We say that Christ liberates us from sin and death. In a sense, we are the community of those whom Christ liberates. Paul and Silas are liberated, both from Sin, Death, and the power of the Devil, and from their bondage in Philippi. And they give us some insight into what Christian liberty may look like.
What do Paul and Silas do that gets them in so much trouble? It is not what they’re charged with doing; the charges are bogus. “They are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Once upon a time, in Republican Rome, it was unlawful for Roman citizens to worship any gods other than Rome’s. But times have changed. This is Imperial Rome. The policy of Imperial Rome is that if you pay your taxes and participate in the handful of central rituals, Rome leaves you alone. Paul’s accusers are citing an outdated law from a bygone era. Yet the magistrates choose to enforce this law, which is in and of itself an unlawful act. And not only do they enforce an outdated law but they deliver punishment without permitting Paul and Silas to make a defense. This is, if you will, a first century beating in custody of men suspected of committing acts that are not illegal. (Thank heavens nothing like this happens today, or mentioning it would be awkward.) The bogus charges and unlawful punishment stem from the economic impact of their healing of the slave girl.
She was in a lucrative racket. Our NRSV says she had a “spirit of divination.” Luke specifies that it was the Spirit of Pythia. The Ancients knew Pythia as the god who spoke through the renowned Oracle at Delphi. By Paul and Silas’ day, the Spirit of Pythia had expanded beyond Delphi, and had mediums everywhere. Want to know what direction to take in your business? …if your secret crush likes you back? …if it is time to buy a house? You probably consider asking Pythia’s opinion. And even if you’re just out in the market and the girl he possesses tells you something, you slip her a little something for her trouble.
Of course, this particular medium is a slave. She is income for her owners. I remember years ago leading an adult Sunday school class on this text, and encountering folks who identified her as perfectly okay as she was and not needing any of Paul’s so-called help. It alerted me to ways the Church has claimed it is helping when it is really hurting, but I mention it here to say that I don’t think that is what Luke is describing. The girl is not happy with who she is but is rather tormented by a spirit and exploited as a source of income for her owners. When Paul says, “For Christ’s sake, get out of her!” Paul is disrupting livelihoods. He’s closed a business, and taken away a trusted consultant from the good people of Philippi. Paul and Silas are charged with things that aren’t illegal and are beaten and imprisoned unlawfully because they upset the local economy.
Now, it is not like Paul and Silas woke up and said, “Let’s ruin some lives!” Nor did they go to Philippi to disrupt the market. They went to Philippi because the Holy Spirit led them there, and they woke up that morning intending to go to the place of prayer. Their work as apostles continued Christ’s work of liberating. Roman society for all its pluralistic tolerance and overall material wealth existed because of brute force. The Pax Romana was enforced through threat of crucifixion, through literature, painting and sculpture that served as violent, pornographic propaganda, and through the religious rituals all were expected to perform. The bulk of society was underfed and overworked, and kept that way intentionally. The Death and Resurrection of Christ ruptured this world. In the Gospel Jesus prays that his disciples know and tell others how much the Father loves Jesus. God has favored this one who feeds thousands without question, who touches the unclean and dignifies the ashamed. He healed the broken. We broke him. God raised him, saying, “That’s my man, right there!” This one who we murder in a horrible moment of brutality is the one living and acting as God would have us live and act. Paul and Silas are continuing Jesus’ work when Pythia gets in their faces.
Public acts of faith and healing offend us. Partially, they offend us because we’re scientific people. (Even those who deny the findings of science use science as part of life.) Most of us when asked “What do you think when you hear ‘public acts of faith and healing’?” think, “charlatan,” or one of its synonyms. But that is as much the fault of the faithful as it is of the snake oil salesmen, because our faith is privatized. None of us did this; we were born into it. During the Enlightenment, philosophers began thinking of religion as an idea arising from social structures. Every society produced a religion; Christianity was just another social product. Theology responded to that claim by declaring that our social setting was purely accidental, and that what really mattered was our personal, private relationship with Jesus. And of course that relationship was so personal and so private that no one could question it or measure it. Today Christ is visible in public chiefly on the lips of the charlatans, or as the reason groups cite when demanding that society conform to their worldview.
We who follow Christ will not extricate ourselves from this situation by retreating further into ourselves. Instead, the Holy Spirit calls us to look closely, as Paul and Silas testify. The slave girl will not benefit from Paul “sending thoughts and prayers” or Silas’ intense personal relationship with God. She is exploited and broken. She needs actual help. Paul and Silas say, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” They effectively say, “Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who created the world—does not approve of your breaking and afflicting this woman, or of her owners exploiting her brokenness.” Faith, for Paul and Silas is an “institution of social criticism.” Jesus heals the girl; Jesus is aiming at something even bigger: healing the human community. The community thinks nothing is wrong until Paul and Silas come to town. The community is resting easy, figuring that Paul and Silas won’t cause any more trouble. This happens to be the night of an earthquake, of the peculiar variety that unlocks handcuffs and opens doors. Now, speaking for myself, this looks like a great opportunity to get the hell out of there. Paul and Silas see an opportunity to tell their jailer about God.
“Look closely,” the Spirit says to us today. “Look closely at Paul and Silas, as they preach from that open prison.” Private faith would say, “Thank you, God! Now let’s get out of here, Silas!” The faith of Christ, on the other hand, seizes the moment. It is the moment of truth for the jailer. These irritating Christians with their theological critique of social injustice and their midnight hymn festivals have got him in a difficult spot. They stayed in their cells. Will he just lock them back up and remain complicit in the injustice, or will he allow God to change his life, too? We know that in this story it is the latter—and though he does not renounce his profession as a jailer he is baptized, and joins Lydia as one of the Christians at Philippi. But Paul and Silas have no guarantee. Their position in that unlocked jail is risky. They take a chance that the powerful will hurt them.
It is perhaps a metaphor for God’s dealings with us. God the Father has given all of his glory to God the Son, Jesus Christ. And Jesus transfers that glory to us, with the instruction that we glorify God now by our love for the world and its people. In so doing, Jesus risks our deciding to lock it all back up again. We could choose not to love our neighbors, and shut the door on God. We could decide not to advocate for the exploited in our communities, and shut the door on God. We could decide not to bear witness to the powerful, and shut the door on God. But God just keeps on sending those metaphorical earthquakes, the ones that unlock handcuffs and open doors. And instead of skedaddling once the bars are open, God abides in those risky places.
They’re where God is calling us, the institutional Church. We don’t get to hide in our personal faith that cannot be quantified or challenged. (I mean obviously we can, and God still loves you, but it’s not what God is asking us to do.) God is calling us, the institution, to be an institution of social criticism. God is calling us to preach from just inside those open prison doors, where the powers of this world could decide they’ve had enough of us, but where they cannot stop our midnight hymn festivals, where they cannot take away Christ’s bath, or his body and blood, where they cannot take away his creative and redeeming Word, and where no matter what fetters are placed on us we are the community of those whom Christ liberates.