Sermon for the seventh Sunday in Eastertide
It is the seventh and final Sunday in Eastertide, and once again we have before us a text drawn from the Acts of the Apostles. With its fortune-telling, spirit-possessed slave girl and a midnight earthquake that unfastens chains and opens jail doors, it appears at first glance to come from a world utterly unlike our own. Yet look again, and you realize that it is more than a just wondrous story from a world long past…
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As you might recall, last Sunday’s reading from Acts told of Paul’s dream, in which “there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Along with Silas, Paul has gone straight to the Macedonian city of Philippi, where he meets not a “man of Macedonia,” but rather Lydia, a merchant woman who is so taken by Paul’s words that she is immediately baptized. On Lydia’s insistence, Paul and Silas have taken up residence in her home, and it is as they walk between her house and the place of prayer that they keep encountering this slave girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” This is the set-up for all that follows.
Each day as they pass by this young woman, she trails after them and cries out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Notice the wording here: These men are slaves—it takes one to know one—yet not enslaved in the soul-destroying way that she is.
“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.’” Paul does this because he’s annoyed? That’s the unvarnished translation, and maybe it says something about the unvarnished Paul. Busily going about what he thinks is his mission there in Philippi—maybe still madly in search of that “man from Macedonia”—day after day he’s just walked past this young woman. There’s not a hint in the text that he felt compassion for her; just annoyance. As is typical of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the hero of the story is not prettied up for the benefit of the pious reader. He’s just annoyed.
“And the spirit came out of her that very hour,” which is where the trouble really begins. “[W]hen 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.” “Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here,” writes William Willimon. Or as the novelist Larry Woiwode rather more bluntly states, “The gospel affects pocketbooks.”
Standing before the magistrates, the girl’s owners try to make their case sound less like sour grapes over losing their income stream and more like an appeal for the common good: “These men are disturbing our city,” they say, “they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Right… and these slave-owners are just defenders of good order, and of Roman culture and religion…
Do you hear the prejudices that are at work here? The “us and them” posturing that might just sound all too familiar to modern ears? And it all only surfaces at the point at which their source of income is compromised. It isn’t just the slave-owners, either, for according to the text, “The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.” Others joined in, maybe because they feared that in losing a fortune-teller they’d lost an inside line on their own future? Now how am I going to chose my lottery numbers?
For the sake of public order, the magistrates are only too happy to have Paul and Silas beaten. Such public displays of harsh discipline serve an important function in keeping a population happily in line; such scapegoats fill an important role in public management. And then it is off to jail with these two, until a decision is made about what to do next.
“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…” Their chains fall from them, the doors of the prison cells spring open, and their jailor is sure that his prisoners have all escaped. In an act fitting in Roman imperial honour culture, he has no choice but to take his own life… but wait! “And Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’” “Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” As Bishop Stephen Neill once suggested, the real force of the jailor’s question might best be heard in terms of, “Gentlemen, will you please tell me how to get out of this mess?”
They give to him the only answer they have, which is to tell him to believe in Jesus. It might not repair his jail or save his reputation and honour, but it is the one thing he needs to do. He takes Paul and Silas to his home, and there he tends to their wounds and then along with his whole household he is baptized. I like how the commentator Brian Peterson summarizes the whole scene.
Just as Lydia’s life was changed by the gospel, so too is the life of this jailer. He washes the wounds of Paul and Silas, and he becomes their host. The call to faith in verse 31 and the rejoicing over faith in verse 34 frame a scene in which we find the Word of the Lord being spoken, service to others, baptism, and sharing a meal. This is a picture of the church’s life, which the jailer has now entered by faith.
Word, servant-hood (in the context of hospitality, no less), baptism, and the sharing of a meal that might well have included the Eucharistic sharing of bread and wine; this is a clear picture not only of the church as it was being planted in Philippi, but also of the church as it must be in our own day. We may be about other things as well, but if these four are not at the heart of our common life everything else is little more than practices of church culture and custom.
Now, had we read on just a few more verses, we would have seen that when the morning came Paul and Silas were again summoned before the magistrates, and that for the first time Paul discloses that he holds Roman citizenship. This causes some anxiety for those magistrates, who actually go to Paul and Silas and offer them an apology, after which “they took them out and asked them to leave the city.” Before they do leave, though, Paul and Silas pay a visit to Lydia’s household, and here Brian Peterson notes that, “If the magistrates felt any relief at Paul’s departure, it was premature and mistaken. The church remains, serving and proclaiming the risen Jesus as Lord, and the world will not go back to the way it was.”
One remaining thing still troubles me, namely the fate of that slave girl. Yes, she’s been freed from her spiritual enslavement, but she remains the property of her resentful owners. I would like to imagine that Lydia caught wind of the girl’s plight—perhaps even purchased her from her owners and freed her—and through Word, servant-hood, baptism, and the sharing of table, introduced her to the fullness of the meaning of the “way of salvation” she’d recognized as Paul and Silas had passed her in the marketplace. For our own part, we may not be able to call up earthquakes that shake open prison doors, but in the sharing of Word, servant-hood, baptism, and table, we can embody something both deeply liberating and, in its own way, earth-shaking.