Readings: Acts 16: 16-34; Psalm 1
This sixth week of Easter we understandably focus upon the illuminating story of the blind man healed by Jesus, and the religious leaders who remained spiritually blind, thinking that they needed no healer. But this gospel reading of John 9 is always coupled with a fascinating story from the Acts of the Apostles 16: 16-34 that also provides for us godly models and a cautionary tale. Let’s consider this reading as a complement to the gospel story.
Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly disturbed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour.
But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods.
And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.
And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
The story, though full of twists and turns, seems clear to the open-minded reader who approaches the Bible with trust—Paul releases the woman from her state of demon-possession, incurs the wrath of those human beings who thought that they possessed her, is cast into prison with Silas, where they worship God, is miraculously released by an earthquake, and rescues the jailer not only from suicide but from spiritual death! The story is clearly meant by Luke, who relates it, to show the apostles spreading the healing and the good news of Jesus to those who were in Philippi. Only in the twenty-first century could the story be seen in a sinister light, as it was by the Episcopal woman “bishop” Katherine Schori, who read it in the spring of 2013 as an illustration of Paul’s prejudice and mean-spiritedness:
“Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!… We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.”
It seems that Ms. Schori has put herself in a prison, too. She is unable to read the event as the Acts clearly indicates that it should be seen—here is a poor woman, oppressed by those who want to make money from her, not only suffering in herself due to her spirit-induced mania, but impeding the spread of the gospel in her own town, as the demon in her speaks the truth about Jesus, but in a distracting way. For Schori, the gospel is about human beings as they are—each of us has the divine spark, and not about the God who became human that we might be transformed.
Paul and Silas know better. Paul is disturbed by the disturbed woman’s plight, and also by the obstacle that she is presenting to those who are around: he orders the demon out. He could, of course, only have ordered the demon to be quiet, but that is not the style that he has learned from the Lord. Though not present at the Lord’s earthly ministry, he clearly has had infused into him the mind of Christ, for he cares about the woman’s liberty, and not only about his apostolic freedom to teach. Jesus had silenced the demons during the time that his identity was to be kept silent, at the beginning of his ministry—but he had also cast them out! In sending out the 12 and the 70, he had instructed them to cast out demons as well as to heal and preach the good news. And so, the servant Paul does the same, following Jesus’ manner, and showing the character of the God who cares for each of us personally, and about our condition of life, not simply about our “head knowledge” of who He is. The disturbed woman we hear no more about, but I am sure that the blossoming Christian community in Philippi, Lydia and the other women, cared for her well once she was of no more use to her human owners. The woman’s disturbed mind would soon have many other things to contemplate, and she would come to understand, from within, what the demons had only partially revealed—there was a “way of salvation” taught by Paul and Silas, yes! But this Way was Jesus himself, the One in whose name she had been rescued.
But the slave-owners are not impressed, are they? Their minds are grasping, and so, now that they can no longer use her to seize the money of others, they seize the two missionaries. And note how cunning a grasping mind can be. They don’t tell the judges anything about the good that these travelling missionaries have done. They fasten on their foreign race and foreign beliefs, as something “unlawful for Romans to believe.” What they actually do is follow the same ploy as the leaders in Jerusalem, who suggested to Pilate that if he did not execute Jesus, he would be encouraging lawlessness. Those rulers, cozying up to the state, had said, “we have no king but Caesar,” though in fact there was plenty in Caesar’s methods that went against their own Jewish faith, and that challenged the sovereignty of the true God. But they were jealous of Jesus’ fame, the evangelists tell us, and so used deceitful methods to have him condemned. Similarly, here. Paul and Silas are jailed on a pretext, not for what they have actually done. The grasping mind is capable of great injustice, for it can justify almost any course of action in order to accomplish what it wants, or in order to punish those who stand in its way!
With Paul and Silas, it is otherwise. Even in prison, they pray and worship; even when released, they show the character of the living God, and care for their jailer. Possessing sound and not disturbed minds, and not distracted by the fleeting things of this world—even though jail might have made them concentrate solely upon their freedom—they exemplify the godly man of Psalm 1
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
This man, whom we identify every Great Vespers as Jesus himself, comes also to be personified in those who are in Christ. They are planted by streams of waters—even in prison. Everything they do prospers—even those things that evoke the wrath of the ungodly. They meditate upon God’s way—and of course, this means to meditate upon Christ himself, the One who has fulfilled the whole law. The one who is in Christ is not distracted by evil counsel, does not take on the stance of those who rebel against God, does not scoff against goodness, does not seek lesser things—but delights, day and night, in God alone. Standing, walking, and staying with a single mind, he (or she) produces fruit, and leaves that will heal others. Planted by the living water, he or she, as Jesus says, has a stream within that will water others, too.
And so it is in this remarkable story. The story is bookended by healings—first the healing of a possessed and owned woman; finally, the spiritual healing of a man who has, it would seem, never heard of the living God, yet whose job required him to imprison the ambassadors of Jesus. An unwitting arm of the empire, he hastens to commit what would have been considered an honorable suicide in Roman and Greek culture, for he believes he has failed in his task—and is stopped by the voice of Jesus, calling through the lips of Paul, “do not harm yourself!” Instead of physical death, he is invited to die to self, and to be baptized into the name of Jesus—both him and his family. The single-minded devotion of Paul and Silas lead the apostle to see also the need of this Gentile, whom they might have considered an enemy. They might well have taken the opportunity to escape, but instead seize a moment to add someone (in fact a whole family!) to the family of God. Because of Paul’s words and action, the jailor calls for a light in the darkness, and ends up meeting the One who is the Light of the World. And the story closes with evidence of a “transformed mind” in the jailer who washes the wounds of the imprisoned ones, and feeds them. In so doing, he enacts the words of Jesus, “insomuch as you have done it to those imprisoned, you have done it to me!” Nor does the story end there: we hear that “he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.”
The actors in this adventure come together to provide us with a host of examples—patterns both to avoid, and to follow. It may be that, like the slave-girl and the jailor, who were victims of their station and circumstance, there is something in us of the disturbed or confused mind. But God is One, and is making after His image a whole host of those who will have a single mind, steadied upon the Lord Jesus, worshipping Him, speaking with Him, enacting His character. In his Church, and among His people, He is showing us what it means to have an undistracted and single-minded focus upon the One who can transform all things!
With the slave-girl, with the jailor, and with the blind man whom we also remember this day, let us pray:
I come to You, O Christ,
Blind from birth in my spiritual eyes
And I call to You in repentance:
You are the most radiant light of those in darkness!