Haunting Claims of Freedom

Sunday, June 2, 2019
Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C

Focus Theme:
Haunting Claims of Freedom

Focus Prayer:
Precious Love, your ascended Son promised the gift of holy power. Send your Spirit of revelation and wisdom, that in the blessed freedom of hope, we may witness to the grace of forgiveness and sing songs of joy with the peoples of earth to the One who makes us one body. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. 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.” And it came out that very hour. But when 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “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.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

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; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 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?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Focus Questions:

1. How does it feel to put yourself in the place of each of these characters in the story?

2. What do we learn about the people in this story who are on the edges of what’s happening?

3. What mission are you on in your church, and what is at the heart of it?

4. When has singing hymns helped to sustain you?

5. Is Paul’s undone work left to later times and cultures, and if so, what is left for us to do, in our own time?

by Kate Matthews

The adventures of the apostles continue in this wonderfully detailed story of exorcism and outrage, mob scenes and courtroom drama, liberation and celebration, with Paul at the center of the action, and God very busy at work everywhere.

The gospel is spreading, according to Luke, and the church is growing in leaps and bounds, drawing converts (as usual) from the most unexpected places, and succeeding in surprising ways. Our text this week teaches theology while telling a story, perhaps the best way to do both.

Down to the river to pray

In last week’s reading from Acts, we met Lydia, the Gentile woman of considerable means who brought herself and her whole household to faith in Jesus Christ, with a group baptism held in the midst of great joy. Paul and his entourage, including Silas, and the narrator (perhaps Luke himself), and others, must have been feeling pretty good about how things were going.

They followed their routine of going to “the place of prayer,” perhaps down by the river where they had first met Lydia, or even to a synagogue. We can believe that they kept to their practice of prayer and teaching, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, whether or not things were going well.

Speaking from the margin

On his regular trips to the place of prayer, Paul kept encountering a woman who was very different from Lydia. While Lydia was a woman of position and many possessions, with her own household and a business to run, this other woman, really a young girl, was a person in the street, a slave-girl, a possession herself, owned by other humans but also held captive by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers.

Scholars describe such people as “diviners” who were believed to be able to predict the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss; in the Greek culture, these powers were linked to the god Apollo, whose worship center at Delphi had a snake as his symbol.

Paul Walaskay explains that people would come to these people, also called “mantics,” to ask them questions which they would answer while in a trance, as if the god were speaking through them. Just as we have shops on city streets with the sign “Psychic” out front, it would not have been uncommon to encounter a young girl like this one in urban settings, just tending to business.

A small-business enterprise

The picture Walaskay paints of this young girl is somewhat different, then, from the stories we have heard about people tortured by spirits and demons usually encountered (and exorcized) by Jesus and his followers. This girl is a lucrative small-business enterprise for the men who own her.

Like so many young girls, she is used by those who have figured out a way to make money with her, but her strange public announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries, we suspect, do not bring much income to her owners. Her wording sounds odd to our ears, because she calls them “slaves,” and refers to a God that is not her own as “the Most High God,” although we note that it was not uncommon for Gentiles to call the Jewish God by that name.

Paul, tired and annoyed

It’s intriguing to hear the extra meaning commentators read into what happens next: the text plainly says that Paul was “very much annoyed,” so it seems fair to say that this exorcism feels like an impulsive action born of irritation. Paul is tired of being heckled by the spirit that possesses her and can recognize who he is, who his God is, and what he has to offer.

In fact, Paul is focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn’t seem to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, ironically, even if she does proclaim the truth. Is she too loud, or too repetitious, or is it just too much for the truth to come from such a strange source?

Interesting questions to consider, but in any case, Paul turns and heals her, perhaps just to quiet her down.

What happens to the girl now?

There are some readers of this story, however, who believe that Paul was moved by compassion for the young girl. Ron Hansen infers from the text that Paul could see the “alien spirit” holding the girl hostage, a demon that was going to use the Christian faith itself “for its own corrupt purposes, either to discredit the faith or to hide behind it.”

This strikes me as a bit of a stretch, because it doesn’t seem like there was time for Paul to ponder what was happening inside the girl. While Paul seems more intent on going about his business without this pagan girl either supporting or impeding it, Hansen claims that the girl’s welfare is paramount in Paul’s mind, more than even her “false praise.”

What happens to her later?

What is much more puzzling, and much more troubling, is a question several commentators linger on: what about this young girl’s life afterward? Isn’t she still a slave, and isn’t Paul moved to help her beyond freeing her from the spirit that possessed her?

Lawrence W. Farris has a provocative take on this passage: he’s haunted by this slave girl and by the way Paul fails to challenge the system of slavery that holds her bound just as much as the spirit had, for Paul doesn’t try to share the gospel with her. Clearly, this girl’s situation and the questions that linger around it haunt us even today.

Who “distracts” us from mission?

Are we expecting too much of Paul, a man of his time and culture? Curiously, Farris says that Paul is, in a way, challenging the system that keeps the girl in bondage, but the text doesn’t really indicate that as much as it describes his annoyance at being interrupted, or perhaps, heckled. Paul was on a mission, and he didn’t really see the girl or her healing as part of that mission, and certainly not as at the heart of it.

What mission are you on in your church, and what is at the heart of it? What “suffering slave girls” may annoy you on your way and yet draw you back to the heart of God’s call? Would these marginalized people recognize you as a “slave of the Most High God”? Is Paul’s undone work left to later times and cultures, and if so, what is left for us to do, in our own time?

What keeps us bound?

There is another thread to this interpretation that focuses on the many ways we humans are captive to forces seemingly more powerful than we are. There are powers that keep us bound: old prejudices, systemic injustice that we don’t even see but certainly benefit from, a need for security, fear that makes us strangers from one another, resentment that grips us and keeps us apart…perhaps we don’t call these “demons” or even “spirits,” but they are powerful indeed and we need to be set free from them.

At the same time, this metaphorical use of these words should never obscure our perception of the reality of human trafficking, which is perniciously alive in the world today, long after we may think that slavery is a thing of the past. This text provides a good opportunity to lead our churches into deeper reflection on this topic, and a deeper commitment to end this great evil.

Shall we disturb “the peace”?

The girl is quickly left behind when the men who own her decide to go after Paul and his companions. The kangaroo court that follows seems to have little to do with the exorcism, when the men make all sorts of accusations against the missionaries.

They don’t even try to recover the money they lost, Ron Hansen writes: “They don’t want justice; they want revenge.” And they go about it in an ugly way, claiming that these Jewish visitors were causing trouble with their strange customs and teachings (16:20-21).

The charge of disturbing the peace is an easy and vague enough charge to put on “trouble-makers” of every kind, and the recent anniversary of the May 4 Kent State tragedy is a reminder that this is true in every age. Paul Walaskay notes the irony in this charge, since the slave girl was actually the one disturbing the peace, not Paul.

Is capitalism a “spirit”?

What is really going on here? Is Paul, as some scholars claim, threatening the economic injustice of slavery, even indirectly, by depriving these ancient “businessmen” of their livelihood? Should the church hear a warning here, as Ronald Cole-Turner suggests, that we will get into trouble, too, if we speak out for economic justice, even in a capitalistic culture like ours, where business reigns supreme?

Is capitalism itself a god, a spirit, a power that must not be questioned, let alone silenced? Is it inappropriate, as we go about our ministry, like Paul, to do or say things that might in fact “disturb the peace,” the strange peace we have made with systemic injustice?

The heart and mind of Paul

We do not know what is in Paul’s heart and mind when he drives the spirit from the girl, but we do know the price he and Silas pay, after the crowd turns on them, and the authorities order them flogged and thrown in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, where despair thrives.

And yet despair is exactly the opposite of what happens, because we read of the two men, chained at their ankles and unable to move around, still singing hymns and praying and capturing the rapt attention of all the other prisoners. More excitement ensues, however, when an earthquake hits and the prison that holds Paul and Silas captive is broken open and they are able, if they wish, to walk free.

Don’t leave the jailer behind

We also don’t know why Paul doesn’t run, but we suspect that he knows the price that his jailer will pay: Ron Hansen notes the distinctive compassion of Christian practice that leaves no one behind and no one out, even the most unexpected people, like slaves and jailors, even if it would things much easier.

What happens next is one more illustration of the power of the gospel to transform lives, when the jailer and his family (like Lydia and her household) are baptized into the faith.

An influx of outsiders

As so often happens, these are outsiders coming in, responding wholeheartedly to the good news Paul preaches, an inclusive gospel of grace that is summed up so powerfully in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Paul Walaskay draws a wonderful parallel between this text and Paul’s familiar baptismal text in Galatians 3:28, for we see here no difference, no lines drawn between people coming from very different backgrounds and places.

“Our narrator,” Walaskay writes, “has skillfully expanded Paul’s groundbreaking statement in Galatians 3:28 into an elegant story. ‘There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the mantic, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the mantic] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer], or female [Lydia, the mantic]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'”

Being free, being saved

Once again, we hear the question of liberation, of salvation, of freedom. The jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, and Paul answers simply that he should “believe on the Lord Jesus.” This is still a difficult question today, and Paul’s answer presents its own challenges as well.

Perhaps we need to spend much more time on what it means to “believe” (Marcus Borg has written so helpfully on this in books like The Heart of Christianity), and what it means to be free (and not just in the often worn-out, political sense in which “freedom” is used to justify war).

The captivities of our age

One of the most powerful captivities of our age, besides materialism and militarism, is the way fear can imprison us in our convictions and our desire for security, making us unable to open our hearts and minds to others, to events, to the God who still speaks through them.

How amazed the jailer must be, just as he’s about to kill himself, to see that the prisoners are still there! Fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family’s life, being transformed.

It would be wonderful indeed to know what happened to the jailer after Paul left, but perhaps we get a hint of that in our own day, every time we hear the rest of the story from those who have found their way to faith and healing, especially because of the kindness and mercy of another.

The power of song

A note about Paul and Silas singing, late at night, in prison: when we think of slavery and, later, the Civil Rights movement in our own country, we remember the power of prayer and song in holding a people together who were in their own form of captivity. There is hardly a better, and more appropriate place, for prayer and singing hymns. Those hymns are, in their own way, a haunting claim of freedom.

Lawrence Farris observes that everyone in this story needs to be freed, not only the slave girl but also the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power or maybe for the public peace), the jailer (a victim in his own way), and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, who need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Learning from our distractions

What’s the surprise that greets us on our way to ministry, the obstacle that has something important to teach us, or better yet, the opportunity that obstacle may offer for us to do something really amazing for the sake of the gospel?

Whether it’s small and personal, for one individual, or big and communal (maybe even global!), like taking down a corrupt system, it is still a call. And we are free to say yes, or to say no and continue on our way.

What powers keep us bound?

The details that follow in the story of Paul’s trial, imprisonment, and release, bring the story alive for us. What does it feel like to put yourself in the place of each of these characters in the story? Are there powers that keep you bound? Are there tasks that distract you from God’s own mission?

What do we learn about the people in this story who are on the edges of what’s happening? For example, how does it strike you to have a name attached to a woman in last week’s reading (Lydia) but not to the man (the jailer) in this week’s reading–unusual for the Bible! But of course the possessed slave girl is unnamed, and she is also unnoticed as a human being, as a child of God.

Who we are, and what we do, as followers of Jesus

There is one more note that is irresistible: how can we read this story and not have our memories come alive with all the talk of washing wounds, being baptized, and sharing a meal? Doesn’t that sound familiar to us across all the centuries, and isn’t it at the heart of who we are as followers of Jesus?

Just as we read the stories–the adventures–of these apostles and teachers, we might turn an attentive ear to the stories of those around us, and the amazing and holy moments in our own lives as well, when God has been most certainly at work, bringing freedom, new life, new possibilities for the world God loves.

However, we don’t just read a story like Paul’s, or Peter’s, or Lydia’s: we are part of that great story, that great adventure. In the weeks ahead, the adventures continue, throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles, but even today, two thousand years later, in the church that claims to follow Jesus in our day, and in a world still captive, a world still hungry for good news.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

William Gurnall, 17th century
“And while God had work for Paul, he found him friends both in court and prison. Let persecutors send saints to prison, God can provide a keeper for their turn.”

Charles W. Colson, 20th century
“I can work for the Lord in or out of prison.”

Gene Tierney, 20th century
“I existed in a world that never is–the prison of the mind.”

Thucydides, 5th century B.C.E.
“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.”

Walter Cronkite, 20th century
“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”

Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, 21st century
“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, [people] are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”

Rosa Luxemburg, 20th century
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 20th century
“To simply think about the people, as the dominators do, without any self-giving in that thought, to fail to think with the people, is a sure way to cease being revolutionary leaders.”

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to use this resource in your congregation’s Bible study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.