Sermon - Seventh Sunday of Easter (6/2/2019)
Acts 16:16-34; Ps. 97; Rev. 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; Jn. 17:20-26
During the Easter season we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles, where we find stories of the first Christians in the power of the Spirit doing what Jesus did, being Jesus in the world. They raise the dead, give sight to the blind, call the invalids to walk. And today, Paul casts out an evil spirit, just as Jesus did.
At the beginning of the gospels, when people don’t yet know or appreciate Jesus, Jesus encounters people who have evil spirits, and these evil spirits are the only ones who actually know who Jesus is. The story in Mark 1:23-27 is typical: Jesus is teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, and there was “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ … They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’” The unclean spirits know who Jesus is, even if the supposedly clean and upstanding people who see these healings do not.
So Paul is going about Philippi where, we read, there was an enslaved girl with a “spirit of divination.” And this spirit knows who Paul is. The girl follows Paul and Silas and their companions around and keeps shouting to people: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Which is, in fact who they are. And I imagine that Paul’s first reaction to this girl was probably to be thankful for the attention. He’s in a strange city where he didn’t know anybody, trying to tell the good news of Jesus, and there is a school of thought that says there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Even if she’s not saying it exactly the way Paul would, anything that gets your name in the newspapers – even if it’s bad – at least gets people talking about you. It’s one way to make yourself famous – it’s worked for the President, hasn’t it?
But the longer this goes on, the more Paul understands what is really happening here. This girl with an unclean spirit is enslaved, and her owners are using her to make a lot of money from her pronouncements. Think about that: one person is suffering, is deeply troubled and disturbed in the depths of her person, and other people not only fail to help her, but instead take advantage of her suffering as an opportunity to make money for themselves. I’d say that is shocking, except that it actually isn’t. It happens all the time. How much money has been made off of other people’s addictions, to cigarettes or drugs or opiods? How many political careers have been launched by stoking people’s fears or finding scapegoats to blame? Taking advantage of someone else’s problem to line your own pockets or stoke your own ego? I hate to say it, but it happens every day. Even in the name of religion.
And so, as this girl follows Paul around shouting day after day, and Paul begins to understand what is actually going on, Paul is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, the publicity Paul is getting has to be helpful, at least on one level. And perhaps Paul worried about what would happen to this enslaved girl if she was freed from this evil spirit and therefore no longer a source of profit to her owners? What would they do to her then? One can only imagine. But if Paul keeps allowing himself to benefit from the attention that this girl is giving to him, then how is he any different from her enslavers? Isn’t he just taking advantage of her troubles too?
So we read that, after many days, Paul was walking along and the girl was, as usual, following Paul and his companions and shouting. And Paul turns around, “very much annoyed,” and delivers the girl from the evil spirit. I think it’s great that we are told how Paul eventually does what Jesus would have done, but not out of love or out of compassion or out of faith or even out of obedience, but because he was very annoyed. “OK, fine, I’ll do the right thing. Fine. But I don’t have to be happy about it.” I’ve been there. I get it.
But even if Paul didn’t have the most noble intentions, once you start letting the Spirit use you to do what Jesus did, it never just stops there. The owners of the enslaved girl are not happy to have lost their profits, and it seems they are powerful people who can go and complain to the authorities. And before long, Paul and Silas begin to experience everything that happened to Jesus. They are brought before the Roman authorities on trumped-up religious charges. The crowds turn on Paul and Silas, and the Roman authorities hand them over to be stripped and beaten, and then to be put in a maximum security prison so secure, so cut off from the world that they might as well be dead and buried.
And then, in the middle of the night, while it was still dark, the foundations of the prison were shaken. The prisoners were freed from their chains, and those who were as good as dead came out of the prison into life. Praise God. Alleluia!
But the prison guard is deeply disturbed. Perhaps he had watched too much Game of Thrones, and assumed that the former prisoners would take their revenge on him on their way out of the prison. Or perhaps he was imagining what his boss would do upon learning that all of the prisoners had escaped during his watch. Either way he decided that he’d rather kill himself than endure what he assumed was about to happen to him. Until Paul said in a loud voice: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Don’t worry. Everyone else around here may be thinking of themselves first, taking what they need for themselves and letting others pay the price. But not us. We are not going to escape, and leave you behind to face the music. We won’t do that.
And the prison guard is stunned. He falls down, trembling, before Paul and Silas, as Paul himself once fell down on the road to Damascus. And the prison guard says to Paul: What must I do to be saved? By which I don’t think he means, What do I have to do to go to heaven when I die? That’s not what he means when he says, How do I get saved?
He means: How do I get this freedom? Because everyone in this story is a prisoner. The girl, captive to an evil spirit and to her enslavers. The slave owners, so captive to their desire for money that they fail to respect the humanity of others, and therefore not even of themselves. The crowds, egged on by the rich and powerful to demand innocent blood. The Roman authorities, prisoners to their fear of public disorder. The prison guard, who is just following orders. Even Paul, who begins the story trapped in his own moral quandry. And yet, when Paul and Silas are in chains in the middle of the night in the darkest corner of the prison, they are singing hymns. They were the only ones in the story who were actually free, because they were living like Jesus. And when the prison guard asks: How can I also be free like you?, Paul answers him: The same way we are free. Put your trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be free. And the prison guard is baptized and starts living like Jesus: he takes Paul into his home, washes his wounds, and sits down with Paul at the table.
The same message comes from today’s reading from the end of the book of Revelation. After Armageddon, after the devil and all the wicked are cast into the lake of fire, after the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven with its river of clear water flowing from the throne of God, we read that the Spirit and the Bride, meaning the Spirit and the Church, the Holy Spirit and all those who put their trust in Jesus, stand at the open gates of New Jerusalem and call to those outside it in the lake of fire, and say: Come! Come in! Are you thirsty? We have water! Clear, flowing water that comes from the throne of God. And it’s free! Come! The gates are always open. Just wash yourself in the blood of the Lamb and come! And when you are washed in the blood of the Lamb you will get to live like Jesus – to live like God, with self-emptying love, full of compassion and forgiveness and grace. And you will get to live like Jesus, like Jesus risen from the dead, you will live beyond death and beyond fear and beyond everything that entraps you and constrains you and imprisons you. And it’s all free. It’s all offered as a gift.
And even on this side of the New Jerusalem, even though we are still chained down by fear and anxiety, still constrained by a lack of health in body or spirit, still imprisoned by powers and authorities, still responding out of duty or annoyance, still trapped by the jeering crowd and those who don’t want us to be free because they think our troubles are too valuable to them, know this: On Easter Sunday these prisons were shaken to their foundations. And how can we be free? How can we be saved? By trusting in the Lord Jesus, Jesus who is Lord even in the depths of the prison, Jesus who in today’s gospel reading prays that those who believe in him in every time and every place will be one with him as he is one with his Father, Jesus who sets us free and helps us to set one another free as well.