Saturday, 15 May 2010

Seventh Sunday of Easter: Avoiding Conflict or Living with the Consequences?

Acts 16:16-34
Paul and Silas in Prison

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

John 17:20-end
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’


This story from Acts is a challenging one because it asks us whether we’re willing to do the right thing, or whether we are always more concerned for the consequences for ourselves. We’re continuing with the journey that St. Paul has been on and here we encounter him getting into trouble for doing the right thing, and then seeing God at work in the midst of what ensues. What I’d to do is to take you through the story because we need the entire picture to see how the end result turns out.

And so we find Paul and Silas continuing their work in Philippi. You may remember from last week that there was no synagogue in the city and so Jews and other believers in the one God met outside the city at a place by the river that was dedicated to prayer. Luke, the writer, begins his eyewitness account by describing how, one morning, they were making their way to the place of prayer.

On the way they encounter a slave-girl. In the Greek we discover that she is possessed by a python spirit. That doesn’t literally mean the spirit of a snake, but rather she was a slave to the Greek god Apollo, represented by a snake. If she was one of the oracle readers, who were usually young women, then she would have been highly valued because she would have been one of those who, when in a trance, would give answers to people seeking the wisdom of Apollo.

But if that was the case, why on earth was she declaring that Paul and Silas were slaves of the Most High God? Surely she would have been declaiming them as imposters. The commentator Paul Walaskay suggests that what was happening was that a woman who was enslaved to a god by a spirit could not help herself because she recognised that they were slaves to a higher power, hence the use of the phrase Most High God.

On occasion I’ve suggested that Paul had a bit of a temper, and we might wonder whether the way he treats the slave-girl is an example of that, but on this occasion I don’t think it is. Luke, the writer, makes it clear that Paul and his companions live for days and days with this young woman following them around screaming out that they were slaves to the Most High God offering the way of salvation. He didn’t do anything about it to begin with, and maybe at first he thought it was a bit of good advertising, or maybe he was weighing up the consequences of taking action.

But maybe after a while it became more disturbing. You know how it is when someone’s behaviour can be really annoying, but out of goodwill you try and just live with it for as long as possible, but eventually you lose patience and say something, perhaps something you go on to regret? Well I suspect that’s what happened here.

Older translators say that Paul was grieved whilst modern ones refer to Paul as being ‘very much annoyed’, but it doesn’t tell us what he was annoyed with. Was he just fed up with getting no peace and quiet to pray in and talk to people? Or was he, as another translation puts it, ‘troubled’, which may hint that he was upset that she was enslaved by this spirit.

Either way, Paul turns to her, clearly vexed in some way after days of her incessant screaming, and commanded the spirit to leave her, which it did. However, that action by Paul had some fairly major repercussions. The slave girl was what her owners might have referred to as a ‘nice little earner’. They weren’t concerned about spiritual matters. All they wanted was the profit, and because of Paul that well had dried up.

So they stir up trouble for Paul and Silas, playing the ethnic card, showing that the BNP’s reaction against foreigners coming into our country and, as they might put it, ‘stealing our jobs’, has an evil history dating back at least two thousand years. Following a joke of a trial in which everyone who’s present jumps in to give Paul and Silas a good kicking, they are thrown in jail.

Paul and Silas did the right thing, but I wonder whether they felt regret given their circumstances. If we’d been in the jail might we have been thinking to ourselves, ‘Oh if only we’d just lived with her babbling, think how many more people could have heard the good news about Jesus, but instead we’re locked up in this cell, naked, beaten, and in pitch black.’

That would be the 21st century way of it I suspect. But for Paul and Silas that was not how they reacted. They knew that they had set a girl free from being enslaved by a spirit, and were prepared to live with the unforeseen repercussions. Whilst we might think everything out to the nth degree before acting, they did what was the right thing and trusted God.

They knew that being a Christian will sometimes put us on a collision course with the powers of this world and the result was that they were badly beaten and thrown in jail. But even there, battered and badly bruised; probably still bleeding, they begin to worship God and the other prisoners listen. There is a violent earthquake that throws all the doors open. What happens next is curious. They could have escaped. There was an instance when Peter was in jail and an angel set him free and he did indeed escape, but that’s not what happened here.

Perhaps it was at Paul’s instigation, but for whatever reason the prisoners all stayed in their cells, saving the jailer from the honourable suicide that he intended, having, so he thought, failed in his job. That act of witness, of doing the right thing, changed the jailer’s life. He obviously knew why Paul and Silas were in jail, but he’d been asleep while they’d been singing, so hadn’t heard their worship.

What convinced him was that he knew who they were and what they stood for, but when their actions testified to their words, he knew this was special and that he needed whatever it was that motivated them. And so the jailer became a believer and he and all of his household were immediately baptised.

Look again at the train of events. Paul and Silas are quietly going about their business of worship and evangelism. They are disturbed by a young woman with a spirit. Paul casts the spirit out and therefore brings them into conflict with the powers that be. They couldn’t have known what the consequences would be; they just felt they should do the right thing and then trust God.

They suffered for their decision but ultimately they stayed true to what God laid on their hearts and consequently the jailer and all of his household were saved and baptised. And so here is the challenge that comes to us, and it’s one that sometimes lays heavily on my conscience.

From time to time we are all put in difficult situations where something needs to be challenged. How do we respond? Sometimes what we do is go backwards and forwards in our own minds, trying to work out what all the possible repercussions might be. In other words we try and stay in control of the situation and avoid conflict if at all possible. The usual result of that is that actually we do nothing.

Now look at Paul and Silas. They could have been like us. They could have done nothing. They could have just lived with the constant bellowing of the possessed/oppressed slave girl and avoided prison. But eventually the felt that they had to do something and so they reacted against the spirit in her and cast it out. They then had to live with the consequences of being beaten up and thrown in jail.

Yet throughout they stayed true to God; worshipped him and trusted him and as a result the jailer was saved. So then, are we dodging conflict for a quiet life? Is there a situation in which we need to say something or do something and simply live with the consequences, trusting that if we are doing the right thing then God will bring good out of it in the end?

We might have to go through fire, but if we are avoiding taking action, might someone else be losing out because of our hesitance and fear? Amen

F.F. Bruce, 'The Book of the Acts', Eerdmans, 1988
J. Stott, 'The Message of Acts' IVP, 1990
P. W. Walaskay, 'Acts', WBC, 1998

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