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 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…
Last week Paul had arrived in Philippi and was searching for somewhere to pray when he ran into 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. She was a merchant, probably well off. They got talking, he gave a Word, she came to Christ. Lydia was Greek, said to be the first documented European convert, and 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.
Scene 1 – it starts out as a supernatural horror
The spirit in the servant girl recognises who Paul & 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. It 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 sell her? Do they kill her? 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 some reason, for now, he keeps that part of his identity secret. There’s an angry mob. Paul & Silas are beaten up and put in the innermost part of the jail. How will they get out of this one? Will Paul now reveal who he is?
Scene 3 – it becomes a musical
We’ve no idea how tuneful Paul & Silas were but it’s midnight and they were doing karaoke… It’s just as well that everyone was chained up because the other prisoners must have been pretty cheesed off! You’d think it would be some sort of Blues song with harmonica about getting into trouble because of a girl and winding up in jail… Or Unchained Melody perhaps? Sorry! But instead we’re getting choruses. That’s not a good thing at midnight if you’re not the one singing!
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 on TV that’s probably where that episode would end, on a 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 the box-set we only have to wait a few seconds…
We return, no-one has escaped! 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, who like the servant girl is not named, tries to kill himself. He thinks everyone’s gone and he’ll be held responsible. But Paul stops him just in time and shows him everyone’s still there in jail. What? How did that happen? The jailer is 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? Is he just looking to get out of trouble with his boss? Like many of us at times, all of a sudden his 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 in to their home. They have their wounds washed. The jailer and his family are baptized. Paul & Silas get given an all-you-can-eat breakfast.
Scene 7 – it finishes as a Western
After the credits roll, and after our reading finishes, the Sheriff and his deputies turn up. Paul reveals his true identity – he’s Roman! They get all nervous 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
I’m perhaps being a tiny bit free in my paraphrasing… but the drama does tell us something of Luke and his artfulness as a storyteller. His tale of God making the best of a bad situation. And if the authorities were relieved that Paul had moved on, then they really shouldn’t have been. He left a vibrant church there in the homes of Lydia and the jailer. Perhaps Lydia and the jailer meet up after Paul left? Some commentators think Luke remained to help build up the church. Who knows? But Philippi would never be the same again.
Paring back church
Beyond that though 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.
If you pare back the story it’s like this: a Word is spoken, a response is made (in this case a baptism), then a meal is shared – and their city is changed forever. But something more. The jailer responds to the good news with action. He treats their wounds and opens his house. Just like Lydia before him, the first thing the jailer does is to show hospitality. Regardless of their position in society, their history or background, Lydia and the jailer respond to the Gospel in the same way. To be hospitable. To reach out and welcome in. In some way, everyone in this story takes part. No-one’s on the side-lines. No-one’s just an observer.
And perhaps we shouldn’t be too hung up about our church buildings? After all, their church building was a prison in ruins.
So, perhaps 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? What should our first response, our reaction, be to the gospel?
Church: A Word is spoken, a response is made, a meal is shared… & there is action. Everyone is involved. And our world is changed forever. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Amen
[This is based on Acts 16:16-34 and was delivered by Ian Banks at St James’ Heywood on Sunday 2nd June 2019. For Ian’s next offering, on Moses and the Samaritan, please press here. For more by Ian please follow this link]