“Sheer Annoyance, and What God Does”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 16:16-24
Acts 16:25-34

 

Acts 16:16-34

One day, 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 youa 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 jailercalled 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.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.


 

This scripture passage is so interesting.  Why is it included?  What does God have for us in it?

We hear a story of Paul and Silas and the believers.  On their way to a place of prayer, they happened upon this girl enslaved, who brought a great deal of money to her owners because she had a spirit of divination.  Nowadays, we’d probably talk about this differently.  We’d perhaps call this a gift or possibly premonition.  But then, the disciples and apostles attributed many, varied talents and abilities to spirits.  They themselves had the Spirit of God in them.  Others had other spirits.  We hear often of those possessed by spirits that caused them great distress or bodily harm.  Not all spirits were of God, and there was only one Holy Spirit, given by Christ.  So it was clear to them that the spirit in the girl was not of Christ.  But we do not hear any concern for the girl’s well-being or her deliverance from spirit possession or slavery.  No, those very valid concerns to us were not as concerning to the disciples for whatever reason.

 

Slaves were in fact common everywhere.  And Paul in particular was of the conviction that Christ would return imminently.  Thus, everyone was to make do and be at peace in whatever life circumstance they found themselves.  Something bigger was at play.  GOD was in their midst.  Salvation was at hand!  And there wasn’t much time.  Everyone needed to make the most of the time, for the time of salvation was upon them!

Paul was not out to change the social order.

 

Did he believe that slavery was right?

I don’t think so.  He famously entreats the Galatians with this instruction:

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

The Galatians are to stop making distinctions among themselves, even those as basic as gender.  For Christ overcomes all social order.  Christ makes us all family, all Abrahams offspring, all heirs according to the promise of salvation.  Power and privilege are upheaved.

But Paul also writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,there remain with God.”

 

 

Historically, this passage was used, among others, to justify slavery.  It’s ironic, since Paul also instructs the believers not to become slaves of human masters.  But both of these readings miss the main point.  The main point for Paul was that everyone should stay as they were.  There was no time for pursuing human goals and interests.  No time for marrying even.  Be content as you are, Paul entreats.

 

And so this question of slavery in Paul remains a bit of a mystery, but after studying this matter for some time, I am convinced that Paul was both Pastor and Prophet.  Paul both cast a vision of what life in Christ truly means – which was no more slavery and distinctions of power and authority – AND yet Paul instructed the churches in how to follow, there and then, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, in their day – “remain as you are,” he entreats.

 

While some of Paul’s words are very vision casting, others are very situationally specific – responding to a very specific circumstance, in a certain day and time.  I find it wise to distinguish between these two different approaches of Paul first – so that I read them in the way they were intended to be read.  I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees!

So in this story of Paul of Silas and the girl with the spirit of divination, I am not too concerned that Paul didn’t address this matter of slavery.  While it would be morally reprehensible in our day, it was a very common situation and in a time when Paul believed they had no more time.  Paul was being true to his own belief-system:  he wasn’t trying to upset the normal social order; there was no time for that.  Rather, he was out to spread the good news as rapidly and effectively and widely as he could.  And thanks be to God that he did, because it is very well likely that you and I are here today in large part because of Paul.

 

The greater mystery to me in this situation is why Paul or Silas or the other believers didn’t simply set the girl free from this spirit, as they’d done and Jesus had done so many other times.  Perhaps it was because the girl wasn’t in imminent or physical harm from the spirit.  Perhaps it was because the girl was satisfied with her life and abilities.  Perhaps it was because the girl was enslaved, and they didn’t want to upset her owners.  We don’t know why they didn’t start out by casting out the spirit inside this girl.

 

One possibility is that they were making every effort NOT to come off as dissidents of society.  In 1 Peter, we are instructed to submit to all human power and institutions.  And in Paul and Silas’ actions, we see two men submitting to the local authorities, above and beyond any would ever be expected to.  The chains fall off these men and all the prisoners in an earthquake during the night, but miraculously all the prisoners stay.  This is so unexpected, the reason seems clear:  it is Paul and Silas.  They have fully and completely submitted to the governing authority and they appear to have successfully prevailed on all the other prisoners to do the same.

Their submission to authority speaks volumes to their credit in this ancient world, and I believe this was very intentional and strategic.  It was their living in this extraordinary way that they distinguished themselves as people of integrity.  In this fashion they demonstrated their trustworthiness and love.  THIS is what wins over the hearts of the jailer and his whole household.

Christianity in its beginning could have surely been squashed.  Had it set itself up as opposed to the social order or the governing authorities, it surely would have been quenched.  Then how many generations upon generations would not have heard?  Would we have followed in their footsteps to indeed set the prisoners free…if they had boldly begun upheaving all social order at the start?  We do not know.  But the likelihood is that we would not be here.

And is this way of being – of delaying justice in order to achieve another goal – best for all Christians in all times?  I do not think so.  Is it best to always be in a position of obedience to authority?  I would say certainly not, though it is sometimes honorable.  Are we all called to remain as we are – making the most of our present circumstances?  While it is certainly in our best interest to find peace and joy in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, I think God’s call is to DO justice – not just preach it.  There are times when we are called to FIND the joy in the midst of injustice and oppression.  Certainly those in Nazi prison camps needed this kind of peace and glimmer of joy in a situation they could not change.  However justice and love compels us to act to change our social order.  And we follow in Christ’s footsteps when we follow a call to social justice.

 

I guess all this is to say it boils down to God’s call in your life.  God’s call to you is unique, and I believe there is no better path for us than to follow – be in finding contentment where we are or speaking out and working hard that justice may cover the earth.  For most of us, God is calling us to both these things.

 

As for the girl with the spirit of divination, I am inclined to believe that the disciples reticence to address the girl’s slavery or her spirit of divination was due to these commitments not to challenge the social order but to submit to authority and thus spread the Word of God as unobstructed and effectively as possible.

 

SO WHY DOES PAUL then eventually do it anyway?

Is it because he changes his mind about not meddling in the affairs of society?

No.  Scripture is very clear that Paul’s casting out of the spirit was NOT a decision at all.  Rather it was a reaction.  Paul was fed up!  He was tired of their girl following them around, saying they were slaves of God.  He was “very much annoyed.”

Paul.

And this makes me smile.

Paul was annoyed. 

 

For any of you wanted comfort and confirmation that God can use even you – YOU with your irritability, your pickiness, your neediness, your deep sadness, your checkered past…YOU.

God can use you.

Now Paul & Silas go through the ringer on this one.  Their action was treated as theft – because the girl could no longer be profited on by her owners.  And the two men were beaten severely with rods and chained in the innermost cell, in stocks.

But true to their beliefs and living what they preached, they made the most of the time:  they sang hymns and songs to God.  And all those jailed around them listened to them.

And they must have made quite an impression in that short time, because when the earthquake leaves all the chains open and all the prisoners free, Paul and Silas have somehow won their trust and respect enough that no one chooses to flee.  They all stay.

Paul and Silas thus minister to their fellow prisoners.  They minister to the jailer who owes his own life to them for staying and not running away (after all, the jailer would have likely been executed himself, if everyone escaped under his watch!).  And then the Jailer’s own household is all saved.

 

Through this act of annoyance, God is still glorified.  God still works good. 

 

We do not hear any more about the girl set free from the spirit.  It is hard to know.  Was her life better after that?  Was it worse?

All we can hope is that her life was made better and that perhaps she got her freedom.  But we do not know.

There is so much we do not know.

 

But what I do take away from this is God’s ability to use all of us – even our possible mistakes and missteps and mere humanity – for God’s glory, that many more may hear and know God through us.

And so Lord, let it be!

Let it be that through us, many more may hear and see, know and believe, receive and experience your unbreaking, never-giving-up love for us all and all creation.

 

And Lord, we ask that you will heal our land.  Heal our hearts.  Heal our social order.  Help us follow you faithfully.  Keep our eyes fixed on you.  Help us make good use of the time that is now – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you, our Lord and our God.

Amen.