May 29, 2022

Easter 7 C – George Yandell

In the passage from Acts, Paul and his companions continued their stay in the Roman colony of Philippi. As they were going to a place of prayer, they met a slave girl who had a “spirit of divination” (16:16) and whose owners profited from her fortune-telling skills. For several days, the girl followed them about shouting “These men are the slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation”. Like the other demonic spirits in the Gospels, this one recognized the saving power of God as proclaimed by Paul and Silas. Paul finally became so annoyed with her constant presence that he exorcized the spirit from the girl in the name of Jesus. Her owners were enraged, because now that the demonic spirit was gone, so were their profits. Thus they dragged Paul and his companion Silas before the magistrates, where they were charged with disturbing the city and advocating unlawful customs. As the crowd joined in the attack, Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown into jail with their feet tethered in stocks.

In the middle of the night, as Paul and Silas were praying and singing, a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. All the locked doors were opened and the prisoners’ chains unfastened. When the jailer in charge awoke and saw this, he was ready to kill himself, as he would be held liable if the prisoners escaped. When Paul assured him that all the prisoners were still there, the jailer fell down in gratitude. He recognized Paul as an agent of God far greater than any he had known, and so he asked “What must I do to be saved? Paul responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus”. Paul’s message that salvation comes through belief in Jesus is the gospel in its simplest form. Paul and Silas then spoke the “word of the Lord” to the jailer and his household. After the jailer tended the wounds of Paul and Silas, he and his entire family were baptized. They were all invited to a celebratory meal, the eucharist, as the jailer “rejoiced that he had become a believer in God”. 

In its clearest early meaning, believing on or in the Lord Jesus means ‘be-loving’ Jesus. Until around 1000 C.E. people heard the passage as “Salvation comes from loving Jesus in response to his love for us.” So the jailer rejoiced at loving Jesus and the God of creation.

Jesus had promised the disciples that the Father would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be with them. Paul and Silas were filled with the Spirit, which drove them to love the jailer. The jailer’s life was turned by that love, which Paul said was actually the love of Jesus, resurrected.

The Acts narrative has all the ingredients for a greedy, self-deceiving, status quo society: There is a used slave-girl fortuneteller who thinks that the future is all fated and can be programmed with certitude. There are money-making exploiters, the banker-pimps who use the innocent fortune-teller to generate private wealth. There are the magistrates who use their authority to maintain the status quo and prevent any social “disturbance.” And there’s a prison that is a social statement about power and order that constitutes a threat to any who act “outside the box.”

Into the midst of these “fixtures” of a stable society come the followers of Jesus. They assert an alternative “way of salvation”. The new way of well-being exposes all their old ways as failed frauds. In reaction to such news, the magistrates by decree and the mob by violence try to stop the news of “another way.” But, we are told, “suddenly” all the fixtures of shut-down control are shattered. The text makes no direct connection between the news and the quake. It leads us to imagine that God’s new power is on the move. It’s no wonder that the ones who know, sing and pray, and praise. We praise because we know the prison-houses of fear cannot contain this God who gives “life and breath and all things”. [Adapted from Walter Brueggemann in Sojourners May 2010.] What is most important for us who participate in Church is recalling that Jesus and his followers proclaimed the kingdom of God present now. As Dom Crossan points out from the Lord’s Prayer: heaven is in great shape- it’s on earth where the problems lie. Jesus prayed and we pray that earth will be transformed more and more into heaven’s likeness. It means be-loving Jesus is not just a get-into-heaven-free card. It isn’t a fad to reassure us. Heaven now means being part of the body and caring for all those God places in our path. It means sharing the love of Jesus and the joy of heaven here and now. Be-loving Jesus means proclaiming love in the face of fear. That’s our challenge, that’s our mission- telling those trying to escape this life that it is God’s intent, through Jesus, that we love so well that people experience the joy of heaven now. Life after death takes care of itself.