On this seventh Sunday of the Easter season—as we draw near to Pentecost—our first reading, Acts 16:16-34, leads us to reflect upon the dynamics of the liberating salvation that has come near in Jesus as we find Paul and Silas bearing witness to it in their words, bodies, silence, and celebration in Philippi. Our pericope today follows on the heels of the first conversion on Paul and Silas’ stop in Philippi, that of the God-fearing, “dealer in purple,” Lydia, who after being baptized welcomes Paul and Silas into her home where they stay during their visit. In the pericope before us, we find Paul and Silas on their way to the place of prayer when they meet a “slave girl” who has a “spirit of divination” which enables her to make money for “her owners” by fortune-telling. The text literally indicates that she is possessed by a “Pythian spirit,” recalling a Greek myth of a dragon or snake that guarded the Delphi oracle and was slain by Apollo. The legend was attached to those who bore the ability to tell the future or to practice a ventriloquistic form of trickery. The girl follows Paul and Silas around for days claiming “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Paul becomes “much annoyed” and orders “the spirit” in the “name of Jesus to come out of her.” While some may attribute Paul’s “annoyance” to his temperament, Kavin Rowe more deeply conveys that his annoyance (literally to “be disturbed” or “be burdened”) arises from the burden of the continued “polytheistic interpretation of Christian proclamation.” The term “The Most High” within a Roman colony such as Philippi was a very general category “vague enough to suit any god treated as a supreme being.” Thus, while within the proclamation there is an overarching recognition of the status of the missionaries, Paul’s annoyance conveys his fear of the danger in a generic conscripting of the uniqueness of the way to which he bears witness.
Well, as often happens, people don’t mind the ways of religion and spirit until it disrupts the primacy of Economy. As soon as the girl’s owners realize that her liberation means their loss of money, they become indignant, capture Paul and Silas, and begin the process inciting the crowd through a subtly false accusation—bringing a destructive foreign cult—so that the market can then be reordered and they can go back to life as usual. Taken before the magistrates, Paul and Silas are quickly accused. They are beaten, presumably by the “rod bearers,” who kept “bundled rods as symbols of Roman justice.” They place them in the innermost part of the jail and shackle their feet “in the stocks” to ensure their stay is uncomfortable and that they cannot escape. As William Willimon summarizes: “The liberators have become the imprisoned.” Of course this is all setting the stage for another miraculous, message-affirming act of God.
The text tells us that Paul and Silas’ proclamation continues, but now shackled and locked up it is seen in the way in which they wait: “praying and singing hymns to God.” Wounded and weary, beaten and bound, they continue to pour forth there proclamation and praise. As Tertullian said: “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” It’s the eavesdropping fellow prisoners who hear this proclamatory prayer and praise. Suddenly, there is an earthquake that shakes the jail with such “violence” that everyone’s chains fall off and the doors are opened. As N.T. Wright notes, “Luke wants us to realize something about the earthquake. God’s messengers are not protected from the sufferings that will come when their message challenges the easy, smug rule of political, economic or religious forces. But God is not mocked. Vindication will come.” Discipleship and witness in the way of Jesus involves an intentional, unswerving engagement that involves a kind of active patience or patient activity; we act, we wait, we act, we wait, and God is in it all.
The jailer wakes up and investigates the situation, and whether from a sense of honor or religious fear, he takes his sword to kill himself; it seems to him that to die is better than to live with the consequences of what has happened. But, before he kills himself Paul shouts out and tells him not to harm himself for they are all still in the cell where they were before the earthquake. In awe, the jailer rushes in and falls down trembling before Paul and Silas. He brings them outside and asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” To this often repeated question, Paul responds: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul and Silas speak “the word of the Lord” to the jailer and his household. After receiving the word, the jailer takes Paul and Silas and washes their wounds, after which Paul and Silas take the jailer and his entire family and baptize them. The waters that wash the wounds of the body become the waters that wash the wounds of the soul. After the baptisms, the jailer takes Paul and Silas up into the house and “sets food before them,” and there is great rejoicing in the entire household.
There are several themes within this passage from which the preacher might decide to focus her proclamation on this Sunday. Briefly, I’d like to consider three: holy annoyance, shackled proclamation, and the way of salvation.
Working with the interpretation of Paul’s “annoyance” suggested in Rowe (and others) above, one might explore how this is a holy, faithful disposition when systems of faith get coopted into systems of economy or culture that are exploitative and detrimental to the dignity and flourishing of human life. An easy example to consider is the way the holy celebration of central days in the church year have been sucked up into the stream of economy and unchecked spending, underneath which are systems of oppression and exploitation. Wall notes that the “dispossession of property is an important literary theme in Acts, typically serving as a barometer of relations with God.” What might it look like for the church to embrace “holy annoyance” with these systems of oppression and the way faith has become another excuse for supporting them, and then—in holy annoyance—come out of that system and, in so doing, call others to do the same. Maybe we should call for a fast from spending unnecessary money during Christmas and Easter each year? But beyond the ways in which faith has been used to prop up exploitative economics during the seasons of the church calendar, we might consider also the ways tenets of our faith have been manipulated, proof-texted, and used as support for keeping in place systems of violence, exploitation, and avarice. Sometimes this happens in explicit ways, when texts from scripture feed into cultural sentiments that target groups of people in ways that do not lead to their sense of dignity and, certainly, are not working toward their flourishing. But, further, how does our faith get used to keep us silent in the face of these systems of oppression, exploitation, and violence when our call might be to the kind of holy annoyance that prompts us to utter into those places the disrupting freedom of Jesus of Nazareth, knowing that this disruption is necessary for the wholeness and peace of God’s reign to come in fullness to the individuals and communities caught in the patterns of the oppressive systems?
Another theme upon which the preacher may focus her sermon is on shackled proclamation; that is, the way in which the witness of Paul and Silas continues even as they are bound in the innermost part of the prison. When it comes to bearing witness to the way of Jesus in the world, it is easy to limit what that proclamation looks like to the public spaces—like the Philippian marketplace—where we with intentionality and courage explicitly proclaim the freedom found in Jesus. However, as Paul and Silas are bound up in prison their posture of prayer and praise become another extension of that proclamation. They are not doing it to proclaim the way of Jesus, but are simply embodying this way by embracing trust in God in the midst of the most dire circumstance. This form of proclamation requires discipline, both to trust God against all odds and to exercise hope-filled patience. This discipline of trust and patience are tested after the mighty act of God. If Paul and Silas had narrowly been focused on their understanding of freedom and held that as the primary goal, they would have gotten up and walked out of the prison when the shackles came off and the door was flung open. But they waited. This was an extension of their proclamation. They waited. And in waiting a way was opened into a deeper sense of freedom, freedom that not only included their release from prison but one that also pulled into that freedom the jailer and his household, while also bringing the other prisoners nearer to this earth-shattering freedom. The preacher might reflect on shackled proclamation, and all the ways we bear witness to Jesus’ freedom even when life’s circumstances do not lend to explicit, public proclamation. The preacher might see this as a means of encouraging her congregation toward living faithfully into Christ’s freedom and in so doing, trusting they are bearing witness to this reality, just as exemplified by Paul and Silas.
Lastly, a third theme that the preacher might consider is the aspects of the way of salvation that emerge within this passage. To begin, Luke does not draw harsh lines between the bodily and spiritual affects of salvation. Within this story the “salvation” that has come is made evident in a variety of ways: a slave girl is freed from the spirit that possesses her; an exploitative economy is exposed for what it is; a jailer is “saved” from death; the jailer comes to “believe” on the Lord Jesus; wounds are washed; the jailer and his family are baptized; hospitality is extended; a community participates in a celebratory meal. While the entrance into this way is expressed to be through belief, each of these other aspects highlight ways in which salvation has come and can be explored as dimensions of receiving and living into that way. One outgrowth of the reception of salvation that I would highlight is the hospitality the jailer extends to Paul and Silas. This continues a similar dynamic that we see in the conversion of Lydia in the preceding passage. Those who receive salvation and step into it, immediately assume a posture of hospitality. What does this tell us about what the working out of salvation looks like for the Christian community? Is extending hospitality to others our first response to the grace we’ve received from God? Drawing attention to the celebratory meal that is shared at the end of the passage might also be a thematically good transition to the corporate celebration of communion. Salvation has come, let’s extend hospitality to others, and lets celebrate together in this eucharistic feast that gives us a glimpse of that heavenly banquet we’ll celebrate when the fullness of salvation comes.
Darrell L. Bock. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Robert W. Yarbrough and Robert H. Stein. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. F.F. Bruce. The Book of Acts, Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. C. Kavin Rowe. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Robert W. Wall. “The Acts of the Apostles,” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002. William H Willimon. Acts. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, edited by James L. Mays. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988. N.T. Wright. Acts for Everyone, Part Two. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.