

In the name of Christ, Paul promised the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

And somehow, in Paul’s telling of the gospel story, God worked a miracle of faith. Trusting in Christ, the jailer changed his allegiances. He made a different kind of Sacramentum pledge to a different kind of king, one crucified by Rome, risen from the dead and enthroned in heaven.

The jailer washed Paul’s wounds, and then Paul washed his. The jailer and his family were baptized, communed, and filled with the joy of the Lord. This is the work of God. God did it.

God’s Power to Save

We should always be clear that saving faith is not merely a human achievement. It’s not that we are smart enough to believe the right things, spiritual enough to have the right experiences, or courageous enough to trust God fully.

The jailer’s faith, your faith, my faith, is as big a miracle as the opening of prison doors or the driving out of demons. It is all a miracle. A wonder. A mystery.

God is changing and reordering our loyalties. That can begin in a moment,  but it unfolds over a lifetime. It takes a lot of work for God to untangle all the ways that we are bound in unholy and unhealthy allegiances to the world, the flesh and the devil.

God sometimes redirects our allegiances, as he did for the jailer, by shaking the foundations of our world. But God also reorders our lives in ways suggested by Paul’s accusers.

The Church’s Strange Customs

Remember, Paul was accused of advocating foreign customs, and of that Paul was surely guilty. Like every other social group, we Christians have customs that are foreign to the people of the world. Southerners eat grits; Yankees think that’s gross. Minnesotans eat lutefisk; everyone thinks that’s gross. Christians eat bread and wine they say is the body and blood of Jesus. Romans definitely thought that was gross.

Our ways and our language are strange to outsiders, and subject to frequent misunderstanding. Every Sunday, we come to places like this to recite the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. We sing songs that sound different than those you hear on the radio. We read strange stories from this strange book. We gather together to pray, and we find ways to serve. We gather around this table with invisible angels and archangels the whole company of heaven. We bring outsiders to the baptismal font to unite them to Christ in faith – in trust and allegiance – and to make them one of us. That is what citizens of God’s kingdom do.

Our rituals and practices, our ways of speaking and seeing the world, our culture and language, all these things shape our identity in Christ. Just as reciting the pledge of allegiance helped me think of myself as an American and helped me know what it means to be an American, so the means of grace help me think of myself as a Christian and help me know what it means to be a Christian.

In baptism, God made us citizens and subjects of his kingdom. For Christians, baptism is like the naturalization ceremony by which immigrants become citizens of the United States. And in baptism, we pledge our faith and loyalty to the triune God and his kingdom.

In ways both large and small, God continues to realign and reprioritize our allegiances. I don’t think God is finished with me yet, so this morning I’m going to confess my faith one more time and come to the table expecting God to strengthen my faith, that I might become a more loyal subject of Christ and his kingdom.