A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (16:12-34)
With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi of Macedonia, a Roman colony, and as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
1 The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice; *
let the multitude of the isles be glad.
2 Clouds and darkness are round about him, *
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
3 A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.
5 The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.
7 Confounded be all who worship carved images and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.
8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O Lord.
9 For you are the Lord, most high over all the earth; *
you are exalted far above all gods.
10 The Lord loves those who hate evil; *
he preserves the lives of his saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.
A Reading from the Book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21)
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (17:20-26)
[Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said,] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
This morning’s first reading describes for us an earthquake – not just the physical earthquake that shook the foundations of the jail in Philippi, opening the gates and unfastening the prisoners’ chains. No, I’m talking about a much bigger earthquake: one that was way off the Richter scale, one that shook and continues to shake the whole world. It is an earthquake caused not by the shifting of tectonic plates, but by the shifting of the ages and one that is powered by the Spirit of God.
When Paul and his companions came to Philippi, they were met by a slave-girl who, the story says, had a spirit of divination. Today, we would say that she was mentally unbalanced. Her owners made a lot of money off her alleged ability to predict the future. She followed the apostles around, yelling after them and basically making a nuisance of herself. After putting up with her shouting for a while, Paul decided that this had to end, and so he drove the demon, the spirit, out of her. He healed her.
The girl had been set free from her affliction, and the people were excited. But the slave-owners were furious. Preaching some new religion was fine, as long as they kept to so-called “spiritual subjects.” But this Paul had crossed the line: calling on the name of Jesus, he had driven out not only the demon but their source of profit. “Hey, we’re religious, too – but this is going to cost us money. That’s taking religion too far!”
They were determined to fight back. They weren’t willing to admit the truth: that their profits were dependent on the enslavement of this unfortunate girl, so they played the nationalist card: “These foreigners are coming here, and they’re teaching ways that are contrary to our good old Roman way of life It’s a danger to our community and to the empire!” As Samuel Johnson famously put it, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” “Not only that,” they continued, “it’s against our traditional values.” A few scoundrels have also been known to take refuge in a distorted version of authentic religion, too.
Like demagogues in every age, including our own, they were able to stir up others in the city to join them in their attack. To keep the crowds from getting out of hand, the magistrates caved in to the pressure and had the apostles arrested and imprisoned.
But you can’t contain an earthquake. Even after Paul and the others had been beaten, thrown into the innermost cell and had their feet fastened in stocks, they spent the night singing hymns in praise of what God had done in Jesus. Then came the physical earthquake. The jailer — finding that the jail cells were open, thinking that the prisoners had escaped, and knowing what could happen to a jailer who had allowed that to happen – decided to kill himself. But Paul stopped him and took the opportunity to proclaim to him the Good News. He and his entire household became believers.
Paul, who had been held in prison, had remained truly free during the whole ordeal. The jailer, who had kept others imprisoned, realized that he himself had been the real prisoner. “Having the key to someone else’s cell doesn’t make you free” (William Willimon, Acts, p. 140). It was only in accepting the Gospel that the jailer found himself set free at last.
I am sure that the aftershocks of Paul’s visit continued to shake Philippi. But the apostles quickly moved on. They next took their traveling earthquake to Thessalonica, then to Beroea, and then to Athens. As Acts continues its story, the tremors come to engulf much of the Roman world, moving at last to the great capital itself.
From place to place, from year to year, that earthquake that is empowered by the Spirit of God has continued to shake the world for nearly two millennia. But the reaction to it and the reaction against it have remained constant. Those who had been held captive – whether physically, emotionally or economically—have found themselves set free by God’s Good News.
On the other hand, those who have thought that they were already free – those who already have the security, the money, the influence – have felt threatened by it. Like the slave-owners in Philippi, they have continued to insist: “We’re religious, too. As long as you stick to ‘spiritual subjects,’ we’re OK with that; you can believe whatever you want. But when you start setting people free from our control, when you start actually respecting the dignity of every human being. when you start talking about using all of God’s gifts to serve primarily the needs of all instead of the wants of a few – hey, that’s going to cost us money! And that’s taking religion too far!”
Whether the subject is supplying enough food to feed the hungry, offering affordable health care to those who have not had access to it, providing for the education of all children, welcoming immigrants, or providing adequately for our low-income elderly – all of which are imperatives for those who profess to embrace all people as children of God and our own sisters and brothers – there are always some who raise the same objections and mount the same resistance that faced Paul and his companions in Philippi so long ago.
Our role as fellow believers with Paul and Silas and their companions is sharing in God’s work of setting people free. We need to ensure that those who do not have an adequate and just share in the wealth of the world, enough to meet their needs, are set free from their poverty and from whatever holds them back from living a full and complete life. And we need to work to help those who would deny them these things, as well: helping to set them free – to set them free from their attachments to the things they own and from attitudes that focus first of all on themselves, as though the things that they have are for their benefit alone. Like the jailer in Philippi, they think that they are free; they think that they are in control; but they are in fact captives of attitudes and ways of acting that hold them back from genuine freedom. Having the key to someone else’s cell still doesn’t make you free.
Over this coming week, we will be preparing to celebrate the great feast of Pentecost and the coming with power of the Spirit of God. That Spirit, Jesus promised, will lead us into all the truth (Jn 16:13), and that truth will make us free (Jn 8:32). That truth, as we proclaimed earlier in the psalm (97:1), is the fact that “The Lord is King,” that God is the creator and still the owner of everything that we have. It is in sharing what we have generously with those who are in need that we come to live in that truth. And that truth still has the power to set us free.