Lectionary:  Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Okay, so you have to read this Bible story before I comment on it. It’s about Paul and his sidekick Silas who are on the leading edge of the Jesus movement that is ballooning around the world. In this instance they are in a Roman colony called Philippi which is situated in modern day Greece.

John 17:20-26

One day as we were going down to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit that enabled her to tell the future. She earned a lot of money for her masters by telling fortunes. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.”

This went on day after day until Paul got so exasperated that he turned and said to the demon within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And instantly it left her.

Her masters’ hopes of wealth were now shattered, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities at the marketplace. “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted to the city officials. “They are teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice.”

A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!  The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Strange little story

No, seriously, this little story is full of head-scratchers. Here are just a few of them off the top of my generously scratched head:

  1. Just before the reading we learn that our heroes are staying in the home of a business person named Lydia who is a worshiper of God. God’s Spirit opens her heart to Paul’s words and she asks to be baptized.
    1. So does this mean that belief or worship are only the beginning of spiritual journey?
  2. A slave girl has a spirit that enables her to predict the future.
    1. Is this a natural talent of some sort or an actual evil spirit?
    2. If it is a literal evil spirit and P & S (Paul & Silas) have the ability to rid her of it, why don’t they do it first thing?
    3. Was it inconvenient? Were they too busy? Too tired? Afraid of the consequences?
  3. And what insight causes the girl to proclaim relentlessly that P & S have good news about God and salvation?
    1. Is she hoping for them to rescue her?
    2. Or is God using her and an evil spirit to proclaim the Good News?
  4. When P & S finally kick the spirit out of her it appears to be out of frustration with her following them around and yelling.
    1. Really? Our heroes are doing exorcisms out of annoyance?
    2. And shouldn’t a good exorcism have a lot more production value than this?
  5. The girl’s handlers are annoyed that her skills have been disabled and she’s no longer able to provide them with income.
    1. I would be too.
  6. P & S are literally ‘dragged’ to law enforcement officials, suggesting that P & S didn’t cooperate.
    1. Our heroes are resisting arrest and aren’t acting very, you know, hero-ly here.
  7. A few accusations are thrown at them, a mob forms, P & S have their clothing removed and they are beaten with….
    1. Whips? No, too dramatic.
    2. Fists? No, too pedestrian.
    3. Two-by-four? No, they only had two-by-eights.
    4. Bamboo poles? No, there was no bamboo grown in that region.
    5. Well, we do have sticks laying around…. Yes, that’s it! Today will be wooden stick day!
  8. They are beaten severely and thrown in jail with specific instructions to the jailer that they are not to escape.
    1. So jailer guy (JG) puts them in a more secure inner jail and places them in stocks.
  9. Naturally this causes P & S to begin praying and singing songs about God (!?!!) and bringing joy to the other prisoners.
    1. Including JG?
  10. There is an earthquake that completely shakes the jail apart and frees the prisoners.
    1. Real earthquake or a metaphorical way to add drama?
    2. If real, was it regional, localized in Philippi, or simply around the jail (likely a cave of some sort)?
  11. JG is about to do himself in (he’ll be killed anyway because of the prisoner escape).
    1. Paul says, ‘Hey man, we’re over here sitting in the dark and trying to stop the bleeding from the aforementioned beating we received.’
  12. JG and P & S sit around in the wrecked jail and talk about God stuff.
    1. The other prisoners too?
  13. JG washes their wounds, so that was very christian of him.
    1. The other prisoners too?
  14. JG believes, invites P & S to his house for a meal.
    1. The other prisoners too?
    2. Not sure what they had for a meal but some great food comes out of that part of the world. Just sayin’.
  15. JG and his family are baptized as believers.
    1. Did every one of them believe like the jailer did?
    2. The other prisoners too?
    3. What are we to make of biblical passages where families/communities come to faith together at the same time?
  16. Everybody lived happily ever after.
    1. Probably not.
  17. I wonder what happened to the girl with the gift who started the whole thing?
    1. And the other prisoners too.

Strange little life

So, kind of a strange little story. Is every word of it literally true? Probably, but I don’t know and I don’t care. I love it.

I imagine them being sworn at and accosted. I picture, with some amusement, little St Paul resisting arrest – sweat, dust, screaming muscles, twisted limbs – carried/dragged through the streets to the city officials while the citizens of the town stare in amusement. Then stripped to some form of naked and badly beaten.

It’s real; it’s raw. Paul and Silas are human; they are missionaries with busy agendas and plenty of attitude. They argue, they sweat, they resist, they bleed. They sing.

Sometimes miracles follow them around and sometimes the earth has to shake to produce one.

But slowly, painfully, God uses them in spite of themselves and produces unexpected results. The Kingdom of God continues to increase because of and in spite of their humanness.

Good strange little lesson.

Good strange little life.