The Last Word: Acts 16:16–34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21
Our story today continues where we left off last week, where Paul and his cohorts are beginning their work in Philippi. The story is jammed packed with people who are, each, in some fashion, slaves to something or someone. The girl around which the story is built is possessed of a spirit and is in fact the possession of a business consortium, each of whom were slaves of greed. The magistrates and locals who arrest Paul and Silas were prisoners of religious intolerance and the jailer who then incarcerates them, even though he had the key to their prison, was himself a prisoner living in fear of his own life. And I also don’t want us to miss the extent to which Paul also seems to be a prisoner to his obsession with his mission. Though I found this story about Paul and Silas getting in trouble in Philippi disturbing, it actually made me feel a bit less critical of my own life and ministry. The Apostle Paul, we discover, is just a human being. You might find it helpful as well. This is how it comes to a head. Reading from Acts 16.
16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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.
19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
As the story unfolds, Paul, on his regular trips to the place of prayer they had found along the river, kept running into a young woman who was very different from Lydia. Lydia, as you remember, was a woman of means and position. She had a household and a business to run. This young woman was a person of the street, a slave-girl, possessed by a spirit of divination that gave her special powers. She was a rare find. History describes such people as “diviners” who were thought to be able to predict the future and also to see more deeply into realities that most people miss. Paul Walaskay, an early church scholar, explains that people would come to these people to ask them questions which they would answer while in a trance. That may sound a bit exotic to us, but Walaskay tells us that in her own setting, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture”. Notice that the terms used by the text in describing her isn’t loaded down with pejoratives – like evil spirit or demon possessed.
Day by day this young seer actually uses the same language of possession to describe Paul and Silas; they were “slaves of the Most High God”.
This is the line that disturbs me. “But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit….” Out of personal annoyance Paul conducts an excorcism. Paul and his assistants don’t invite her into the freedom of faith like they had offered to the well placed and affluent Lydia earlier or the jailer later. Paul shows no interest in bringing her and her giftedness into his ministry. Not only does she continue in bondage to her owners, but also to her separation from the very God she names. What kept Paul from seeing this girl or her liberation as part of his mission? Her liberation certainly wasn’t at the heart of it. Ronald Cole-Turner writes that Paul “frees her from her possession, but does nothing to free her from being a possession”.
The text really doesn’t describe Paul’s annoyance. It would be hard to imagine being able to get that kind of reception. After Paul’s exorcism stripped her and her owners of her value as a fortune teller leaving her as a less valued slave of her owners, do you think anyone cared what became of her? It makes me ask what mission we are on and what is at the heart of it? Who are the “suffering slave girls” who annoy us in our ministry? And how can we overlook the unintended consequences when what we intend to be a ministry of grace that restores hope to desperate people ignores people like this unnamed girl? Can you see how easily the church can get a bad reputation like it did among the people of Philippi?
Some of us screened Dan Merchant’s movie Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. In the movie he wears a jump suit plastered with all sorts of religious cliches, and then interviews people on the street asking the nagging question of how a gospel of love can so bitterly divide people. I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the final part of the film Merchant sets up a “confession booth” at a Portland gay pride festival, only this time he, as a representative of the church, was the one confessing the sins of believers to the people who stopped by his booth.
Marcus Borg in a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, says that when he asks his un-churched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity, “they consistently use five adjectives: they think Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.”
This suggests that Christians have a “branding” problem”. Companies go to great lengths to brand themselves in ways that communicate not just a catchy slogan or a superficial tagline but their core identity, what they most want the public to think of when they hear their name. Good branding is powerful; just think of all the corporate jingles that you can’t get out of your head even if you tried. So here is a thought experiment: “What do you think the average person on the street, in the grocery store, at the gas station would come up with if we went around and asked them to sum up in just a few words what the Christian church was all about? In many cases our branding tag line would be something like — ‘We’re right. . . you’re wrong. Let us correct your behavior. Give us your money for something irrelevant to your life. Withdraw from normalcy and join our weird little subculture. Welcome to worship. . . and let us tell you how to vote.’ Whether we like it or not, we have been branded in these ways by a culture that for the most part sees the church primarily outside of the mainstream of contemporary life.
Our Bible is a mini-library of 66 books, composed by many authors across a couple thousand years. It is long, has many plot twists, and is rooted in the values of ancient cultures quite different from our own. But can we “brand” the Bible’s story? What would be its singular tagline? Can we reduce its complexities to an essential substance that clarifies and enlightens rather than reduces and oversimplifies? Well, Yes, we can.
A solid translation of the very last sentence of the Bible reads, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all”. It seems a bit clumsy but it is correct. I checked my Nestle’s Text. Some variants suggest a different reading that narrows the appeal for grace to be with “God’s people” as the New International Version has it or to “the saints” as the American Standard and the New Revised Standard Version prefers. But isn’t the Gospel, the good news, especially for those who don’t believe it! That’s why I prefer the word for word way the New American Standard Bible, and the New and Revised English Bible and some lesser known publications translate this last and final word of Scripture. It retains the expansive nature of God’s grace by translating the Greek in a quite literal way: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all.”
That’s the Bible’s branding, and it ought to be ours, too. Not some narrow political ideology whether left or right, not a specious theory rooted in junk science, not a judgmentalism of others that is all too eager to exclude people unlike ourselves, not an ancient orthodoxy weighed down by notions of legalities and divine economics and not a preference for the Lydias of the world over the slave girls..
Psalm 97 points to “all the earth” (97:1,5,9), “the world” (97:4), and “all the peoples” (97:6), which is rather remarkable for an ancient liturgical text written for “the villages of Judah” (97:8).
The apostle Paul pushes the parameters of divine grace beyond “the saints” and even beyond humanity. He says that God was in Christ reconciling the whole creation and the entire cosmos to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). God’s lavish love, without conditions or limits, for all people; that’s our branding.
The God revealed by Jesus isn’t mean or scary. He’s the sort of God who throws a party for a kid who wasted the family fortune, a God who refuses to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, a God who breaks taboos of ethnicity and gender to encourage a woman who had been married five times, one who welcomes a criminal into his kingdom as the man gasps his last breaths while being executed, and a God who embraces his closest disciples even though they abandoned him and denied even knowing him. And when we, the church, reflect that image people will not fear God’s followers.
Our capacity to be different and to act differently because Christ is the center of our ministry is the primary means of sharing the Good News. Our commitment to recognizing and appreciating the best that is possible in others reflect the best qualities of what it means to be truly human. As disciples of Jesus, we all find ourselves captive and imprisoned by a number of things that separate us from Christ and from one another. We may be imprisoned by fears, prejudices, attitudes, anger, and a multitude of other feelings, including annoyance, that swell up during times of stress. At times like these, when we are unable to manage the complexities of life may we be drawn to the power of the Holy Spirit to help us deal with those areas of life for which we find ourselves ill-equipped, uninformed, or unprepared. In all things may the mind of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, direct us to fulfilling God’s work during the course of our lives. May the Holy Spirit work within us to bring a sense of joy, centered peace, and a deep sense of compassion in our work and witness with others, in the name of Christ.
And so the last line, down to the very last word of the Bible welcomes everyone. Hear these words: “Let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). And finally, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all.” “Amen”.