The urgency and adventure in Acts can feel daunting to a small young church – so, where are we up to in our story? (Listen.)
The adventures of Paul and Silas are so very dramatic. Shipwrecks. Exorcisms. Courtrooms. Preaching. Beatings. Jails. Earthquakes. Freedom. And people turning to faith wherever they go. There’s such an urgency and a power in their activity that, when we hear their stories, we might be tempted to look around at our little congregation, so young, so busy, so distracted, so tired, and throw up our hands. Where is the urgency? Where is the power? Where are the conversions and the parties into the night?
We look around and maybe we wonder: why are our voices so quiet, our gifts so small, our church so fragile? People aren’t streaming through the doors, and it sometimes feels like we offer nothing very extraordinary that matters very much beyond the congregation gathered here. A few prayers, a few stories, a few meals, a few songs: how can they possibly matter in this world?
Well, they matter because that’s exactly how the church has always started: with small gatherings of praying, singing, eating, loving, forgiving, witnessing people. Tonight’s story is set in Philippi, and the place of worship was outside the city walls. It was there that Paul and Silas were first welcomed by a surprising person: Lydia, a merchant who dealt in luxury goods; it was there that they first witnessed and prayed; and it was from there that their extraordinary ministry unfolded. And, like every extraordinary ministry, it led to a clash with the big powers: religion, money and politics.
For they clashed with the spirit which spoke through a slave girl; they clashed with the girl’s owners, who were enraged when they lost their money-making scheme; and, accused of being anti-Roman, they clashed with the state. It’s not that they were seeking conflict: but the good news in Jesus Christ can be so threatening that it can lead to accusation, intimidation, even violence.
Jesus teaches that God’s kingdom-culture has drawn near. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky future hope; it is already emerging here and now. So people who place their faith in this culture and accept the lordship of Jesus Christ threaten the world order, because they effectively reject the lordship of anything and anyone else. And as they live into God’s generous kingdom-culture of love, justice and peace for all people, they will find themselves in conflict with other powers.
When girls are exploited by greedy men, there will be a clash. When people are controlled by unholy spirits, there will be a clash. When we preach powerful words and live powerful lives which overflow with love for social outsiders and other vulnerable people, there will be a clash. When we seek freedom not just for ourselves but for all people, there will be a clash; and angry men will shout, “They’re anti-Roman! They’re un-Australian! They’re a threat to our values!”
Yet God’s people will continue to risk these clashes and many more because they know that life is infinitely bigger than the present life, and this bigger life cannot be destroyed by oppression, violence or even death; this faith gives them courage.
We see this courage when Paul and Silas pray and sing while locked in the darkest dungeon of the jail. Their bodies might be in chains, but their spirits are free to carol joyfully through the night. The Roman authorities and thought-police who threaten and control the jailer have no control over the spirits of these two men; and all the other prisoners are listening to them.
Their sense of freedom is attractive: perhaps that’s why people are listening. Then the earthquake comes, the walls tumble down, the chains fall away: and Paul and Silas are no longer the only free people in that prison. Every captive is freed, and the jailer is freed, too. Unlike capitalism, which offers freedom to the rich; or the patriarchy, which offers freedom to powerful men; or our democracy, which offers freedom to homegrown wealthy white citizens, the freedom we see here is a communal, collective freedom, lavishly granted to everyone.
The slave girl and the free man; the political prisoner and the common thief; the jailer and the jailed; the Jew and the Roman; the deserving and the undeserving: when Paul and Silas freely pray and sing, everyone around them is made free.
And here we are, part of this great story of collective courage and freedom, a story which is still unfolding throughout history, and which has always used ordinary people in ordinary places to tell it and live it out.
You’re probably still wondering, where is the power among us? Where is the urgency? Where are the conversions and the parties into the night? If you are, remember this: We’re not the whole story, and we’re only at our beginning: just a few words past ‘once upon a time.’ Right now at Sanctuary, our job is to keep on doing the work of formation, and to leave the amazing up to God.
And this formation is simple. We are formed when we gather regularly, nourished and bound together by Word and Table. We are formed when, like the jailer, we tend another’s wounds, and when, like Paul and Silas, we pray, and pray, and pray. We are formed when we love our enemies, both inside and outside the church, and we are formed when we seek wholeness and freedom not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
We are formed when we eat and talk and laugh and weep and play together, building strong relationships despite all that seeks to isolate and divide. And we are formed when we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs not just when things are going well, but especially in our darkest nights, those times when we feel trapped and like we’ll never be free.
And when we do this work of formation in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the courage and freedom which filled Paul and Silas, and Lydia and her household, and the jailer and his family, will keep filling us, too; and will gradually guide us into the amazing future which God has in store for us.
And one day, just as Luke wrote a story about Paul, Silas, Lydia, the slave girl and the jailer, someone will no doubt write a story about Sanctuary: and everyone who reads it will be astounded at how, once upon a time, God worked through another group of ordinary people, gathered in Christ’s name and living into God’s kingdom-culture, right here on earth in Warrnambool. Ω
A reflection on Acts 16:11-34 given to Sanctuary, 2 June 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019.
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