This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on May 8, 2016.
Persecution is the last theme to consider (in this cycle of Lectionary readings) that runs throughout the larger story. It is, for sure, a timely way to frame our work with this text. We live in a day where we frequently hear of Christians being persecuted across the globe. At the same time, we frequently hear references to Christians being persecuted in our nation because someone greeted them with “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” So, we’re hearing the same language of persecution used to describe legitimate martyrdom and to describe a school district’s action not to allow a Christian prayer before the Friday night football game. It’s time for this text to intersect with our culture.
Having been led by a vision to Macedonia, the missionary team wanders their way to Philippi. As they engage people with the gospel, they are beginning to engage the culture in more significant ways. Verses 11-15 recount Lydia’s conversation who has a thriving business in expensive purple cloth and immediately becomes a supporter of these evangelists, offering them her home as headquarters to the Philippian operation.
Next, we see in our focus text, an encounter with another business and one that is fueled by a woman’s brokenness and captivity (again a contemporary connection). This woman “had a spirit by which she predicted the future.” While most of us have had no direct experience with this sort of spiritual oppression, with open minds, we can consider that those trapped in darkness, at some point, are captive to something spiritual beyond their own mistakes and choices. There is something that seems to “have them.” And when that is the case, they are vulnerable to more use and abuse from the culture. Evil is often profitable and the vulnerable will always be a part of that economic injustice.
This fortune-teller finds herself drawn to the Apostle and she names who they are and what they are doing. They are “Servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Apparently she was like a broken record (a Baby-boom simile), following them and shouting her message like a “carney on the midway” (Baby-boom culture strikes again). Although Paul surely was impressed by her persistence and intrigued by her mystical insight, he was getting really annoyed. In frustration, he turned around and performed the exorcism right then and there. Whereupon, the owners of “Fortunes-R-Us” drug the evangelists into the marketplace to face “the authorities.”
In just a few verses we see the truth that markets and marketplaces do not have a conscience. They are not driven by, fueled and formed by, compassion and by a commitment to the Good for everyone. Markets and marketplaces may not be in bed with evil… but they seem susceptible to hopping in quickly, don’t they? Apart from other influences, it is the default direction of capitalism and might this be a good time and text to wonder with a congregation about that very thing?
The “Fortunes-R-Us” franchise in Philippi is a perfect picture of the way “capitalism without compassion” (as Gandi named it) thrives. The equation is simple: vulnerability + ingenuity – compassion = profit. When the gospel gets in the marketplace, those bearing the gospel can become instruments of confrontation or casualties of compromise. Illustrations of both abound.
Paul and Silas are attacked for practicing their religion. They were not teased because they knelt down on a football field displaying their prayerful piety for all to see. They were beaten with rods for setting someone free who was captive to evil. They were thrown into prison. They were persecuted. This is religious persecution and what an attack on religious freedom looks like.
Paul and Silas are “in the stocks” and having a hymn sing. That’s the disposition of those who are truly free. To be centered in God and in God’s vocation, enables singing no matter your circumstances. As they say, “this preaches easier than it lives,” so thoughtful sermons might approach the idea confessionally, wondering what makes it so hard for us to sing from our prisons.
In addition, the text gives us an opportunity, perhaps as an aside, to recognize the importance of getting our prayers “out of our heads.” We think lovely thoughts as pray-ers in the evangelical west. That’s not the praying described Biblically, nor is it the prayer modeled by our tradition. The Wisdom Tradition knows there are other ways of knowing, and singing (a form of body prayer) is one of them. Did they sing, Paul and Silas, because they were centered? Or… were they centered because they sang?
Here, in the remaining verses, we see a connection to the physical reality and the spiritual reality. Again, this might be a good moment to push the imagination and to prompt some openness in every thoroughly modern congregation sitting before this text. We have a very limited understanding of the way all creation is connected. Everything impacts everything. Everything changes everything and a sermon might take this text and explore that and expose our lack of wisdom about the world. Good singing changes the heart and heart rate, improves a disposition and can help with depression, brings tears to eyes and smiles to faces… why would it not impact the rest of the physical order. Maybe Easter is a reflection of the truth of creation and not a violation of it.
Finally, as is often the case in Acts, the movement of God draws people into faith. Paul and Silas assure the jailor that if he believes in the Lord Jesus, he… and his whole household… will be saved. Protestants in general, and evangelicals in particular, are quick to point out that Paul and Silas went home with him and “spoke the word” to everyone in the house before baptizing them all. So, does that make the earlier statement a prediction (now they are telling the future) or is it a picture of a different worldview, one not so captive to individualism?
Baptists, of all traditions, have stood firmly; declaring consistently that a person must choose to enter a relationship to God. Amen! And we, like all faith cultures, have also understood the significance of the “household” for forming people in faith and preparing them for the choice that is theirs to make. However, our individualized understanding of faith was seriously shaped by an exploding culture of modernity, which has influenced and shrunken our soteriology… what it means to be saved… what it means to believe… what it means to be baptized. These ancient understandings and experiences were squeezed into modern categories. But for the most part… those in our pews sit unaware. The Philippian jailor’s conversation is a sermonic opportunity to illustrate how our contexts and our experience change our hermeneutic. This is important, critical pastoral work.
Dr. Burt Burleson
University Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Life
Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Tags: synchronicity, economic injustice, persecution, individualism