Saturday, May 19, 2007

7th Easter, Year C, RCL (notes) Acts 16:16-34

[Acts 16:16-34]

[NPR: The Freedom Riders "Jail, No Bail" initiative]


Background: The story of Paul and Silas' mission among the Macedonians continues. Previously, they had chosen Philippi, a Roman colony and leading city of the area, as the starting point of their Macedonian mission. When a local cloth merchant, Lydia, heard about Christ, "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message." She and her household were baptized, and at her invitation, her house becomes the "home base" of Paul's mission to Macedonia.

Slaves of men, Slaves of God

Now, Paul and Silas are accosted by a slave girl "who had a spirit of divination" -- she's possessed by a spirit whose fortune-telling ability has brought her owners a good deal of money. She follows Paul and Silas around for days, crying out "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation."

This girl is twice-enslaved, then: twice-possessed. Physically (and legally), she is a slave to human owners; spiritually, she is possessed by a spiritual force that drives her to cry out fortunes. And one form of slavery reinforces the other: Far from seeing her spiritual condition as a problem, her owners see her "divining spirit" as an occasion for profit.

Now, this very spirit compells her to follow Paul and Silas around, telling any one who'll listen that they are "slaves of the Most High God." Technically, this is true-- they are. The theme of slavery, of being in thrall to someone or some force, has been raised. What it means to be a slave to God, or a slave to some other master, will continue to shape up in rest of the story.

Slavery and Freedom

Paul finally gets fed up with having his own demon-possessed PR agent, and commands the spirit: "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her;" the spirit promptly takes off.

The Gospel is a liberating force: it breaks the spiritual chains that bind to false masters. Paul and Silas may be slaves to the Most High God, sure: but they are free of any other claim. God's mastery melts other claims like wax near a flame. Jesus taught that one cannot serve two masters: having God as a master overrules every other would-be master.

And look at the difference:
God is liberating;
any other master is limiting.
God frees us from all other claims;
other masters want to put us in chains.
God sees our worth in terms of love for us;
others see our worth as what they can get out of us.

God's mastery is ultimately freeing. But there are forces which resist the freeing message of the Gospel, because they profit from the slavery of those who are enslaved to other masters.

For example: The girl's owners are far from pleased. The slave girl was a source of income as a fortune-teller; now she's just another slave. As far as they're concerned, her spiritual and mental health aren't important: what's important is her market value-- what they can get out of her. They don't see her as a person, just as a source of potential cash-flow-- and now with her exorcism, they've seen that flow dry up.

And so, the owners seize Paul and Silas and drag them before the authorities in the marketplace. The setting is appropriate: from their point of view, they've suffered a loss of property-- their formerly valuable slave is now relatively worthless. Unfortunately, there's no law on the books against exorcizing demons from someone else's slave, so they bring other charges against Paul and Silas: "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 first charge isn't legally a charge at all: "These men are Jews." This charge is racist propoganda, plain and simple. Before they've made any real accusation against them, the slaveowners have appealed to the market's anti-semitism, to a Roman sense of racial superiority. The second part of the charge claims that Paul is "advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt." There doesn't seem to be much merit here, either: Paul, remember, is not actually much interested in asking Gentiles to keep the special "customs or laws" of Judaism.

Ironically, the charges Paul and Silas actually indict the accusers: they highlight the fact that are themselves imprisoned by Racism and Roman law. The enslaving powers that want to hold us in thrall, be they human or spiritual, do not like to see anyone deny their power over them, and they strike back accordingly; even those who have become comfortable in such slavery will lash out against freedom. So, the market crowds, enslaved by the same anti-semitism and oppressive law, joined the authorities in attacking the missionaries: Paul and Silas were beaten, stripped, and thrown into prison.

Captivity and Freedom

Amazingly, Paul and Silas refuse to be cowed.

They have been mobbed by the market crowds, stripped, and beaten with rods. They have been condemned by the authorities, thrown into prison, and fastened in stocks.

And still, even chained in their prison cell in the darkest hour of the night, Paul and Silas do something amazing: something I can't fully understand: they pray and sing to God. And they don't sing timidly or quietly-- they belt it out, loud and bold, so that all "the other prisoners were listening to them."

Even in prison, they can pray and sing to God-- and even here, they have found a mission field, for the other captives are listening to them. Heck, they're continuing the mission of Jesus, the one who came to "proclaim good news to captives, and freedom to those in prison."

What must they have thought, these other prisoners? Who were these two strange men, who worshipped and sang in a jail cell, even at midnight? Didn't they know where they were? Didn't they know they were in trouble? How could they sing hymns at a time like this? Observing the faith of these two Christians, the other prisoners could only listen in wonder, their attention turned to this source of liberating power.

And God's liberating power answers. An violent earthquake shakes the prison-- cracking the foundations and throwing open all the cell doors. But more amazingly, the earthquake unfastens all the chains! Strangely, Paul and Silas wait patiently inside their cell-- perhaps waiting for the jailer who will come along in a moment-- for as we shall see, they will set free the one who imprisoned them.

The jailer, thinking that all the prisoners have escaped, is ready to kill himself. Why? He must anticipate some punishment-- a punishment that he fully expects to be worse than death. He either fears the reprisal of his bosses, or has (correctly) interpretted the earthquake as a supernatural act, and is afraid of whatever god caused it. Either way, he's shown to be the captive of powers he fears, a slave to forces which he cannot trust.

Paul stops him from acting, and the man leads Paul and Silas out of the jail. Recognizing the power of God at work, the very one who held them captive becomes a liberator. Trembling, he asks how he can be saved, and Paul tells him to believe Jesus, and he will be saved-- and his whole household. The man then takes him into his house immediately-- "at the same hour"-- and washes his wounds. Paul (or, to give credit where credit is due, Jesus) has saved this man. Saved him from the oppressive Powers which enslaved him, from the racism and oppressive law system which made him into an oppressor himself.

The jailer has become a hospitaller-- one who heals and offers hospitality. The jailer has been set free from the jail, as surely as the prisoner.

Singing in Jail, Partying at Midnight

This is a pretty awesome thing! It's for a reason, us calling this message of Jesus "good news." His whole household hears it, receives it in baptism, and rejoices over an impromptu feast with Paul. It must be a surprising, shocking break of light in the middle of seemingly impenetrable darkness to them--
here this had begun as another night of the jailer going off to the night shift at what had to be a demoralizing job-- and it had turned into feasting and joy, into the happy reception of one of the very prisoners that it was the man's job to imprison. What strange, happy overturnings!

Paul agrees. Years later, writing to the Philippians about his time in prison there, he recalls: I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)

Let us, too, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Where are people being enslaved by powers and principalities, by forces other than God? Where are people not seen for their basic human worth, where are they reduced to categories, to race or ethnicity or political party or target demographic or economic class? Where-ever some false master lays its false claim on God's beloved people, let us dare to say with Paul, boldly and without fear: "I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of there."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lazy blogger that I am...

...nothing much by way of lectionary reflections lately.

And for something completely different:

One 'a my college buddies, Jon Henry, is coming to visit me this weekend! It should be fun. Moreso b/c the wife's away right now, and I've been starved for some social interaction. Less-so for the fact that I'm packing our belongings (by myself--as I mentioned, the wife's away) for the upcoming move, so the house is crazily decked out in precarious stacks of books and kitchen-gadgets stacked up to the walls.

Miss those old college friends of mine. Used to write a heck of a lot more then (poetry, that is.) 'Course, that could be because I was in school for it, but it didn't hurt that they were all writers too.

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