a reflection on one of the readings from this past Sunday, Acts 16:16-34
“Wherever Paul went, there were earthquakes: the Roman world, and communities and individuals within it, were turned upside down by the power of Jesus’ name.” (N.T. Wright)
s you read through this passage from the Book of Acts, with its retelling of two apparently miraculous events packed into less than twenty verses, it might have be tempting to think something like, “well, that is the sort of stuff you read in the bible; the sort of stuff that might have happened back then… but it seems a whole different world from ours.” And it is, in many respects, a different world – a different landscape – but enter this biblical landscape with me, and see what it might tell us about the world in which we live.
Paul and his travelling companion Silas have arrived in Philippi, a predominantly Gentile city in the northern part of Greece. They are now very much engaged in ministry and mission to Gentiles; the sense of this Jesus movement being limited to Jews has really disappeared for these men.
On their way to the place of prayer – probably a local synagogue – they pass through the marketplace, where they come across a lucrative little business; a slave girl who has what the writer identifies as a “spirit of divination” is bringing some serious coin into the pockets of her owners. As they pass by, she cries out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ Notice the words: this young woman, herself a slave both to her owners and to this spirit, calls Paul and Silas “slaves of the Most High.” There’s the first sign of the upside down character of all that will follow.
This continues for several days, until Paul finally responds. Now, the New Revised Standard Version says that Paul was “very much annoyed,” which doesn’t seem the most Christian of sentiments. Maybe he was annoyed; maybe he’s trying to build some credibility as they do this mission work, and every time he and Silas are in the public square this young woman raises their profile in a way that is socially awkward? Other translations have used the term “grieved” rather than “annoyed,” allowing Larry Woiwode to suggest that Paul’s “grief is based on the understanding that the spirit has become the young woman’s personality and that the departure will not be peaceful, for spirits are known to ‘tear’ their victims.” (Larry Woiwode, Acts, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) Maybe that is what was behind Paul’s initial reticence to act.
Whatever the case, when he does act, it is decisive: “‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
And now the trouble really begins. As Woiwode says, “The gospel affects pocketbooks.” Or from William Willimon:
Here is a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of demon possession, and now she is free; there ought to be rejoicing. But no, her owners are not free enough to do that. It was fine to give a dollar to the Mental Health Association drive last fall, but this is another matter. Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here, and so her owners do what they vested interests always do when their interests are threatened. (William Willimon, Acts, John Knox Press, 1988)
Paul and Silas are hauled before the magistrates, charged with disturbing the peace, being troublesome Jews, and advocates of practices not in keeping with good Roman religious life. It is a kind of kangaroo court, which gives them nothing like a fair hearing. The crowd gets worked up, the two are declared guilty and are beaten and imprisoned. The price of this slave girl being liberated is the imprisonment of her liberators.
But Paul and Silas can’t be truly imprisoned, or at least not in any way that changes or does anything, because they were already “slaves of the Most High,” and in that is a freedom that chains and bars can’t touch. And that is something that Christians under persecution have experienced again and again over the centuries.
But in this case the meaningless character of bars and chains is unveiled in a vivid way. In the middle of the night, as Paul and Silas pray and sing in that dark and dank place, the earth moves and the chains drop to the floor. The jailor, realizing that the escape of prisoners entrusted to him will cost him his own life, is about to throw himself on his own sword – and again, in a world that would evoke such a desperate suicide, ask yourself ‘who is free and who is captive’ – when Paul cries out. ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ All of us. Not just Paul and Silas, but the others who were being held in that place for whatever reason, and who had been listening to Paul and Silas pray and sing. In the dark of the night, they too had learned something about bars and chains and freedom.
“The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” – what must I do to be that free? – “They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”
And that night, the jailor is made free. He bathes the wounds of Paul and Silas, and in turn he is bathed; he is baptized along with his family, and is set free on the Way. As his household rejoices in this new way that he has found, the jailor provides for them a meal; and how often in this biblical tradition is that the defining act? If not literally a communion of bread and wine, it is hard to see it as not having a communion-like impact of binding them together.
Well, the morning comes and Paul and Silas are released (with the rather disturbing news being delivered to the magistrates that they are actually Roman citizens…), and they are on their way. And wherever they go, there are more earthquakes, at least figuratively. Wherever they go, things are turned upside down by the power of Jesus’ name. Those who were thought to be free are shown to be captive, and those who are enchained are set free.
We never hear of that jailor again, or of that young slave girl. They are both profoundly free now, yet their freedom is found as “slaves of the Most High God.” Where did that take them, in a society that had defined their roles and their identities as cogs in an economic and social system that understood nothing of the sort of truth of which Jesus had spoken when he said “The truth shall set you free?”
For Jesus himself, it had led to the cross. For Paul, it ended in martyrdom in Rome. For these two from Philippi? Who knows? Yet maybe the extraordinary liberty they experienced in those days was enough to keep them putting one foot in front of another along the Way.
What of the others in the story? What of those men, who had made a tidy profit off of the spiritual captivity of that young slave girl? Did they just find another person to turn into a source of income, and perpetuate a way of life built around captivity and business as usual?
And having moved for these few minutes into the strange landscape of the biblical witness, do we know anything new about our own captivities, our own freedoms, and our own deep need to be out on the Way? I suspect that our captivities often have something to do with our pocketbooks – money dominates the imaginations of twenty-first century people at least as much as it did those of the first century – and that our freedom will not be found in a secure pension plan and a solid investment portfolio.
In this world of ours which wants us to believe that if we just manage things right we’ll make it on our own steam, the very idea of being a slave sounds repugnant, but if we pay attention to what is being proclaimed in the Book of Acts, the word “slave” is utterly reframed. Paradoxically, to be “slaves of the Most High God” is the very thing that will make us free.