A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
April 22, 2018
Last week, we heard the story about how Saul, or Paul, as he’s called here, had an encounter with the risen Jesus, and turned his life from being a persecutor of Jesus to an evangelist for Jesus. His preaching would lead him all over the known world. He’d teach in homes, in synagogues, in the public square, wherever God sent them. Here, God called Paul and Silas to go to Philippi. There were people there who need to hear the liberating word of God. So they go.
And first they meet a woman named Lydia. She is a successful business woman who operates an upscale fabric trading outfit. She and her household are baptized by Paul and she becomes a leader and important supporter in the early church. Last week, we talked about how it took a lot of other people to participate in Paul’s conversion. Notice as they travel, that it also takes a village for their work to be done. Lydia and other disciples provide food, shelter, and other resources for Paul, allowing his preaching and teaching to spread.
Then Paul and Silas encounter a woman who is the opposite of Lydia. This slave girl is un-named. She has no resources or social standing. And as Paul and Silas walk through the streets of town, she follows behind them, announcing that these men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.
Paul does his best to ignore her, but we’re told he gets annoyed and he turns and commands the spirit leave her, freeing her from possession. The men who own her, however, aren’t happy with this interruption of their cash flow. Because this slave girl was a money maker for them.
Some commentators get angry with Paul here because he doesn’t respond to this slave girl in Christian compassion. He doesn’t take her owners to task for her enslavement or subjugation. He doesn’t ask her name. He only exorcises her demons to get her to stop talking.
Are we any different than Paul? How many of us, after all, go out of our way to share Christian compassion with every person who is yelling at us or about us on the street corner, or on facebook?
There’s also the fact that this girl, while now healed of the spirit that had possessed her, is still a slave at the end of the encounter. Paul did not overthrow the system of slavery that kept this girl from freedom. We can’t go back in time to help her, but we can attend to it today, and work to stop the way we subjugate other people for profits in our time.
Paul healed her. He showed the people that systems of this world that subjugate one person for the benefit of another are not the way God calls us to live. When you upend the systems that keep people enslaved, you can expect the people who benefit the most from the system to respond.
Paul and Silas get arrested, and are dragged through the marketplace, right down Wall Street, where the girl’s owners make an interesting claim. When they arrested Jesus, his crime was making claims that put him in opposition to the Emperor. But here is Paul and Silas’ crime: “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.”
They aren’t in trouble for political subversion, as Jesus was. But for threatening the cultural and economic realm. Challenging unjust economic systems, challenging the status quo, threatens people. It allows fear to rise up and overwhelm our rational thinking, enslaving us to a cycle of anxiety. Yes, the current system has some flaws, fear tells us, but we have figured out what to expect. We are comfortable in our prison of subjugation, and that fear of change leads us to throw in jail anyone who speaks against our enslavement.
Paul was a Roman citizen, who should have had the privileges that come with citizenship, yet he was beaten, given an inadequate hearing, and thrown into the deepest corner of the jail. Needless to say, they didn’t read him his Miranda rights.
Paul and Silas, we’re told, carry on an impromptu worship service at midnight in the jail. And suddenly, there was an earthquake that broke down the walls imprisoning them. An earthquake so strong it crumbled the very foundations of the jail. The jailer, when he realizes what has happened, is ready to kill himself because if he doesn’t keep the people behind bars, his master will hold him responsible. The jailer, in his own way, is enslaved by this system that holds him accountable for the subjugation of others. By not walking out of the jail, Paul frees the jailer too, even though it is the jailer who holds the keys. Once again, Paul is subverting societal expectations and understandings of the structures of our world—economic systems of slavery, and criminal justice systems that operate without trials, making the jailers criminals too.
The jailer quickly realizes that Paul is operating under a different paradigm than the rest of his inmates. Perhaps the jailer has even heard the cry of the slave girl, about being slaves of the most high God, here to proclaim a way of salvation. In any case, the jailer asks him, “what must I do to be saved?”
In the moment of grace he receives, when his prisoners don’t walk out to worldly freedom, the jailer realizes that he’d rather be a slave of the most high God than pretend to be free in a system of economic injustice. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will saved, you and your household.”
That’s the great paradox of the gospel. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”
The gospel, the good news proclaimed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is foolishness in the world’s terms. And in God’s kingdom, the terms of the world are revalued, redefined, and messed up.
We’re told the jailer washes the wounds of Paul and Silas. And then they wash him in the act of baptism. There is a sense of reciprocity inherent in the ‘way of salvation’ of the most high God. When we are liberated into God’s way of being in the world, the response is to share it with others. Paul has his moment of conversion and changes the path of his life to share God’s love with the known world. The jailer experiences salvation when the walls come tumblin’ down, and responds with acts of caring and compassion.
And Paul proclaims this salvation publicly. He won’t slink out of the crumbled jail in in the middle of the night. Even at the end, when the authorities realize that perhaps they’ve arrested the wrong people, and ask Paul and Silas to just quietly go on their way, Paul refuses. “They have beaten us in public, un-condemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”
I love Paul’s willingness to anger the people in charge. There are times to be silent, don’t get me wrong. But they need to be on your terms. Not for the convenience of the city officials in Philippi. When the world wants to silently usher you out the back door, to hide their misconduct, the systems of injustice remain intact. Silence in the face of injustice is collusion.
Paul and Silas, slaves of the most high God, walked around publicly proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ.
Salvation that tells us that a nameless slave girl is as valuable to the kingdom as Lydia the cloth merchant.
Salvation that gives a prison guard a different narrative for his life.
Salvation that tells us that we don’t have to be enslaved to the economic, political, or cultural systems of this world. We can serve God instead.
Slavery is a complicated term for us when we encounter it in scripture. And there are different levels of subjugation that should not be declared as equal. The system of slavery upon which our own country was built is unique in its horribleness. 12 million men and women were stolen from their homes in Africa and shipped to the New World between 1525 and 1866. 10 million of them survived the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. 400,000 plus of them were brought to the US. While slavery may have legally ended with the Civil War, the wounds of it still play out in our world today.
Slavery is also word used to describe Paul and Silas as slaves of God. They are not the same kinds of slavery, even if it is the same word. The unnamed teenager, freed of the spirit, is also a different kind of slave. As is the jailer.
Even with the limitations of the word, the theme of slavery, of people subjugated and serving others runs through this story. Many of the characters in this story didn’t have a choice who they wanted to serve.
Do we want to serve God, or serve systems that exploit and hold back our siblings?
When the jail collapsed and turned to rubble in this story, I realized you can’t rebuild that particular building in its same location, on a foundation of rubble. You have to clear out the ruins, removing the debris from the old structure if you want to build true, on a solid foundation.
The racial issues and tensions that have been in the news so much lately made me think of that imagery. After the Civil War, we abolished legal slavery, and the walls of that jail came crashing down, down to their very foundations.
Our ancestors didn’t clear the rubble away, didn’t create a clean foundation on which to build. It seems we rebuilt our nation on a really shaky foundation, where the roots of racism were never addressed, where the wounds of the war were never healed.
I think the system has been crumbling for a long time. I haven’t had to attend to it my whole life, as people of color have lived it out. I’m attending to it now. We must.
Last week, two black men were arrested for being in Starbucks without ordering something. Nobody has ever called the police on me for just waiting in a coffee shop, and God knows I spend lots of time in coffee shops. I generally order coffee in coffee shops, although sometimes I wait for a friend to arrive before I do. However you feel about that, Starbucks has created an atmosphere where they want to be a public space, whether you order coffee or not, a place where people can gather. The company is responding to this incident pretty well, I think. May 29, they are closing all of their stores and holding anti-racism and implicit bias training that day.
We recognize Starbucks is not the problem. They are a symptom of our national problem. We, as a nation, need to do some work. I’m not sure yet what we at the church will do, but plan on something here at church in the evening of the 29th, the day Starbucks closes, so we can have some conversation too. Our nation rebuilt on a shaky foundation, on the rubble of a war that was fought 150 years ago. We have to clear the ground so we can build something better. Something stronger. Something that will allow for everyone’s healing and salvation.
What must I do to be saved?, the jailer asks Paul and Silas. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Believe ‘on’ the Lord is interesting language, not what we usually say. Believe in the Lord, might be more common. For me, to believe on the Lord is to put my faith, to rest my trust, on a solid foundation, something that won’t crumble.
Friends, salvation has come for us. Let us believe on the Lord, so we may join in the building of a world on a solid foundation, where we care for each other. A world where people are free to choose who they want to serve. A world where systems of subjugation are replaced by systems of mutual concern and caring. Let’s clear our rubble out of the way so we may believe on the Lord.