Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Freedom in Philippi Acts 16

Review and Introduction to This Sunday’s Text: Acts 16:16-34

In the history of the liturgy of the church there is a prominent tradition of lingering in the book of Acts for the two months or so of Sundays that separate Easter from Pentecost (Pentecost is next week, by the way). We have talked together a bit about the reasons for our lingering in Acts but maybe we should remind ourselves again. The book of Acts, as many of you know, is a historical account of the growth of the early church. Importantly, among other things, as observed early on in Acts, it is an account of Jesus’ followers growth - their growth from those who deserted him to those who will give their lives preaching about God’s love for all of humankind, the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, in many important ways the book of Acts is a deep reminder to us that God worked through human frailty to build his church, that the growth of the early church is always a matter, to borrow words from Saint Paul in his letter to church in Corinth, a matter of God’s strength working through human weakness and frailty. But there is another important ongoing theme in Luke’s Acts and it is this- Luke wants us to know that God’s love is truly meant to reach all people and all sorts and kinds of people. The gospel is not a message for one religious or ethnic group - it is not meant to be a private religious experience but is supposed to be for the redemption of the entire world and to touch all of humanity. We hear this foreshadowed in Jesus’ words that Luke gives us at the beginning of Acts: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Luke is very eager for us to understand the growth and development of the early church as a missional movement of God - - as God, through his people, makes his love for all of humankind known to all of the peoples of the world, regardless of who they are ethnically, socio-economically, etc.

Homily Recap:

However, in the passage before us this morning we are reminded that not everyone wants to hear the good news about Jesus. The ones in the story who really don’t want to hear about it are the men who have been trafficking this young girl. What a tragic picture, a girl whose life was completely out of her control and under the control of dark forces out to exploit her, whether the forces be supernatural or the flesh and blood men who owned her. When she is healed and her life is given back to her her owners retaliate against Paul and his cohort, bringing them before the authorities and charging them with “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” What is truly disturbing, however, is the fact that this girl’s life is given back to her from the powers of darkness and her owners don’t even stop for one moment to ask themselves whether they ought not to be happy for her? And they certainly don’t pause and ask themselves whether or not exploiting her had been a wicked thing all along! Far from stopping for reflection, they move to retaliate against Paul and Silas.

Remarkable and chilling is the behavior of these men; this is very sobering for those who have ears to hear!!!

Luke gives us a provocative literary clue as to why her owners are unable to see her new freedom as an occasion for their own repentance, In verses 18 and 19 Luke uses the same Greek word, “to leave”, to describe the evil spirit’s leaving the girl and the owners’ hope of money leaving them. He says quite literally, the spirit left or departed and the money left and departed. And so in this little word play we are soberly reminded that one of the most common causes for spiritual blindness is greed. But that is not all that is chilling in this vignette. Next in this little scene we see what we often see in our own day. Those whose motives are to exploit others for their own profit hide their agendas behind any subterfuge available. In this passage the men who own the girl, of course, do not haul Paul and Silas before the magistrate and say, “hey we were making money off of the misfortune of this girl and they healed her and took away our ability to do that!”. No, they appeal to the fear of foreigners and suspicion of Jews. The crowd does the rest of the work for them and very quickly Paul and Silas end up flogged and in jail. It is a commonplace for Luke in his gospel and in the book of Acts, in the words of NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, to.... “connect spiritual dispositions to the disposition of possessions.”

And so all of what has happened so far in this story reminds us that the message of God’s love for the world will often be met with opposition, especially by those who are unwilling to see their spiritual blindness. We are also reminded again of the tragedy that comes from confusing illicit carnal pleasures with human flourishing. The owners’ slave is freed but those men chose to remain slaves to the bondage of their greed. How about you and me this morning? Do we have an attitude or disposition towards money, sex, or power (those are usually the three big idol factories) that keeps us from seeing God’s grace for us? Have we confused illicit carnal pleasures for human flourishing? Sobering thoughts but Luke reminds us here that the gospel is sometimes going to be felt as confrontation, especially when we are suffering from spiritual blindness

And yet God can move us in an instant from blindness to sight as we see in the rest of our story which is saturated with hope.

But paradoxically, our narrative this morning takes a turn towards hope only when Paul and Silas are put into prison. So, we are reminded here that the mission of God goes forward with its greatest power when the servants of God are in situations of powerlessness, following the cruciform God in mission. What is illustrated here in the cruciform pattern of Paul and Silas is put in lovely prose in Paul’s letter to the church which forms in Philippi from this very visit:

2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

It is in his cruciformity that Jesus is exalted and so we expect to see the same pattern in Jesus’ followers. Here are Paul and Silas prisoners in the form of the slave, in stocks and in jail in Philippi - - all because they freed a slave girl from an evil spirit and a life of exploitation. But as I just mentioned, this is where our story takes a turn towards hope. There is an earthquake and all of the prisoners are presented with an opportunity to escape but they don’t take the opportunity!! Somehow, Paul manages to keep everyone from leaving, knowing that the escape would result in the jailer losing his life, either by preemptive suicide, which he is apparently ready to do, or as a result of the capital punishment that would be dealt to him for letting the prisoners escape.

Now, understand, earthquakes were often seen in antiquity as the work of angry deities and that is about all we should take from the jailer’s question: “how can I be saved?” He is frightened by the earthquake and sees Paul and Silas as the ones who are able to tell him how to be saved from the punishment of the gods. The jailer, unlike the human traffickers responsible for putting Paul and Silas in jail, actually sees Paul and Silas as people who can tell him something he needs to know about the supernatural world. Paul sees this as an opportunity to tell the man about the one true God and how salvation is to be found in Jesus.

And so we meet salvation in a prison where those who are freed from their shackles remain in jail in order to save the life of a man who was essentially their enemy. Sounds like the gospel. The cruciform pattern of discipleship comes into clear view. I wonder if the Philippian jailer was in church at Philippi some few years later when Paul wrote that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be used for his advantage, but took the form of a slave. I wonder if he thought about that night when Paul and Silas did not see their freedom from their shackles as an opportunity to take for their own advantage but remained, so to speak, in chains so that they might speak the truth of salvation to this poor man. And so in all of this we are given the clarion reminder that true freedom comes from following Jesus, not in the avoidance of suffering.

In commenting on this narrative, Dr William Willimon, preacher and scholar, remarks: “in this story everyone who at first appeared to be free, the girl’s owners, the judges, the jailer, is a slave. And everyone who first appeared to be a slave - the poor girl, Paul and Silas is free.”

What makes for true freedom? Luke reminds us in the way he tells these stories that there are many ways to deceive oneself into thinking that one is flourishing as a human being, but only in following the cruciform Christ in mission can we be truly free.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you have practices in your life that help you detect when you may be suffering from the onset of spiritual blindness?

2. Do you think of yourself as someone who is capable of hiding under subterfuge in order to not name or ignore your real reason for doing something? Why is acting in this way so sinister and life-destroying? Given the fact that people in leadership (e.g. political leaders, captains of industry) do this all of the time, how should the church respond in a non-partisan, yet prophetic way?

3. Can you think of a time when you made a profound sacrifice (cruciform-like) for someone in order to bear witness in words or deeds to the gospel?

No comments:

Post a Comment