Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 29th of May, 2022
‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’
In today’s reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles Paul and Silas, and possibly the author Luke, are still in Macedonia, beginning their mission to Europe. Last week we heard the story of the first person they baptised in Macedonia, a dealer in purple cloth called Lydia. This week we hear of a further conversion and some baptisms, in a story that raises the questions: What does it mean to be saved? What are people being saved from or for?
At the beginning of today’s story, we are told that for many days Paul and Silas have been followed by a slave girl who has a spirit of prophecy that enables her to recognise them and who announces their identity to everyone around them. She is a slave to her masters and to the spirit that enables her to see the future. She recognises them as fellow slaves, but slaves to a higher spirit, the ‘Most High God’. She also recognises that, like her, they can proclaim a way of salvation to the people of Philippi. Undoubtedly many people who had sought the advice of the spirit within her had asked the very question that the jailer later asks Paul and Silas: ‘what must I do to be saved,’ and had been told how to avoid a difficult situation or to make the best of a promising one. The Spirit who guides Paul and Silas gives advice that is both similar and profoundly different.
For a while Paul allows this to continue, possibly even appreciating the publicity, until one day he finally gets ‘very much annoyed’ and exorcises the spirit. The fact that an exorcism works suggests that the spirit of divination within the girl was demonic, which raises the question of why Paul waited so many days before the exorcism. When he does finally call on the spirit to come out of the girl, does he only do so out of exasperation rather than compassion for a girl who is possessed? Does he leave the girl with her owners, no longer possessed but still a possession? Paul does not come out of this snippet of the story particularly well.
Whatever Paul’s motivation, this is a story about God liberating the oppressed. The slave girl has a spirit that enables her to tell the future, a spirit like the one that gave the prophetesses at the Delphi Oracle their power. This spirit knew its stuff because it recognised who Paul and Silas were – slaves of the Most High God. Paul, Silas, and the girl are all slaves, but their masters are vastly different. The slave girl is being exploited by owners who make a great deal of money out of her gift or curse. There are many girls like her in the world today: girls trafficked into sex slavery; the people who make our clothes in sweatshops; international students earning much less than the minimum wage; the child beggars in developing countries who are forced to beg on the streets by dealers who then take their money. When Paul exorcises the prophetic spirit, the girl is no longer able to be exploited in this way. Her owners are now unable to use her to bring them wealth. They can no longer possess their possession in the same way. Whatever else happens to her, she has been saved from being used as a demonic vessel.
It is typical of Luke, whose version of the gospel is full of Jesus’ concern for the poor, that he is concerned about the way in which people use their possessions. To use a slave to make yourself rich is, in Luke’s eyes, an obvious misuse. To our eyes, the very fact of having a slave is a misuse, but the Roman Empire was a slave-owning society. We can have a sense of what Luke is saying if we think about the situation of too many hospitality workers. It is not wrong to hire people to work in cafes and restaurants. It is wrong, in fact in Victoria it is now the crime of wage theft, to pay them less than the minimum wage. In the same way, Luke might say, it is not wrong to have a slave girl. It is wrong to use that slave girl to make yourself rich. Paul’s exorcism has now put an end to that misuse.
Naturally, the girl’s owners are not particularly happy about the situation. They complain to the magistrates: ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ Note what they do not say. They do not say: we had a valuable slave girl and these men have reduced the value of our property. Instead, they accuse Paul and Silas of political subversion, with a nice bit of anti-Semitism added in. They could have brought a case under Roman property law for the loss of the value of the slave, but instead they accuse these Jews of sedition. It is a reminder for churches that whenever we try to improve the economic life of the most vulnerable we are going to be accused of straying from our lane into politics. As Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop, said: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’
The anti-Semitism of the slave girl’s owners works, as sadly it so often does. The crowd joins in the attack, and the magistrates, to pander to them, have Paul and Silas flogged and imprisoned. (This will come back to bite them when they later find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens; Luke tells us: ‘they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them’. That is what the judiciary gets for pandering to the anti-Semitism of crowds!) Paul and Silas are locked into the most secure part of the prison, in ‘the innermost cell’ with their feet fastened into the stocks. They are there at the darkest part of the night, ‘about midnight’. And yet they have the courage and faith to sing hymns. It is while they are doing this that an earthquake miraculously frees them. This good news seems to the jailer, when he wakes up and discovers it, to be appalling news. If the authorities were willing to beat and imprison Paul and Silas because of the cries of an unruly mob, what would they do to the jailer whose failure allowed them to escape? Suicide obviously seemed quicker and cleaner to the jailer in comparison with what the authorities might do to him.
Except that the prisoners had not ‘escaped’ when their chains fell off. It turns out that those held in the innermost cell in darkness and chains had already been free, and it was the man who put them there who had been imprisoned. So when the jailer discovers that the prisoners have not fled, he falls down trembling before Paul and Silas, asking, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ Most likely, he means, how can I get out of this situation? How can I escape the wrath of the authorities? These are the sorts of questions that residents of Philippi would have brought to the spirit of divination in the slave girl, paying her owners handsomely for answers. But the ‘slaves of the Most High God’ provide an answer on a different level, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’.
Is this a helpful answer? When I think of the things from which I want to be saved, I think first of the depression that I can only manage with difficulty, expensive medication, and a great deal of help from a GP and psychologist. ‘Believing on the Lord Jesus’ has not cured my mental illness. Then I think about the world in which we live, a world in which the rich grow richer and the poor poorer; a world in which the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and children and teachers in the USA are massacred in their classrooms. Has believing on the Lord Jesus protected anyone from covid19? If Christians proffer ‘faith’ as an answer to the everyday issues that people face, we will rightfully be ignored.
Yet the answer Paul and Silas offer the jailer, their description of the words of Jesus, does bring liberation, his and theirs. He washes their wounds, brings them into his house, and sets food before them. Like Lydia before him, he offers them hospitality. They tell him of Jesus, and baptise him and all his household. The prisoners are now guests; the jailer who was so worried about his job that he was going to kill himself is now their brother and host. They are all now one, as Jesus and his Father are one. In Philippi there is no longer Jew (Paul and Silas) or Greek (Lydia, the slave girl and the jailer); there is no longer slave (the slave girl, Paul and Silas) or free (Lydia and the jailer); there is no longer male (Paul, Silas, and the jailer) and female (Lydia and the slave girl); for all of them have become one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28) As the church is born in Philippi it demonstrates the unity for which Jesus prayed on the last night of his life.
Jesus’ prayer helps illuminate why Paul and Silas can tell the jailer ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’. The salvation offered by Jesus does not instantly make everything in our life wonderful. It does not mean that we will not find ourselves in the same situation as Paul and Silas, imprisoned in the darkness. What it does mean is that if we do find ourselves there, we can be certain that we are not there alone. Jesus told his Father, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me’. When Jesus said this the glory that God had given him was about to be demonstrated on the cross. God’s love does not save us from suffering. God’s love does, however, accompany us as we suffer. God suffers with us. Nothing in our lives is meaningless, because everything we are and everything we experience is taken up by God into that union between Father and Son that is love. That is the salvation that comes from believing on the Lord Jesus, the certainty that we have not been left alone.
There is one last point I want to make. In the first part of today’s story one of the major characters is a slave girl and, as I have said, Luke’s concern is with her exploitation, not with the fact that she is a slave. She ends the story free of possession, but presumably still enslaved. Because the various authors of the Bible took slavery for granted, it took the church centuries to realise that slavery was wrong, completely contrary to God’s vision for humanity. But, as I quoted Martin Luther King saying a couple of weeks ago when we baptised Sophia, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ The church did eventually realise that slavery was wrong, and after two centuries of advocacy by Christians it was finally made illegal. Whenever we find ourselves tired and frustrated by injustice in the world, we need to remember the story of the campaign against slavery. It may take centuries, but justice will defeat injustice. We know that, because the Most High God is on the side of justice. Thanks be to God. Amen.