Living as we do near the Cascadia subduction zone, an area where the North American and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates meet, we are all familiar with the possibility of a “Big One” shaking the earth beneath us. Scientists estimate there is a one in five chance that BC will experience a major earthquake in the next 50 years. Reading that statistic certainly made me take stock of how much fresh water, canned goods and propane we have easily on hand. I read a recent report that said that the Juan de Fuca plate is trying to slide underneath the North American one but it has become stuck, locked by friction and the pressure is building on the fault line. As I read this, I definitely felt the urgency to practise my drop, cover and hold on technique. They say that the more you practice it the more likely you are to remember to it in a panic. Drop, cover and hold on! Three easy steps to keep yourself safe in an earthquake. I wonder, if Paul and Silas did that as the walls of their prison cell began to shake and crumble around them. And speaking of three easy steps, the ministry that Luke describes in Philippi are three powerful perspectives of the gospel. Perfect for a three point sermon! Which you know I rarely do!
Luke structure’s Paul’s mission in Philippi into three different events featuring three different people who experience the gospel in three very different ways. We actually heard the first of the three perspectives last week when Paul encounters Lydia. A little recap; following their arrival in Philippi, Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke look for like minded people so that they can worship God and tell them about Jesus. They find that many of the women gather for prayer by a river outside the city gates. As Paul is preaching and Lydia is listening, the Lord opens her heart and she wishes to be baptized, along with her whole household. For Lydia the conversion experience is one of persuasion and acceptance. She is moved, through the Spirit, by Paul’s words and wishes to be baptized. One perspective on the power of the Gospel.
Today’s passage begins at the second perspective and it is rather different from the first! Unlike the pleasant encounter with Lydia, the encounter with the enslaved girl begins with a confrontation. In this story, as they are going to the place of prayer, presumably the same place where they met Lydia, Paul and Silas encounter an enslaved girl whose owners make a great deal of money off of her ability to tell the future. Now, an interesting tone is that Luke does not seem to deny that this girl has a special ability, the problem is, that she has been turned into a slave and made to make money off of her ability. She is also encumbered by her ability- as she doesn’t seem able to turn it off- she walks with Paul and Silas for days shouting at them that they are “slaves to the Most High God.”There is a real juxtaposition between the kind of slavery this girl has been bonded into and the kind of slavery this girl claims that Paul and Silas have chosen to live. It is a commentary on the kind of servitude we wish to live, be a slave to the state system or to the Most High God. From the perspective of this girl, she is doubly oppressed- she is possessed by both her owners and the spirit of divination.
I will admit that I get a chuckle out of the fact that this girl is released from her oppression because eventually Paul is annoyed. For several days this nameless girl follows the men around shouting at and about them. And what she says is true, they are indeed servants of the Most High God, but despite this Paul finds her shouting exasperating. Out of frustration Paul commands the spirit to leave the girl and immediately it does. This perspective on the power of the Gospel has nothing to do with conversion. In fact, it is vastly different from other miracle stories because those miracles tend to take place to convince people of the healing power of God. This miracle, seems to happen by accident. I suppose that is how powerful the Gospel is, sometimes it is spread not because of us but in spite of us.
The difficult part of this story is that after she is healed we don’t know what happened to the girl. For many, the point of the story is not about her but about how the Spirit of God has been let loose on Greece. But I wish we could go deeper with her. This slave girl’s economic roots and the violence she has experienced as a result are explicit. She is seen as nothing more than a money maker for her owners, not a person. In fact, even Paul doesn’t see her as a person but more of a nuisance. Perhaps Paul humanizes her when he exorcises her. By the way, this is the first exorcism in Acts. Perhaps this girl should be a lesson for us, that there are definitely times when we struggle to figure out where people fit into the story of the Gospel, especially if they are people whose chains have been broken. How do we welcome people whose experience of the Gospel is more like that of the slave girl than Lydia’s?
What we do know is that the girl’s owners are very angry and their actions create a bridge between the second and third perspectives on the power of the Gospel. Paul and Silas are seized and dragged into the marketplace and charged with disturbing the city, in part because they are Jews, meaning foreigners, who have customs and that are different from that of Rome’s. What the city officials do not know at this stage is that while they are Jews, they happen to also be Roman citizens, a very unique position for them to be in. This requires a bit of a side bar- Paul and the others are outsiders, they look different, they dress different, they worship a different God- this is what lands them in jail not the exorcism. I’m not a gambler, but I would wager a bet, that Paul knows what it is like to be treated differently because he is a visible minority. What is interesting is that Paul released this girl from her slavery- at least being a slave to the spirit of divination, if not literally a slave to her owners- and it is this freedom miracle that lands Paul in jail. However, by ending up in jail we hear of the third and final Gospel perspective in Philippi.
The image of Paul and Silas singing songs and praying well into the night should create a beautiful metaphor for us of the power of worship to shake the foundations of despair. While I’ve never spent time in prison, I’ve been in a dark place where only worship could pull me out. But here we have literal shaking. It is so violent that the doors fly open and miraculously everyone’s chains are unfastened. Even more miraculously is that Paul manages to convince all the prisoners to remain in the jail, despite now having total freedom. Dramatically just as the jailer is about to take his own life Paul calls out that they are all accounted for. Here we have the third powerful perspective of the Gospel- the guard trembles in front of Paul and Silas and he can not help but be prompted to seek salvation. Unlike Lydia’s story who sought baptism after hearing Paul’s words, the jailer seeks baptism after experiencing a miracle. Like Lydia, the jailer is moved to hospitality following his baptism.
Luke’s record of events in Philippi helps us to see the various ways in which the gospel was spread around Greece. An important reminder that the gospel spreads in a variety of ways. We have the story of God-fearing Lydia, the confrontation between God and spiritual powers which reflects the conflict between the disciples and the political powers, and the incredible conversion of someone who prior to meeting Paul knew nothing of God. Note the one similarity in all three stories, that the disciples are mere vessels for the message but it is God who does all the work. It is the Lord who opens Lydia’s heart, the spirit oppressing the girl is cast out in the name of Jesus and it is one mighty earthquake that shakes the jailer into belief, three powerful perspectives, in three powerful stories, personified in three different people.
There are three steps one should take in the event of an earthquake, drop, take cover and hold on. Like Paul and Silas perhaps we should drop the burdens of this world and trust God’s power to make us disciples, take cover under the love and leading of the Holy Spirit and hold on- hold on to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its manifestations- and be ready for when God shakes things up. Amen