Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter June 2, 2019
In this season of Easter we have been listening to readings from the book of Acts. There is never a dull moment as we read of the apostles telling people about Jesus. Last week we heard the head apostle Paul ready to set out on a missionary journey—itinerary planned, bags all packed, when the spirit of Jesus said ‘no’. Paul had his vision of a man from Macedonia, over in Greece make the urgent plea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul and his assistant, Silas, ended up in the important city of Philippi. This would appear to be a difficult challenge because the city was a Roman colony, filled with high-ranking army officers and other officials fiercely loyal to the Roman Empire and Emperor. No doubt there would have been statues of Roman gods and goddesses all over the city. Things would not look promising for preaching about Jesus. But what looks impossible for people is possible with God. Last week we heard of Paul speaking the gospel to a woman named Lydia. The Holy Spirit opened her heart and mind to listen to Paul. She heard the good news of Jesus who welcomes sinners and doe s not condemn them, she heard the good news of the forgiveness of sins. She heard the good news of God’s love so radical that nothing in all the world could change or cancel that love. The Holy Spirit used the gospel of Jesus to bring about faith in Lydia’s life and she became a Christian. She was baptized, along with her household and now you had the nucleus of a church, a fellowship of the baptized and saved meeting in Lydia’s home.
In our reading today, Paul and Silas are in, you could say, in the Lion’s den, in the thick of the city of Philippi, Roman colony, propaganda all over the place promoting Roman religion and boasting of Roman power in the world. As they were minding their own business, heading for a place of prayer, they come in contact with a slave girl. She had a spirit of divination—she was a fortune teller. She was a gold mine for her owners. Wealthy Roman citizens wanted to know if their fortunes would last, and what was to happen in the world. It was good business. This was not an act put on by the slave girl, she was possessed by a spirit, perhaps speaking through her. She kept following Paul around the city, and she wasn’t quiet. With a loud voice she cried out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She was impossible to ignore. She would not go away. After so many days Paul was getting fed up. Although her message about the Most High God would sound good, Paul did not need someone to yell that—such screaming would cause folks to scram. Paul did not need a side-show. Paul sought to engage with people and share the gospel in a quiet, respectful manner. Paul was annoyed about this ‘spirit of divination’, certainly not a holy spirit. So Paul said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And the spirit was gone, and the fortune telling gold mine was shut down.
I read this and I cannot help but think of girls who have become ensnarled and trapped into the sordid business of sex-trafficking. This is a difficult subject to talk about, but there are parallels with the text because this sex-trafficking business is making perpetrators a lot of money. At the Youth Gathering in Houston last year our group went to a university campus and spent the better part of a morning learning about modern day slavery of young people. Then we were sent out on the campus with chalk to write encouraging messages and also a hot-line number.
When the owners of the slave girl in today’s text found out their slave was delivered from a spirit that made them money, they were furious. The seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the city authorities. They made their accusation: “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.” At the time Jews were eyed with suspicion. The Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews, and probably Christians from the capital city of Rome. Paul and Silas were not read their rights. They had no rights as far as the authorities were concerned. They stripped them of their clothing, bloodied them with beatings, and threw them in the darkest place of the prison. They put their legs in stocks, in a position designed to be painful.
It was midnight, and total darkness. But there was no darkness in the spirits of Paul and Silas. They prayed and sang hymns. They looked to be abandoned but they knew they were not, that Jesus was with them. Divine intervention occurred. A violent earthquake shook the prison, doors flung open, and chains broken. When the guard saw what happened, he presumed all had escaped and took out his weapon to kill himself. Prisoners escaping on his watch would mean a death sentence. If Paul and Silas had spirits of revenge, they might be glad to see the guard kill himself. But with the spirit of Jesus they cried out, “Do not harm yourself, we are all here.”
Years ago a youth group asked about suicide. At the time some may have heard about teens taking their own lives and they were troubled about this. Today we hear of suicides among young people due to bullying. With that youth group I used this text to open the discussion. For people who are deeply troubled the church, as brothers and sisters in Christ, need to say “Do not harm yourself. We are here.” We need to be people of empathy. I read about Google, that Silicon Valley giant, conducting research about what makes a good, working team of employees. The research discovered what mattered first and foremost were not educational skills or personal charisma. What mattered most was sensitivity to others and the willingness to take the time and listen to others.
The jailor fell down before Paul and Silas and asked them, “What must I do to be saved?” The jailor was aware of some kind of divine power that released the prisoner’s chains, and he was hit by a sense of guilt for his former cruelty. Guilt led to the fear of some kind of divine retribution. Paul and Silas looked at the one who formerly threw them into the darkest hole of the prison and painfully put their legs in stocks for maximum pain. Paul said “believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” You see, Jesus reveals the true God who is not into retribution but reconciliation, God who holds no grudges but holds out grace, Jesus who faithfully comes with forgiveness. Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to him, and eventually to his household. Paul and Silas were freed from their iron chains, but they knew they were set free for a purpose, to set this jailor free from the spiritual chains of fear and guilt. With gratitude the jailor would take the two apostles home and wash their wounds. Paul washed the jailor’s wounds with the water of baptism, the healing grace of water with the Word of God, the eternal promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal love.
Civil rights icon and congressman from Georgia John Lewis was recently interviewed. He took part in a March known as Bloody Sunday, when peaceful marchers were attacked by police in 1964. He was asked about his thoughts about an upswing in hate speech and crimes. He replied; “It makes me sad. I don’t know what is happening to our country. He said “whatever the color of our skin or religion we are all Americans, we are brothers and sisters. He spoke about hate being a burden being a burden to heavy for any soul to carry. The answer, the healing, is love.
In today’s gospel Jesus prayed for us. He prayed for unity among his followers. This was not just a human-designed unity of good-will. It goes much further,. Jesus prayed that his followers, the church, know their unity in him. Jesus prayed “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” As we heard in the reading from Revelation, the response to the gospel is to respond the invitation “Come”: Come to Jesus and revel in the revelation that Jesus saves and forgives; ‘come and believe in the Lord Jesus who believes in you and wants you to live out an important purpose in life. We may hear people cry out for help, and there are times we will too, and may the answer be empathy, “We are here to encourage you, support you, and say there is always hope, because the steadfast love of Jesus is sure.