A Meditation on Acts 16:16-34 ~ Paul and Silas are thrown in prison for helping a slave-girl; late at night, a sudden earthquake frees them.
When the drive to make a lot of money takes over – in a little family business, in a coal mining company, or in an international petroleum giant – when the drive to make a lot of money takes over, people get used and the earth, abused. You’ve been watching the news. Is there really any doubt that corporate greed and zealous deregulation had a ton to do with catastrophes in the coal mines of
West Virginia and the warm waters off the ? What’s stunning really is that we allowed George Bush and Dick Cheney to fool us so badly. All this about the sanctity of the markets. All this about deregulation as the way it was meant to be. What’s stunning is that we didn’t know any better. Because we ought to have known. We ought to have known that unleashed markets use communities like so many logs on the fire, and families and individuals, too. People get used. Earth gets abused. Gulf Coast
Now you’re not going to find British Petroleum or Halliburton in the passage from Acts this morning. Obviously. But read it again: because you are going to find CEOs exploiting the gift of a slave-girl for great financial gain. With no regard for her profound insight; with no regard for her precious wisdom. Read it again: because you are going to find corporate entitlement run amok. Paul and Silas are hounded for days on end by a slave-girl whose life-energy has been possessed, pilfered, stolen by ‘the man.’ She’s like the sister of a miner lost to corporate greed in a
coal mine. Or the wife of a shrimper who’ll never fish again off the West Virginia . Her life-energy’s been possessed by ‘the man.’ Gulf Coast
And I have to believe that’s what’s got Paul all worked up. That her God-given gift has been bought out, betrayed, exploited by investors. And what does Paul do? I don’t think we call this rage. I think we call it cold anger. Purposeful anger. What does he do? He draws on the inspiration of Jesus – who knew the value of purposeful anger, by the way. And Paul reaches into that reservoir of compassion that is his faith. And Paul says to the captive spirit in the slave-girl: “It’s time now. It’s past time. I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of her.” It’s time now to run free, time to dance like all the other kids, time to fly on the wings of the wind.
And then what happens? We know what happens. There’s a price to be paid. There are consequences for the kind of healing, the kind of compassion, the kind of courage Paul extends to this nameless, friendless girl. There are consequences for her liberation. You heard the story. Her owners see their freaky investment, their cash cow devalued – and they’re disturbed, outraged. Paul and Silas are messing with their god-given right to make gobs of money; Paul and Silas are screwing around with their free market machine. And the CEOs can’t stand it. And once they're done pointing fingers at one another, once they're done insisting it wasn’t their fault, they fly into their own corporate rage.
Now it’s a little disappointing that Luke doesn’t tell us where the slave-girl goes or what she does. Does she return to her family, to her childhood, to her neighborhood? Does she join the band of disciples roaming the country, feeding the hungry and dismantling racism and militarism? Luke doesn’t say. But she’s free now. And I guess it’s up to her, where she goes, what she does. She doesn’t belong to ‘the man’ anymore.
For Paul and Silas, on the other hand, this is a different kind of turning point. Now she’s free, the girl, but they’re not. Because so outraged are the CEOs, so disturbed, that they seize Paul and Silas, and drag them into the marketplace for proper humiliation and punishment. This is public, graphic, maybe they’ll broadcast live on the internet. BP, Halliburton, Performance Coal: they’ll make an example of Paul, a cautionary tale. They want their marketplace back.
And so the government – which more often than not is happy to do big business’ bidding – the government has the two of them stripped, beaten with rods, flogged and shackled in stocks in a dark and hidden cell. Free the captives and you’ll pay our price. Mess with the market and you’ll be humiliated. Consequences.
Now we’re in some familiar biblical territory here. It’s grotesque. It’s violent. It’s Good Friday all over again. Luke sees the pattern of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion played out again and again in the life of the discipleship community. It’s what happens when the church lives out the teachings of the Teacher. It’s what happens when the church confronts the perversions of the culture. Paul and Silas – in offering themselves to the exploited slave-girl, in freeing her by prayer and compassion – are seized and stripped, beaten and flogged. And we can’t help hearing the echoes of Luke’s gospel story, the story of Jesus’ last hours and the consequences of his own ministry and love. It’s happening again. The cross, the price we pay when we get involved, the cost of discipleship. The suffering of Jesus.
And then you get this amazing scene in the third full paragraph in your bulletin. “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening…” These two friends have been mocked and humiliated in the marketplace. They’ve been stripped and beaten with rods. They’ve been flogged, tossed in a cell and shackled to the floor in stocks. And what they do, late into the evening, in the pitch black dirty dank prison cell, what they do is they sing.
How are they going to witness to the power of love – shackled to the floor, hidden in a cell, aching all over? They’re going to sing hymns to God. How are they going to stay in touch with Jesus their teacher, their rabbi, their inspiration – shackled to the floor, hidden in a cell, aching all over? They’re going to sing hymns to God. And how are they going demonstrate to other prisoners, to the jailer, to the walls themselves, that there is a force greater than violence; that there’s an energy more effective than hate; that there’s a generosity beyond all the greed? How? They’re going to sing hymns to God. Two beaten men, acting on faith, freeing a slave-girl, singing hymns. And the other prisoners, shackled to their cells, licking a hundred other wounds: the other prisoners are listening. Because this kind of music gets your attention.
So take a moment, now, to appreciate with me the ministry of music, the profoundly prophetic, life-sustaining ministry of music. In this old story, one the early church remembered and treasured, in this story music is so much more than a garnishing, so much more than a pretty accessory to the spiritual ensemble. For Paul and Silas, around midnight, in that awful cell, music is everything. Music is the message. Music is the hope. Music is the defiant resistance of the God of love. They sing, Paul and Silas, to live. They sing to live.
So tuck that away for later. For a gospel choir anniversary or a peace concert or a Brahms requiem. In times like ours, we sing to live. Music, singing, listening to music, making music: this is a profoundly essential spiritual practice for us. We don’t just sing to pass the time. We certainly don’t sing to look good. We sing to live. We sing the defiant resistance of the God of love.
Now I want you to think of the last part of this story – everything on the right hand side of the bulletin text – as an Easter story. Because we’ve come full circle now, seven weeks after Easter, this last Sunday before Pentecost. We’ve come full circle – and we’re ready to ask: What is it? What is this resurrection we’re made for? What is this freedom God intends for us? What’s Easter about?
So you’ve got Paul and Silas as good as buried in that innermost cell. And they’ve been flogged and shackled and humiliated in every way possible. And it seems like the CEOs have done it again, that the magistrates have had their way, that hope has been buried for good.
And then, this singing, this musical resistance, this faithful defiance, this singing.
Ain’t but one chain we can stand
That’s the chain of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
We’ve fought jail and violence too.
And God’s love done seen us through
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
And I’m not saying this happened in just this way; that’s not so important to me. But I am saying there’s truth in this story. I am saying Easter happens this way. When people of faith stand together against greed. When people of faith sing together in the darkest cells at the darkest hours. The world is shaken. The world is shaken. And somewhere in the city, the foundations of the prison are rattled like never before; the doors swing open and every chain in the joint is unfastened.
And maybe, just maybe, part of the gospel message is this: the magistrates don’t have the last word in God’s story; the slave-owners and CEOs don’t have the last word in God’s story; British Petroleum, Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, Performance Coal in West Virginia: corporate greed can’t imprison conscience and compassion and decency forever. Yes, there’s a price to be paid for standing up. Yes, there’s a price to be paid for speaking out. Yes, there’s a price to be paid for taking sides. But God’s on the side of the slave-girl and the coal miner’s family. God’s on the side of the oil-drenched seabirds and the fishing family in
. They can lock up a couple of visionaries; but they can’t wipe out the vision. And somewhere in the city, the foundations of the prison are rattled like never before. Mississippi
And really, this is just the beginning, just the beginning of our Easter story. Because Paul and Silas don’t immediately walk out. It seems that they may have been anxious to get out of there. But remember the poor jailer, the Gentile who’s just doing what he’s paid to do? Well, he sees the trouble coming when the magistrates realize he’s lost every one of his prisoners. And he’s ready to kill himself. To end it all. Which, I guess, would make him just another victim of the system. But Paul is somehow, somehow committed to this guy, in all the same ways he was committed to the slave-girl. Determined to keep him alive. Determined to share the vitality in his soul. And he tells the jailor so. He shouts in a loud voice: “Don’t do it. Don’t hurt yourself. We can help you. You’re not alone anymore.”
So this Easter story has something to do with prisoners loving their captors. Think about that. This Easter story says that resurrection means rejecting vengeance and rejecting hatred and rejecting bitterness and blame. When Paul and Silas hang back and cry out in love for their jailer – their brokenhearted jailer – we get a glimpse of resurrection as courage and compassion. To say that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead is to defy boundaries and reject animosities and embrace adversaries. That’s the New Testament’s vision of resurrection.
Or, another way to put it, from the great 20th century theologian Markus Barth: “To confess Jesus Christ is to affirm the abolition and end of division and hostility…and the end of every sort of ghetto.” I love that. To confess Jesus…to believe in Jesus…to celebrate his resurrection from the dead…is to affirm the abolition of division and the end of every sort of ghetto.
So the brokenhearted jailer throws himself at Paul’s feet, at Silas’ feet; and he’s trembling with unexpected joy, unrehearsed gratitude. And before long, he’s taking them into his home, washing and bandaging their wounds, and cooking up for them a most amazing and unprecedented feast. The end of every sort of ghetto. An Easter story.
Now there are ghettos still. In the world. In religion. Even in this lovely place. There are ways in which we divide ourselves up, adjust to boundaries, resist connecting with those whose ways we don’t quite understand. Here it happens sometimes around political differences, theological language, musical tastes. But here’s the thing. In the bold, daring light of resurrection; in the amazing grace of Easter; in the life of Jesus who walks among us even now; we are given every reason and every opportunity to cross the borders and abolish the boundaries. Every reason and every opportunity to understand the differences and weave something beautiful among us. In the bold, daring light of resurrection, we are given every reason, every opportunity to build a church without walls. Beyond ghettos. That’s the challenge. That’s the promise. That’s the prize.
Got my hand on the gospel plough
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, hold on!
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!