Today's sermon was based mainly on Acts 16:16-34 and a bit of the Gospel reading: John 13:20-26.
‘One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination.’ (Acts 16:16-34)
I like a challenging story and I was attracted to the reading from the Acts because I think it presents us with some good challenges.
At the very superficial level, as modern people we have the challenge of the supernatural: a spirit-possessed individual on the one hand and God’s arranging an earthquake to set Paul free on the other hand. But at a deeper level, we are challenged to ponder such questions as slavery and freedom, and despair and hope.
Who is it in this story who is free and who is enslaved? Who are the people who should be despairing and who is it who has hope?
The Slave Girl
First of all in this narrative, we have the story of the slave girl.
It might very well be that she is associated with the temple to the Greek god Apollo; some commentators think this because the spirit which possessed her was a spirit of ‘divination’, a quality associated with the god Apollo. Interestingly, Apollo was associated in Greek mythology with medicine, healing, light and truth but he was also supposed to be the bringer of the plague.
From a Christian perspective, everything in the story of the slave-girl is topsy-turvy.
She’s following Paul and Silas around declaring that they are slaves to the Most High God. But the girl herself is twice-enslaved. She’s enslaved by the spirit who possesses her (we know this because she does not continue to behave in the same way once the spirit is cast out); and she’s a literal slave to human owners who use her as a means of earning money for themselves.
The spirit that possesses her is supposed to be the spirit of truth and light and yet, it does not tell the full truth; it only tells a partial truth – that the disciples are proclaiming a way to salvation.
It seems to me that one of the central questions in this scene is: ‘whose disciples are free and whose disciples are slaves? The disciples of Christ or the disciple of Apollo?’ Which disciple tells the truth and which disciple tells a partial truth? Which disciple genuinely has the power of healing and which disciple needs to be healed?
Now the one thing I find odd about the story is this business about the spirit-possessed girl followed Paul and Silas around for ‘many days’.
It raises a couple of questions for me. First of all, why didn’t Paul use the girl’s testimony to his advantage? Secondly, if the Spirit recognised that Paul and Silas were followers of The Most High God, why didn’t it lay low in order to save itself? Why did it call attention to itself day after day and risk being cast out?
The story doesn’t give us an answer to this question, of course. But if this was the spirit of Apollo, you could say that, in the context of the story, this spirit might have been the spirit of the present age, the spirit of the majority culture. I wonder whether this spirit represents the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of that culture?
It’s as if the spirit of the prevailing culture is following the disciples of Jesus around saying ‘Jesus isn’t the way to health and happiness. Apollo is the way to health and happiness. Order your life to worship the values of our wonderful Greco-Roman culture and you will be healthy and happy.’ Possessed by the spirit of the prevailing culture, the spirit-possessed girl may have felt strangely compelled to insist on the superiority of Graeco-Roman culture over the Church of Christ.
The values of the prevailing culture are powerful. They present themselves as ‘the way things were, are and always will be’. They present themselves as being Reality (with a capital R).
So, filled with the confidence that these Christians were misguided and that the spirit of the age would certainly prevail over the Church of Christ, the Spirit followed Paul and the disciples for many days until the name of Christ vanquished it without much apparent effort.
The Culture Enraged
But challenging the prevailing cultural values can be a dangerous business, as the story attests. Immediately the spirit is cast out, the girl is free and the cultural values are challenged, a kangaroo court is assembled. Paul and Silas are charged with ‘advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe’
In other words, the charge is that they have gone against the cultural norms. The fact that they are Jewish probably just adds to the conviction of the magistrates and the crowd that Paul and Silas are guilty.
Paul freed the spirit-possessed girl from enslavement to the spirit which possessed her and from the enslavement and the exploitation of her owners. The reward for having done this is that Paul and Silas are dragged before an angry mob and fastened with stocks to the innermost jail cell – no escape possible.
The men’s reward for proclaiming The Way of Christ over and above the values of the culture is to be treated violently and unjustly and to be removed from the society at large. Or at least the prevailing culture attempted to remove them from society.
Hope and Despair
As we come to the last part of the story, Paul and Silas are in a rather serious mess. The reality of the situation is such that they have every reason to believe that they will likely die in prison. Yet the text tells us that they were praying and singing hymns to God.
I think it’s easy to trivialise this statement and say ‘Yes this is the way Christians should behave in times of trial’. But when we find ourselves in times of real and genuine danger or difficulty, it can be incredibly difficult to praise God and to have faith that he is present.
So I want to just pause and consider the depth of faith that was required to praise God in a dungeon whilst shackled with chains. I want to pause and consider that such hope is actually at the core of the counter-cultural message that Christianity proclaims. (It’s not the only message, but it’s at the core.)
The prevailing culture tells us that, in the final analysis, those who have power, resources, money and influence will determine the course of history and that they will determine what is right and what is wrong. In contrast, the Christian faith proclaims a place for the ill, the outcast, the poor and the powerless in the Kingdom of God. The Christian faith proclaims that God is in control of history, that the last shall be first in the Kingdom and that it is God in his justice who determines what is right and what is wrong, not the expediency of power or money or the prevailing culture.
When Paul and Silas are busy praising God in their prison cell, they did not know that God would bring hope into a hopeless situation. It would be wrong to say that this story teaches us that if we just pray and praise enough or that if we just have enough faith, God will always make a particular situation turn out the way we want it to. It would be more accurate to say that this story teaches us that God is present in even the most hopeless situations.
Even when we can see no hope, even if we can’t see a positive outcome like the story of the conversion of the jailer and his household, God has promised us that he is present in every situation. God can use even the most apparently dire circumstances to his purposes.
In closing, I just want to remind us all of the prayer that Jesus made in the Gospel reading this morning. He prayed for the strength and the unity of his Church and he bestowed on the Church his glory.
This prayer would be a simple and straightforward prayer if it came on the eve of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The amazing thing about it, however, is that Jesus prays this prayer not on the eve of his ascension, but on the eve of his crucifixion.
Knowing the end of the story, you could argue that this is the prayer of a conquering hero. But, because it comes just before his crucifixion, it is also a prayer of tremendous faith in the purposes of God.
Today is the last Sunday of the Easter season and it’s also the Sunday after the Ascension of Jesus. In the resurrection we recall that God’s purposes are to draw all creation into genuine life and truth and light. In the ascension, we recall that Christ rules at God’s right hand and that the story of creation is shaped by Christ’s sacrifice for our sins and his triumph over death.
God is life and light and truth. Hope reigns even when we cannot see it. This is the faith of the Church. Amen