Our reading from Acts 16 tells us that if you’re wanting a quiet life then the very last thing you want to do is to go looking for a prayer meeting. Luke puts on the style with this story, showing his flair for the dramatic. It’s as if he was over-eagerly auditioning to be a script writer for a TV soap and throws in every possible plot-line. But he knows how to keep his audience entertained. So, let’s take a peek at Luke’s screenplay…
Firstly, the backstory
Last week Paul had arrived in Philippi and was searching for somewhere to pray when he ran into the lovely Lydia. Paul tried to find a Jewish community whenever he came to a new town and that’s what he was looking for when he met Lydia down by the river. She was a merchant and head of her household. They got talking, he gave a Word and she came to Christ. Being Greek, Lydia is thought to be the first documented European convert. She was soon to became leader of one of the first house churches.
This week Paul is again going to pray, possibly back at Lydia’s, and gets followed by a servant girl with a gift of insight. But she made a real nuisance of herself – and in making that problem go away Paul finds himself in jail, then in an earthquake and then gets run out of town.
So, that’s the background. Let’s look at the different scenes in our mini-TV series.
Scene 1 – it starts out as a supernatural horror
The spirit in the servant girl recognises who Paul and Silas are. The girl stalks them across the city for days shouting out their identity. You’d think that would be good – some free missionary advertising! But it must have got in the way of how Paul wanted to present his message – so he exorcises the ability out of her and shuts her up. Her owners are furious. Her fortune telling was a big source of income and now she was useless to them.
Luke doesn’t say what happens to the girl next. Her fate and her name go un-mentioned. There’s a loose end. Does she become a follower of Christ? Do her owners kill her or sell her since she’s no more use to them? Will we find out later? We’re left in suspense…
Scene 2 – it becomes a courtroom drama
Her owners haul Paul & Silas before a judge for loss of income, for ruining their livelihood. Paul could have stopped it there & then by telling them he was a Roman citizen. But for mysterious reasons, he keeps that part of his identity secret. There’s an angry mob. Paul & Silas are beaten up and put in the innermost, darkest part of the jail. How will they get out of this one? Will Paul now reveal who he is?
But that’s the end of episode one and we have to wait to see what happens next…
Scene 3 – it becomes a musical
We’ve no idea how tuneful Paul & Silas were but it’s midnight and they were doing karaoke… You’d think it would be some sort of Blues song with a harmonica about getting into trouble because of a girl and winding up in jail… Or Unchained Melody perhaps? Sorry! But, instead of lament we get praise. We’re getting a first century equivalent of Graham Kendrick. That might be great for Paul and Silas but perhaps not so good if you’re one of the other prisoners and literally part of the captive audience!
Scene 4 – it becomes a disaster movie
There’s an earthquake. The balsa wood set moves from side to side, the chains are broken, everyone could escape. Is God staging a breakout?
And it’s the end of another episode. Another cliff hanger. Will they get out? Do Paul & Silas get hurt in the quake? We have to wait till the next episode, which is next week if you’re watching normal TV. But since we’re binge-watching on iplayer we only have to wait a few seconds…
We return and no-one has escaped! It’s an escape story without an escape. Even the other prisoners with cotton wool in their ears from the karaoke are still there. What’s going on?
Scene 5 – it becomes a melodrama
The jailer is probably a retired army war veteran. Like the servant girl he is not named. We learn that he tries to kill himself because of the dishonour, thinking that everyone’s gone and that he’ll be held responsible. Earlier, in Acts 12, the prison guards are killed by Herod when Peter escapes. So, the punishment for not keeping control was severe.
But Paul stops the jailer just in time and shows him everyone’s still there in jail. The jailer is totally overwhelmed and asks the pivotal question: “what must I do to be saved?”. “What must I do to be saved?”
Does he understand the depth of his question? How does he even know to ask the question about salvation? Or is he just looking to be saved from trouble with his boss? Like many of us at times, all of a sudden, his secure, predictable life is spinning out of control, and he doesn’t know what to do next. He looks for answers. “What must I do to be saved?”
Could you have answered him?
Scene 6 – it gets all religious
Paul gives another Word. He talks to the jailer and his family and they accept Jesus Christ. There’s a feint ‘Ready-Brek’ glow around them (other brands are available). In response they invite Paul and Silas into their home. They have their wounds washed. The jailer and his family are baptized. Paul & Silas get given an all-you-can-eat breakfast.
So, Paul saves the jailer twice. Once from a self-inflicted death and then from a life without Christ.
Scene 7 – it finishes as a Western
After the credits roll, and after the verses appointed by the Lectionary finish, the Sheriff and his deputies turn up. Paul finally reveals his true identity – he’s Roman! They get all nervous and terribly apologetic and try to run him out of town. He rides off into the sunset with his sidekick Silas – but first he stops by at Lydia’s. Is there romance in the air? Will they meet again? What will happen to her when he’s gone? There’s the chance of a sequel left hanging in the air…
Never the same again
I’m perhaps being a tiny bit free in my paraphrasing this morning… but the drama does tell us something of Luke and of his artfulness as a storyteller. His tale of God making the best of a bad situation. Of decisions made and of their consequences.
And if the authorities were relieved that Paul had moved on, then they really shouldn’t have been. The final verse reminds us that he left a vibrant church there in the homes of Lydia and of the jailer. A church that Paul later wrote to in the letter to the Philippians. Some commentators think Luke remained to help build up the church there. Who knows? But the city of Philippi would never be the same again.
We ought to spare a thought too for the girl with the gift of prophecy. She was doubly oppressed. She was a possession of both her owners and of the spirit of divination. Normally in the NT, people are delivered from a spirit for the good of their health or for the glory of God. But here it just seems to be because she was annoying!
Arguably Paul leaves her in a worse state than when he found her. Yes, she’s free from the spirit, but she’s still a slave and now her owners are angry that she’s not generating an income. It’s left unresolved in the text – and I wonder how often or how little we spare any time to think of her. Paul and Silas might be free at the end, but what about the girl?
Paring back church
But so what? What does all this mean to us? To you and me here today? Apart from perhaps being imaginative with how we look at Scripture, I want to point something out. Hidden in the middle of all this, I think we have a picture of what being church could be like. Stripped back church. But church, nonetheless.
Thomas Cranmer summarised Christian Worship as that it must ‘glorify God and edify the people’. What a simple but profound measure that is, isn’t it?
And if you pare back Luke’s story of what happens in the jail it is this: a Word is spoken, a response is made and a meal is shared. The lives of the jailer and his family are changed forever. But something more. The jailer’s response to the good news is action not just words. He treats their wounds and opens his house. It’s the same routine as with Lydia before him. And just like Lydia, the first thing the jailer does is to show hospitality.
As individuals they couldn’t be more different. But regardless of their position in society, their history or background, Lydia and the jailer respond to the Gospel in the same way. They show hospitality. They reach out and welcome in. It’s how they exemplify the love that Jesus was talking about at the end of the Gospel reading today.
What should our response be to the Gospel? What is our action and reaction to the Word of God? Do we too respond with hospitality?
Perhaps we should also learn to be not quite so hung up about our church buildings? After all, their church building was a prison in ruins. And I know you’ve had your own history of falling masonry here…
So, maybe we sometimes over-complicate things when we think about being church? Do we need to take it back to basics? Do we need to decide what’s really important and what are just trappings?
We learn in this passage that the essence of Church is: A Word spoken, a response made, a meal shared & then there’s action. Our lives and our world are changed forever, as we go out to love and serve the Lord.
But the world is only really changed if we remember unnamed slave girls as well as we remember the Paul’s and the Silas’s. The people of God, that’s you and me, need to work for peace and for justice for everyone. “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free” as the saying goes. Does that characterise church for you? If it doesn’t, then perhaps it should. Amen
This is based on Acts 16:16-40 and was delivered on Sunday 29th May 2022 by Ian Banks at Dearnley Methodist Church, Littleborough. It’s an adaptation of a sermon previously preached at St James’ Heywood on Sunday 2nd June 2019.