16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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.
19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.
Consequences. It all seemed to be going so well, maybe too well. We might not say successful, because you know—that’s a bit boastful, but things were headed in the right direction, doing the right things. I don’t know about you, but for a time there didn’t it look like we were progressing? At one point in our country church seemed on the surface at least easier. Even for Village with our “we’re not that kind of church”. You know at one point, maybe it was because we were all of us younger (you know that’s how time works). Back in the day, we had more energy, more friends, more hopes. There was election of the first African American president, marriage equality, and at least for some a sense of prosperity and security. Things weren’t perfect, by no means, but weren’t we progressing.
Paul and his companions might have felt that same way. Earlier in this chapter, the Acts of the Apostles were generally positive. There was clarity in the mission—non-Jews could become part of the church, and as Paul and his companions went from town to town, (as it says in verse 5) “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” Reaching the city of Philippi, last week some of us heard the story of Paul and his companions walking to a place of prayer by the river and finding Lydia—a successful businesswoman, who listened welcomed them, and joined the church. It seemed they were headed in the right direction, so they kept going back, as our reading tells us — returning again and again to “the place of prayer”.
But then the other shoe dropped. Now we can’t blame all of our country’s woes on one man our current president, but it appears he has galvanized all the undercurrents of nationalism, racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, anti-intellectualism—generally sanctifying mean-spiritedness.
Of course, this is nothing new. Even in the church. Paul and his companions, probably feeling some sense of satisfaction, as I noted earlier stayed in Philippi, and kept going back to that same place of prayer. Hoping to, get and grow, to share the good news, with others friendly and by now familiar ladies like Lydia, but another spirit was a-foot.
Instead of successful business men or women like the ones who buy condos or work in offices all around us (you know the type who can keep moving the church in the right direction) Paul and the gang are confronted by a young woman—a slave, who doesn’t have the common decency to just go about her duty, quietly, serving. No, when she sees Paul and the other members, she has a message, speaks she shouts, she screams—these are “slaves of the most high, showing the way of, messaging salvation, healing”.
You know, I used to kind of like perhaps Paul, think her words were simply from the demon that controlled her. In Greek the words are pneuma pythonos. She had a spirit —of divining— she had a spirit of knowing, which was being used by her masters, controled, exploited. But what if in this instance she was using the gift of this spirit of knowing good and evil—and she wasn’t taunting Paul, instead with whatever power she had, opening her mouth using this pneuma pyhonos, calling out to him. Trying to connect—she’s a slave, he’s a slave, but he’s bound not to human bozos with weapons, but to the most high God of Freedom.
You know, I hate to admit it, but we don’t (especially in the church always do the right thing for the right reason). But Paul misses it. He doesn’t hear her cries for freedom. He’s not interested in this loud-mouthed, low-life. Paul is captive to the ideal convert. And so after several days, Paul is so fed up, so tired, so bothered, and as our translation states “annoyed” —Paul basically lashes out and sends the spirit packing. Paul is not free from his own mean-spirit, none-the-less the next time the slave girl opens her mouth and the spirit is literally exhaled from her.
Consequences, as the latest John Wick movie reminds us, there’s always consequences.
Consequences, it has to be said, she may be freed of this spirit, but she’s still a slave to masters who want to use her to make money. For the young enslaved woman, we don’t know what the consequences of Paul’s mal-intentioned healing, she like so many name-less and perhaps unimportant to the established tradition just disappears as Paul’s story continues.
For Paul and his team the consequences of all this lands them arrested by the authorities, charged with disrupting the system, stripped, beaten, locked up. Now, I don’t know about you, but that kind of consequences just might break my spirit. Of course, that’s what the powers that be want to happen. Instead, we have to give Paul and company credit—they may not be down by the river at a holy place, they may be surrounded by thieves, drunks, and guards but they bind themselves to their God, even in that place, singing and praying.
According to the writer of Acts, in this instance, it can and it does shake the foundations of this world. They were freed; they could have walked, and run, they could have gotten away to some safe place, but the consequences of the freedom God gives is that we are bound to something else, something more, to the God most High. So as we go about our days, living our lives dealing with our own decisions, our own actions, our struggles, our joys, our pains, the consequences of our own attitudes and actions, take this story with you. When we need to speak up against injustice, against hate—like we have before, like we do, like we must continue—remember the young woman enslaved, but able to channel the energy, the spirit, to speak the truth, to claim kin-ship, and call liberty, call upon the God most high.
When we go about our days, when you feel your compassion dwindling, anxiety raising, despair bubbling up—and remember Paul, think about what’s really wrong in the world and try to do the right thing.
And finally, I’d like to share with you something our Bishop Paul said yesterday, at the synod assembly. He said this: “Those who want to save their church will lose it, and those who lose their church for my sake will save it”. Something might have sounded odd just now. The bishop replaced the word “life” for “church”. Appearing in all four gospels, hese words of Jesus, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” tell us we are not ultimately free, we can not escape consequences, so we might as well pray, speak, and act binding ourselves to the God most high. The God who is beyond death, and is close to us in pain and suffering. The God who reigns supreme above any court, and whose Spirit agitates and advocates justice, who declares and judges for forgiveness, gives life, whose law is love. Amen.