“The Boundary-Crossing Gospel”
7th Sunday in Easter C - June 2, 2019
With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, 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. While 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." She 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.
But 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
As we continue our series on Acts, the story picks up immediately after last week’s reading.
Paul and Silas are still in Philippi. They have a friend and ministry partner in Lydia, but the city is still very opposed to Jews and Jewish influence (at this time, Christianity was viewed as just a denomination of Judaism).
The Holy Spirit has lead Paul and Silas to their least receptive city so far: Philippi. Philippi is across the Aegean Sea, leaving the continent of Asia and entering what we now call Europe. It is also the birthplace of global Hellenism.
Philippi is the seat of Greco-Roman imperialism. It is Alexander the Great’s ancestral home. Alexander’s father, King Philip II of Macedon, conquered this city and named it after himself. Alexander grew up there as the prince of this small region, but he had bigger ambitions. Philippi is where Greek colonial fantasies were born. The Greeks believed that they were a superior culture and demonstrated it with military conquest and might. After Alexander died, his Greek empire split into four parts, which were later conquered by the Romans.
But even though the Romans are now in charge, the Greeks left the bigger cultural, political, and social impact on the world. Greek is the common language. The Roman government is modeled off of Greek philosophy and political theory. The Roman religion is based off Greek mythology. The architecture and infrastructure are Greek. And the people of Philippi know it. They’re proud of it. This empire is built on Alexander’s victories, which are Philippi’s victories.
So Paul’s vision at the beginning of last week’s reading (Acts 16:9) is shocking. God is leading Paul and Silas to the heart of Gentile existence. God is leading them to the birthplace of the empire that has oppressed the Jewish people for centuries. Dr. Paul Wright puts it this way: “At Troas, just south of the spot that Alexander the Great (of Macedon) had entered Asia to spread the glories of Hellenism (and himself) across the East, Paul had a vision compelling him to travel to Macedonia and preach the Gospel on European soil” (Wright, 242).
Paul and Silas are intimidated at the idea of visiting the region of Macedonia. They know that their preaching is a threat to Philippi’s cultural pride and therefore a threat to their own bodies. Jews were already frowned upon for not conforming. But at least they usually kept to themselves. Now, Paul and Silas (with Lydia’s help) are preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is teaching the Greek people to forsake their gods (the ones who won them their empire) and turn to the God of Israel and the Crucified Son of God named Jesus.
In our context, this would be like Native Americans going to Washington, DC, to try to teach people a new way of life. Just like Philippi, Washington is named after a great warrior and our nation’s founding leader. And like the Greco-Roman Empire, the former British Colonies that became the United States brought their own culture and religion from across the sea and imposed it on the natives through conquest. So Paul and Silas are demonstrating bravery for the gospel just by showing up in this city.
All the tension comes to a head when Paul and Silas free a young slave girl from her spiritual bondage. They set her free from the demon who gave her supernatural abilities. And that means that she can no longer earn money for her owners through fortune-telling.
For the leaders of Philippi, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now, these Jewish outsiders are not just threatening Philippi’s culture and legacy; they are messing with their money. They are changing Philippi’s economics. Paul and Silas have robbed these slaveowners of their future profit by healing their slave. The owners were literally banking on this girl’s oppression and suffering. So Paul and Silas will have to pay for what they did with their own bodies.
Luke tells us that the leaders of Philippi and the crowds beat, flogged, and imprisoned Paul and Silas. They were abused and mistreated because they showed love to someone who wasn’t supposed to be loved. They treated a slave, a thing, like a human being, a beloved child of God. They crossed a social boundary for love of God and neighbor and the enforcers of the boundary clapped back.
The story has a relatively happy ending. An earthquake (seemingly of divine origin) breaks open the prison doors and breaks the prisoners’ chains. Paul and Silas save the life of the jailer, and then he and his household are baptized into the saving faith of Jesus Christ. It’s beautiful and rich, and we’ll have to talk about that part of the story on a different occasion.
Today, I want to focus on the first part, the confrontation. Paul and Silas entered into unfriendly territory, bearing a message that they knew would be controversial and dangerous. They extended that message beyond their color, kin, and kind (the Jews), and then extended it even beyond class. They ministered to a slave and disrupted the status quo of society. And they received their retribution. Ultimately, God was on their side and proved that by freeing them from prison, but we can’t guarantee how God will act or intervene in the future.
Here’s what we can take away: Paul and Silas were faithful to the boundary-crossing Gospel message of Jesus.
Jesus preached a message of freedom. Jesus summarizes the central theme of his Good News (Gospel) in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
If we follow Jesus -- like Paul, Silas, and Lydia did -- we will also proclaim release to the captives. We will work to free the imprisoned and enslaved. And the economic and social powers of this world will be ticked off. They will accuse us of “disturbing the city” and “advocating customs that are not lawful for us … to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:20-21).
The truth is dangerous to those whose power is built on lies. Paul and Silas preached with words about Jesus’ power to save all of humanity. But they got attention with their actions. They showed that God loves even the enslaved. God valued that girl’s freedom and wellbeing more than the money her owners made off her exploitation.
The truth of the Gospel is that enslaved lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Black lives matter. And when we speak these truths and live with these convictions, we should expect to confront those who make money on the lies and myths of injustice.
But we should not be afraid. For even if they strip and beat our bodies, we know that God is on the side of the oppressed. God is on the sides of advocates for justice. God is on the side of love. Amen.
Jennings, Willie James. Acts. A Volume in Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, edited by Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.
Wright, Paul H. Rose Then and Now Bible Map Atlas with Biblical Background and Culture. Hong Kong: Hendrickson Rose Publishing, 2012.