Sermon 7 Easter, Yr C
May 17, 2007 Leave a comment
7 Easter Yr C, 20/05/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Paul and Silas in Philippi”
Today’s first lesson is quite a story. Actually, one could say it is a series of stories within the larger Story of the Christian Church’s beginnings at Philippi. It is an action-packed story—and provides us with a rationale for the title of this New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles. There is never a dull or boring moment in this story; one act quickly follows another, building to a climax and joyous resolution at the end of chapter sixteen. Let’s take a closer look at the story and explore a little how it connects with us today.
First of all, it is a continuous story from where we left off last week, in the home of businesswoman Lydia at Philippi, who herself, along with her household, converted to Christianity and insisted that Paul and his co-workers stay at her house for a while. Now, as Paul and his companions were going to the place of prayer, they met a slave girl, described in the NRSV translation as having “a spirit of divination.”
What does this mean? Well, according to Dr. William Barclay: She was what was called a Pytho, that is, a person who could give oracles to guide (people) about the future. She was mad and the ancient world had a strange respect for mad people because, they said, the gods had taken away their wits in order to put the mind of the gods into them.1
Paul, after days of listening to this slave girl speak of him and his co-workers, becomes annoyed with her and does an exorcism on her, saying: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” We learn that the slave girl was healed of this mad spirit “that very hour.” Paul here is carrying out one of the jobs that Jesus gave the apostles when he sent them on their mission—namely, to cast out evil spirits. Paul and his co-workers believed that there was power in the name of Jesus Christ. This power was able to work for the health and well being, the healing of those who were sick and oppressed mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. The Church, to this very day, continues to “renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises” whenever someone is baptized into the Christian faith.
Luke goes on to tell us that the owners of this slave girl were not pleased when Paul freed her of the oppressive spirit so that she no longer continued with fortune telling, thus taking away the wealthy income for her owners. There is an important lesson in this detail. That slave girl being exploited by her owners for their own selfish gain is a story that tragically continues to this very day. There are millions of children in the two-thirds world who are exploited in similar ways today. Wealthy corporations hire young boys and girls to work like slaves for next to nothing in their sweat factories. Some girls are also sold at a very young age and placed into the slavery of the sex trade in large cities around the world. Some boys are recruited by terrorist death squads to shoot and kill innocent people—leaving irreparable scars within their souls for life. The slavery of children goes on to this very day, and we as Christians need to pray and work for the freedom and well being of these children.
It is rather telling too, I think that Luke fails to give us any more details about this slave girl. We don’t even know her name; nor do we know what happened to her after Paul had cast out the spirit of divination from her. Did she return to her old way of life again? Did her owners continue to exploit and abuse her? Or, as I’d like to believe, did she become a member of the Christian Church at Philippi? Did someone, perhaps Lydia, take her into their household and treat her with love and respect? We don’t know, since her story is left open-ended by Luke. So, too, in our world today, there are too many stories of too many children who remain unnamed; whose lives are a living hell; who remain hidden and forgotten. May God have mercy upon them and deliver them from the evils that they suffer. May God move us to work for the freedom and justice, health and well being of these children.
As Luke continues the story, the slave owners, in revenge after losing their exploitive income; roughed up Paul and Silas; brought them before the legal authorities and accused them in public of trumped up charges. Paul and Silas are scapegoated for being Jewish and acting in un-Roman ways. The age-old hatred against the Jewish people rears its ugly head here and Paul and Silas are unjustly convicted, beaten and imprisoned. Today, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head all over the world. One Jewish organisation which monitors anti-Semitism has reported alarming increases in incidents of hatred acts against Jews in many of the democratic nations of the world, including right here in Canada. As Christians our connection with the Jewish faith and the Jewish people is inseparable. Our Saviour and Messiah, Jesus was a Jew, and most of the writers of the New Testament were Jews—as were most of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Therefore, as Christians we need to work against this hatred of the Jewish people today. Moreover, the story of the abuse of Paul and Silas by the legal authorities is a repeated story of millions of people today around the world who face injustices because they are often minority groups and different in some way from the people in positions of power, who remain in power by persecuting and abusing others. Our calling as Christians is to protect and defend the victims of injustice around the world and in our midst. May God grant us the courage and compassion to do so.
As the story continues to unfold, Paul and Silas, after enduring their beatings, were handed over to a Philippian jailer who threw them in prison and put them in chains and stocks. Then the plot thickens. Paul and Silas are not disheartened by all of the injustice that has overtaken them. No, rather than being paralyzed because they were victims, they worship God, pray and sing hymns and the other prisoners listen to them. Now if that had been us, I wonder what we’d have done. Would we, like Paul and Silas have been worshipping God at midnight with prayers and hymns? Or would we have complained about our situation and wallowed in self pity? This detail of the story reminds us of Paul’s admonition elsewhere to give God thanks for all things. Why? because God is actively working out his good purposes in and through all things.
While this is happening, an earthquake shakes off the prisoners’ chains and opens all of the prison doors. The jailer, waking up and seeing the open prison doors, thinks the prisoners have escaped. He realises he’s responsible for them, so he pulls out his sword with the intention of taking his own life. Paul shouts out to him and reassures him that everyone is still in prison, thus preventing the jailer from committing suicide. After this, the jailer realises the faith of these two apostles is contagious and asks them how he can be saved. They tell him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It is the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus that works within the heart and mind and soul of this jailer and his family that then leads them to receive baptism and thus become Christians. Our calling as followers of Jesus is the same. We too are given the Word of God to proclaim to others that they too might be drawn into the Christian faith. Jesus has given us the ministry of bearing witness to people of every background. The invitation to become members of God’s family is an open one—everyone regardless of their status, their occupation, their race, their class, their gender, their age, or whatever is welcome and invited to be a member of the Christian Church. Do your friends and neighbours who might not be Christians or have any church affiliation know this? If not, what can you do to make this known to them?
It is interesting that the story continues with another familiar theme in that early Philippian Church—namely that of hospitality. The jailer and his family welcome Paul and Silas and look after their needs. They washed their wounds and offered them food. Such is the ministry for us too. As we learn elsewhere in the New Testament, we love, because God first loved us. After we receive the grace, love and forgiveness of God through our Lord Jesus Christ; we then respond by acts of love towards others, just like the household of the jailer at Philippi. Such acts of love make a big difference for countless people every day around the world—touching their hearts and lives and drawing them closer to the Lord: food for the hungry, homes for the homeless, love and care for the widows and orphans, education for the illiterate, healthcare for the sick, to name some of the ways in which we can and do make a difference by supporting our ELCIC’s Global Hunger and Development Appeal and Canadian Lutheran World Relief, as well as our local organisations like the Women’s Shelter, the Champion’s Centre, and so on.
May we continue to be inspired by God’s Word, which gives us life and salvation. May we share it faithfully with a world in need, just like Paul and Silas. And in so doing, may we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving what our risen Christ is doing and shall do in and through us. Amen.
1 Wm. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1976), p. 124.