Acts 16:16 – 34
May 29, 2022
At this time of the year, the Sundays after Easter, our lectionary does not offer a reading from the OT- Hebrew scriptures, but rather from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is the account of the early church growing and facing the challenge of just what sort of church it would be. Would it remain a splinter group, a sect with Judaism or is the gospel for gentiles as well. That is… us. Of course the Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul now known as Paul, carried the day on that discussion and so the Christian faith leapt over all sorts of barriers to become a universal religion for all peoples and all nations.
We did not draw attention to it last week but there was a momentous shift, a huge epoch changing event buried in last week’s reading from Acts. What we are reading today is the continuing story of the first time the Christian gospel is proclaimed by Paul upon European soil. Sometimes hear criticism that the missionaries brought a European based faith to many other cultures and imposed it. Could well be true and last week and today we are looking at where all that Eurocentricity began. Look at map on screen. At Philippi, a significant city in Macedonia, now Greece.
In Europe Christian faith began as an urban faith and the Church is coming to terms with the notion that maybe they needed some language and ways of talking about the Christian faith that did not assume the hearers were pastorally or t least rural based and familiar with the Jewish religion. The old example we trotted out when discussing this point as fresh faced theological students, How do you speaks of Jesus as the Lamb of God to an Eskimo who has never seen a sheep. And just for information the other big discussion when I was still a theological student… could you celebrate communion with a pie and can of coke. The everyday food and drink of the common person or are we dealing with the items from a particular sacred meal embedded in Judaism?
And so we find ourselves in Phillipi. Paul and his friends had been in Philippi for days before this incident preaching this new message. Up to now no-one seems to be getting too upset. In fact the most distressed person is none other than Paul, exasperated by this persistent girl slave who has a spirit within her that enables her to tell the future. And this slave in turn calls Paul a slave, but a slave of the most High God who are proclaiming a way of salvation. So two slaves.
She is an economic unit for someone.
We in our naivety often think slavery was abolished when legislation was passed in Britain in 1807 to abolish the slave trade but that was just trading in slaves. It was not until 1833 that the owning of slaves itself was outlawed (except in India and a few other places). Again there was a loophole as Britain was still trading in goods produced with slave labour. And it was not until December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States. Do you realise this is only 157 years ago!
But slavery continues in the modern world.
Girl is an economic unit for someone.
And that is the real problem isn’t it. He has cut at the heart of the economic security of the slave owner. The Christian faith can say or do what it likes, but it can’t do that. The people of Philippi it seems were happy enough to have Paul preaching some spiritual message, but when it threatened to change the economic balance he had gone over some line, was arrested, beaten and thrown into jail
Still today business is more than happy to have religion operating, caring for the poor, providing welfare, binding up the broken hearted…just so long as religion does not stray into what it considers to be its sacred zone of wealth generation. I think it was Oscar Romero the Archbishop from El Salvador who said people call me a saint when I feed the poor and hungry but when I ask why are they poor and hungry they call me a communist. Christians will always have trouble identifying the part of life that God is not interested in and that is out of bounds for the church to comment on.
Todays readings also bring up the idea of freedom. The person who is truly free is uncontrollable.
Think about that in regard to the cast of characters in today’s reading, where is freedom for each of them, and as you do so, think about where freedom is for you. The slave girl, physically “owned” by another human being! How weird to put it like that, as if one human being could own another. Owned by another and reduced to an economic unit! Formally outlawed only 200 year ago due in large measure to the outrage of Christian individuals at this violation of the image of the divine that every human bears, not matter how sullied, still exists in today’s world. And even here in Melb there are those kept in sexual economic slavery.
It is a pity the book of Acts either doesn’t know or care what happened to this girl after events move on. When exorcised by Paul, she disappears from the story as if she did not exist. Just a slave girl after all…
The slave owner, is he free? If you cannot rejoice in the liberation of another human being, in whatever form that takes are you free? If you cannot feel the joy of achievement of another, or if their exploitation benefits you, are you truly free to grow into your God given dignity? What about the jailer who is about to take his own life because one he is responsible for keeping incarcerated is now free. He is the keeper of the keys of the prison but is he free?
The Christian gospel was first proclaimed in terms of freedom/liberation, Jesus came “proclaiming release to the captives” – captives of all that ensnares and distorts the divine image that each of us bear, even if a little sullied in most of our lives! Captives of the powers that gather in force to hold us down – identified in the New Testament as Law, sin, Satan and death, We would add our own understanding of these of crippling forces – addiction, guilt, discrimination, physical and psychological entrapment.
Salvation is declared to have come among us and is proclaimed as nothing less than the slashing of the chains that bind and distort our humanity. God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves – won our freedom. Resurrection is to stand up, stand again, “Anastatis” lift your drooping hands, strengthen your quivering legs for Christ is raised and your liberation is at hand. “For Freedom Christ has set you free” was Paul’s catch cry and the church has always understood this in both the political/ social terms and the personal existential spiritual sense. when the Philippian jailer said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ what he really meant was, ‘Gentlemen, will you please tell me how to get out of this mess?’ That is a very important Lukan point, because for Luke ‘salvation’ is never, as we say, ‘purely spiritual’, but is always about a rescue which is both earthly and heavenly.)
Did you get the emphasis here?, not just Christ has set you free, but “for freedom, Christ has set you free”. Our lives are a matter of how we grow into, or do not grow into, the freedom that been bestowed upon us.
Freedom always needs two elements – freedom from and freedom for. What are we freed for, what do we do with our freedom?
Reading again about Paul and Silas singing in prison, being free and raising a song of praise and hope. The point being of course that although you can imprison the person, the body, no way can you imprison the spirit or the gospel itself. Who was the freer I was left wondering. And more importantly – and the key questions for Christians, For what am I given my freedom, what have I chosen to do with the gift of freedom that Christ has bestowed upon me? Who else is blessed because I have been so blessed? Who benefits from your freedom, resources, gifts, abilities?
Freedom only comes when you have a story, a cause, a friend and a Lord who will let you sing in prison. But to sing in prison, it is probably not going to be the first time you have sung this song. You have got to have sung it many times outside of prison, sung it so often it has seeped into your bones and psyche and become you. Then, when you need the song, in whatever circumstances you find yourself, the song will come, and you will again find yourself liberated into the freedom that only Jesus Christ can give.