Something unusual happens to me every time I read this story from Acts chapter 16. In some ways it’s an odd story, featuring a slave woman who is possessed by a spirit that enables her to predict the future. Two thousand years removed from the story and its setting, we wonder what this description could mean. It’s hard to know for sure what troubled her. It poses an interesting question, but that isn’t the part of the story that grabs my attention.
The slave woman follows Paul and Silas around town, calling out to anyone who will listen that “these people are servants of the Most High God” and that “they are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” She is speaking the truth, though Paul is unwilling to acknowledge it as truth because it is prompted by an evil spirit. She harasses them for several days until Paul has finally had enough. He stops, turns to her, and rebukes the demon that possesses her. She is instantly healed. The miracle demonstrates the power of God at work in these early apostles, the same power that was at work in their Lord. It poses the question of how that same power might be available to us, but even this isn’t the part of the story that grabs me by surprise and causes me to wonder.
The healing annoys the woman’s owners, who have lost a convenient source of income, and they turn against Paul and Silas. They seize them and drag them before the local authorities with the accusation that they are “causing an uproar” in the city. The crowd joins in on the attack against Paul and Silas, which compels the authorities to order that they be stripped of their clothing and beaten. Accused and found guilty without a trial, they are “severely beaten,” thrown into prison, with their legs secured in chains.
And then there is this line: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” And that is what grabs me in this story. Every time. I’m always surprised by that line. I find myself thinking, “How can that be?” Unjustly accused by greedy men, seized upon by a crowd, hauled before the authorities, severely beaten, thrown into a first-century prison, bloodied and in pain, publically humiliated and soundly defeated, their legs locked in irons… and then: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” How is that possible? Who would be singing hymns to God in those circumstances? I try to imagine myself in their place. I wonder if this would have been my response.
What is Paul’s secret? What enables him to praise and thank God in the most difficult of circumstances? From what deep place in his heart is he drawing this strength? What enables him to sing and to worship in such trying conditions?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: I think what we’re seeing here reveals Paul’s true identity. Our identity, what we truly believe about ourselves, expresses itself in our words and actions. And it seems clear to me that Paul’s sense of himself has nothing to do with accomplishments or achievements or success; it does not depend on any external factor. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges that there was a time when he was enamored by the marks of success. He writes that at one time he had it all: he was from a reputable family, he had received a top-notch education from one of the leading educators of his time, he was passionate about his faith and lived it with a zeal that impressed both his peers and his elders, he was popular and acclaimed by all. In short, he had it all. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Until he met Jesus. And his life was changed completely. From that moment on, all of the marks of status, all of his achievements, all the respect and admiration he had won, became as nothing to him. “I wrote them all off as a loss for the sake of Christ,” he tells the Philippians. “I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:7-9a) From that moment on, Paul’s identity was hidden in Christ. He recognized that he was no longer his own; that he had been bought with a price.
The great French monastic and martyr, Charles de Foucauld, once said, “As soon as I believed there was a God, I realized that I could do nothing else but live for him alone.”[i] The same was true of Paul.
But can you see the freedom that this new identity gives him? He no longer has to curry favor from the rich and powerful; he no longer has to please or impress; he no longer has to strive to be ‘successful’ in the eyes of others. All this, he says, he counts as “refuse” – as “sewer trash” (as one translation puts it). Now he is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; all things have been made new.
Have you known this kind of freedom? Freedom from the tyranny of having to achieve what the world measures as success? The freedom of not having to be better or stronger or more attractive or more talented or wealthier or more popular in order to be counted as worthy? This is the ‘glorious freedom’ of the children of God and it comes from knowing that we are unconditionally loved by God. Always. Paul knows this freedom. He has cast aside the marks of worldly success and embraced the truth that he is a new creation in Christ. All things have been make new.
Paul has one purpose for being in the world and that is to proclaim Christ. He lives for this. He writes to the Philippians from jail, and tells them that he is pleased to be in prison because the word is spreading, people are hearing about Jesus. He has suffered countless hardships, but they have been nothing to him in comparison to the joy he has found in Jesus.
“Who will separate us from Christ’s love?” he asks the Roman Christians, “Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” No, he says, “I am convinced that nothingcan separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord; not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Rom 8:35-39)
As a beloved child of God, Paul knows the perfect freedom of belonging to God: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear,” he reminds the Christians at Rome, “you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children… if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Rom. 8:15-17)
It is this knowledge – that he belongs to Christ and is unconditionally and forever loved by God – that gives him the boldness and courage to take the risks that he does. He is like a tree with deep roots, roots that give him a stability and steadfastness that enable him to withstand all kinds of challenges, setbacks and disappointments without giving up or becoming discouraged. He has an unshakeable faith that he is God’s, and this faith holds firm even in the storms and tempests of his life.
Perhaps this is why he can encourage the Christians at Philippi to “rejoice always,” as we see him and his companion rejoicing here in a first-century prison cell after having been beaten and abused. “Rejoice always” – because you belong to God, because you are deeply and irrevocably loved by God, because there is nothing in all the world that can ever separate you from God, because you are God’s beloved child, a fellow heir with Christ of all that God is and possesses.
When you are facing life’s trials, when life seems to be an uphill battle, when you fear being overwhelmed by fear or worry or grief, recall this image of Paul and Silas, beaten and bloodied, locked in chains, singing and praising God! This joy can be yours as well. This freedom belongs to you as a child of God. Nothing can destroy it or take it away from you. You are, and always will be, the beloved of God.
Send down your roots into this deep soil, so that when trouble comes, you can remain steadfast and unmovable, knowing that God always has the final word. And rejoice. Always and everywhere. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Trust God’s power and love. Easter is Love’s Victory over evil and death; all fear is washed away. You! – yes, you! – are a beloved child of God.
“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of First John, “that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (NRSV) Alleluia!
Note: Except where otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible, ©2010.
[i]Quoted by Jean-Francois Six in his book Witness in the Desert: The Life of Charles de Foucauld, MacMillan Press, 1965, p. 28.
I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: and I hid myself.
It strikes me that as a people we are beginning to ask ourselves (deeply) what kind of freedom our common life enshrines. One of the many assumptions our culture relies upon is the idea that freedom is chiefly about “choice.” This assumption stands out to me as I pray with these readings from Genesis and Mark, and the Spirit asks us to consider the freedom we rightly celebrate as Christians, compared with the world’s many pseudo-freedoms. The freedom to choose God’s will in love, or the second-hand freedoms that will always leave us feeling, nevertheless, afraid.
It is telling to me that prior to our temptation we were perfectly free to choose from every tree of the garden—every blessing and delight of created existence, every pursuit of knowledge and relationship with our partner and our God—except, of course, one.
This tree, our desire to eat of it, and the choice to pursue or abstain from that desire tips the narrative of creation. Twice.
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
Romans 6: 1 – 13
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.
Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality, I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.
Jesus uses the image of masters and slaves, as much as any other, to characterize our relationship to God, and to the world. For us, we may not be so quick to identify with the image of masters and slaves as Jesus’ first hearers were. Yet, many of us, I suspect, know something about being a slave; that is, we know something about being owned, being bound, being controlled by something other than God. Perhaps it’s wealth that we are owned by, as Jesus suggests. Perhaps we are slaves to obsessions and compulsions; addictions, in a word, that dictate what we do, where we go, and who we associate with. It may be that pride is calling the shots, or maybe lust is your master; it might be greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, but we don’t have to specialize.
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Words like freedom and liberty will be in the air this week as we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July. Freedom, whatever that means, is the essence of what it means to be American and it was very much on the minds of the founders. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Familiar words from the Declaration of Independence. Our foundational documents and the principles they articulate with such extraordinary sonority have resonated far beyond our borders, and continue to do so.