Sermon May 18 2010

Text: Acts 16:16-34

The story we heard last week continues. Paul and his companions have arrived in Philippi, a Roman city in Greece, in doing their mission work for the first time in Europe.   They encountered Lydia, a dealer in rich purple cloth, who invited them to stay in her home.

In this story we see oppressed people, people who suffer, people who are under the control of others. In the first place, obviously, is the woman, the enslaved girl from whom others were making a profit. The text in Greek says, “She had the spirit of a serpent.”  In Greece there was a place where a great serpent lived, and people came there to ask their fortune, believing that the serpent was wise and could tell them their future.  The staff of the place gave the interpretations, of course, but people believed that the answers came from the serpent, because serpents had a reputation for wisdom for knowledge hidden from ordinary people.  Jesus indeed had said, “Be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”   

This woman with a spirit that caused her to prophesy was very useful to those who had enslaved her. In those times people could be enslaved for a number of reasons. Sometimes they were captives in a war. Sometimes they had a great debt that they could not repay. In some cases, children were born into an enslaved family. We do not know why this woman was enslaved, but we do know that her owners had gained wealth from her. 

We also see Paul and Silas in prison, in the uncomfortable stocks where they could not move, with their legs held fast, at the mercy of the jailer, the authorities, and the mob that had attacked them.

Oppressed people, who are suffering injustice and mistreatment: this is not only a story of the past. We know that in the USA, 145 years ago slavery was abolished.  Many other countries had already abolished it before that. 

However, today there are still enslaved people. Slavery exists in our world for many reasons. It is mainly that powerful people can extract some gain or twisted pleasure from those in their power.  As divided as the churches are, let God be thanked that they can come together in campaigns to eliminate human trafficking around the world. 

In nations of great poverty, deceivers come with great promises of prosperity, and people believe them.  They leave their homes and when they arrive at that new place of promise, they find that the promise is vain, that they are enslaved.  They see that those who promised them so much have them prisoner, cheated and working without pay.

In Thailand, many women and boys and girls from the countryside are taken to the cities where they are prisoners for the exploitation of men who come even from other countries to take advantage of them, of their bodies, in prostitution.

We know also that there are people-traffickers who clandestinely bring immigrants to the US from place such as China and force them to work in hidden sweatshops from where they cannot leave, cannot speak with anyone, can do nothing but work for the profit of those who hold them captive. There are children in Pakistan who work 12 on more hours a day, whose parents have sold them to a contractor. They weave fine carpets, and the factory owners like to use children because their fingers are small and nimble and because they are easy to control.   

In the case of this enslaved girl, she was defenseless and vulnerable, and her owners exploited her.  When Paul and Silas challenged the enslavement, they suffered a similar fate.  They were also taken unjustly, sent to a place they did not want to go, and held against their will

How many people today suffer such a fate!  They are persecuted or imprisoned because of injustice. In Colombia, the South American nation that has made the least progress in improving the quality of life for its people in recent years, there is a war of the guerrillas against the government, repression by the armed forces and terror by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Ordinary people suffer greatly from all of this.  There is also a US-sponsored campaign to eradicate drugs, which has brought about destruction of many crops that have nothing to do with the drug trade. In many parts of Colombia, church workers have raised their voices to denounce this injustice.  In their turn they are persecuted, threatened, beaten and even killed.  Those who profit from the terrible situation want to silence them. 

There is a ministry by people of faith in the US who go to Colombia to accompany these church workers, to defend them, because they are lifting their voices against the injustice and working in the name of Christ to alleviate the situation. 

Paul and Silas could have spent the night waiting in fear for the morning and what it would bring, but they did not.  Instead, there in the prison they continued their testimony, praying and singing. The rest of the prisoners listened. Even in that situation, as the most isolated and most securely bound of the prisoners, the continued to encourage the others.

Nowadays there are organizations working through out the world for those who are imprisoned. Amnesty International investigates cases of prisoners and finds those who are held because they have worked for justice, not because of any crime. When they discover such a person, in any country, they begin to publicize their case. They encourage their members to write to the government of that country, whether it is Indonesia, Colombia, China or the United States – because there are victims here, too – and demand that the authorities give that person due process, and release them if they are not imprisoned for a fair reason. This work is important for carrying out God’s vision that every creature has worth and dignity.

When Jesus began his ministry, according to the Gospel of Luke, he read these famous words from the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has consecrated me to take good news to the poor and has sent me to announce liberty to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set at liberty the oppressed, to announce the year of God’s favor.”   

This was the mission of Jesus. As the church, as people who follow Jesus, this is our mission, too. We must do all that we can to work with other churches and other groups to help exploited women, to help people in prison. 

The enslaved girl who told fortunes, the apostles Paul and Silas, these are the obvious people that suffer under oppression in this story. Even in her oppressed state, the girl spoke by means of this spirit and recognized that Paul and Silas were, according to the text, “Slaves of the Most High God.”

There are many owners in this world.  The owners of the enslaved girl used her to make money. The chief rulers of the city who put Paul and Silas in Prison, the governors of the province, and the Emperor in Rome – all were slave owners. But the girl, through her quizzical prophecy, recognized that Paul and Silas were not ultimately subject to these owners, but rather that they had one master, Almighty God, the only one that deserves the titles of ownership, mastery, and authority.

Paul and Silas were not involuntary slaves; they had given themselves freely to the sovereignty of God. Thus they served the one who deserved their loyalty, with joy and gratitude. 

In this story there are others that were also enslaved, under control of another. Though it may not seem obvious, the ones who exploited the enslaved girl were enslaved by their greed and by the system that logically told them that as powerful people they should exploit this woman.

The jailer was enslaved. He was in a system of government that seemed to give him great power (the keys to the chains, the control of the prison). But when the chains came off and the prison doors opened, he was ready to kill himself. Why?  He thought that if the prisoners escaped, he would pay with his life. He would rather take it himself than be subjected to the tortures that would come to him.  He was enslaved in an oppressive system.

Nowadays if we speak of the women forced to work in the sex industries of Thailand, we also have to speak of the men who go as tourists, enslaved by their perversities and addictions, men who have taken God’s good gift and twisted it beyond recognition. If we look at those who imprison others for speaking out against injustice, we see they are enslaved to fear.

After 9-11, many people succumbed to fear even to the point of favoring torture of others in the chance that some information could be obtained that would help prevent a future terrorist attack. Fear is powerful and can enslave a whole population. Fear caused a nation to allow the military junta in Argentina to kidnap activists and throw them into the ocean from helicopters so they would drown.  The junta stole children from their parents, killed the parents, and gave the children to families where they would be raised to be like their parents’ killers.  The nation allowed it out of fear of the changes that might come if the repression ceased.

So the jailer came to the cell of Paul and Silas and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Who knows what he meant by that.  I think, since he did not know what Paul was about, he meant simply, “How am I going to survive and escape the punishment of this government?”

Many times people ask these questions, and when they want to be saved they have a very limited idea of what that means.  They do not know what they are asking, really. The jailer wanted to escape punishment. Perhaps someone comes to us with a similar question that means they want to be freed from an addiction, or from persecution, or from a difficult situation.  Or if they are thinking in broader terms, perhaps they simply want to escape punishment or condemnation.

The response from Paul is interesting.  They do not tell the jailer to turn in a report on the prison break, being careful to exonerate himself, or even better, to blame someone else. They say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”  This answer has three parts.

In the first place, believe. There is much teaching that emphasizes the importance of certain doctrines and how these are necessary for salvation, and that without these doctrines one is not saved.  But believing is much more than assenting to a set of words. Belief is a change in course, that is to say, “Given that I believe in Jesus, I am going to allow him to transform me, free me from enslavement, take me in his footsteps, and lead me to others who are enslaved so that we can work out our liberation.”

In the second place, believe in the Lord, as the first and ultimate authority in our lives – not the president, not the emperor, not the chief of police, but Jesus.  In the early church 2,000 years ago, this was the first affirmation: “Jesus is Lord.”  Kyrios in Greek, the title the Emperor used, the title the owners of the enslaved girl used, the title the jailed used when he rushed into the prison and addressed Paul and Silas.  But they affirmed there is only one Kyrios. Follow the one that deserves your loyalty.” 

In the third place, believe in the Lord Jesus.  Do not believe in just any Lord, but in a very specific Lord.  Believe in the Lord from Galilee, who took his mission from Isaiah.  Believe in that Lord!  Believe in that Lord of compassion, of love, who comes to bring good news to the poor, who was sent by God to announce liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and to proclaim the favorable year of God.

Believe in that Lord and you will be saved, you and your family, because salvation is collective. It’s not about “you and me, God, you and me.” When Peter responded to the question from jesus and affirmed “You are the Christ, sent from God,” Jesus did not say, “Good, Peter! You get a passing grade! Congratulations, you are saved!”  Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”  Salvation is for the community, for the cosmos, for the world, for all creation.  This is the saving work of Jesus the Christ.

That jailer offered his hospitality, just as in the previous passage we saw Lydia offering her home.  He gave his home, his welcome, his food, the companionship of his family, for Paul and Silas.  He did this in response to what he had received, not as a payment, but with gratitude.

There is much enslavement in the world; but when there is freedom, and when as a church we struggle for freedom, we see a great response to our mission, a response that confirms in each person the reality of Jesus and his redeeming work.

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