Easter 7: 8 May Acts 16:16-34
The remarkable stories in this passage belong to legends of the early church which may well have their basis in some actual events, but have been elaborated with an eye to symbolism in a manner which stretches the fabric of the narrative at times beyond the credible. What may well have been an account of an exorcism by Paul now serves also to underline the divine support of the mission and the missioners. The spirit which belongs to the realm of the spirit world and so has better information than mere mortals announces the credentials of Paul and Silas.
The outrage that the slave girl's felt is as understandable today as it would have been then. Tackle anything which is likely to lead to diminishing returns for investors and you must be wrong from the very start! National leaders have used the same logic to resist doing sensible things about climate change. Don't threaten business! In our ancient story money was being made by fortune telling and the claim that the girl had access to additional information. That, too, is part of our modern world. People still spend large amounts of money to crib more of reality than is their share, short-cuts through life. Industries are still built on the claims to short circuit reality with super insights and revelations. It has a way of masquerading inside most religions and in many practices of the new age. Such things become so self-convincing that the basis for critical assessment is surrendered to fantasy seen as reality.
The narrative makes it sound like Paul addressed the situation only because it irked him. We would probably want to retell the story in more compassionate terms. Perhaps Luke is more concerned that we see Paul doing what Jesus did and so understand the church as the continuity of his ministry. Depicting a mercenary basis for those laying unjust charges against Paul serves the cause well of those Christians in Luke's day who are probably very concerned that civil authorities see them not as a threat. They should understand that any trouble which surrounds them comes from others. We find this concern reflected in other stories. Christians are good citizens. It has its limitations. Sometimes to be true they must stand up for principles and more importantly for people in ways that authorities would find irritating and interfering - then and now.
The imprisonment links Paul to Peter who suffered the same fate, as will the miraculous escape. Far from being a threat to society, Paul and Silas were singing hymns - at midnight, a threat only to neighbouring prisoners who wanted to sleep! Luke, the storyteller, knows of other stories where miraculous things happen about midnight and so his drama begins. The two are so ideal they are not even praying for help. For Luke and Luke's hearers the earthquake is a divine response to their virtue. It is not clear why the jailer should have seen it this way, but the story sweeps to its climax. For the jailer, who could sleep through the singing, wakes and immediately jumps to the same theological conclusion as Luke and his hearers, believes and is saved. Luke gives no account of what such salvation meant, nor what the jailer might have understood by the term, making it a favourite story for those who drift with the "Are you saved?" - theology which is so popular in certain circles - they can fill the words with their own content, a kind of blank cheque for evangelism.
Not only are Christians harmless, they don't even run from prison when freed! And nor do other prisoners! Would any authorities hearing the story really give it credence? Perhaps they would have. Perhaps not. Paul sat many days, indeed months in prison without such escapes. For Luke it suits the legendary story of the church as divinely blessed and controlled in what, in his hands, becomes its golden age. This is not the way it happens in his reality or ours, but, for some, a golden age image inspires and gives assurance that we, its successors, had a good beginning which was divinely founded - in far-off "Bible times"..
Household conversions would have, nevertheless, matched Luke's reality, as would offered hospitality. Receiving hospitality from hearers and converts had been part of the movement from the beginning. The household then becomes a church fellowship, a place for welcoming others, for sharing meals, including the eucharist, and for telling the stories and legends of faith. When such households converted and were baptized, children and slaves included, salvation meant a change of household which for some would be quite revolutionary and for authorities, concerned to maintain an ordered society with slaves at the bottom, a big worry. If they were lucky, slaves would cease to be sexually exploited, be treated with dignity, and become an anomaly in the system which some, including the writers of Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Peter would have to struggle with as they tried to uphold it. Behind the dramatic stories are probably some significant disturbances which brought hope and showed the gospel in action and gave many of the authorities real cause to worry. "Being saved" might have meant something quite different from the harmless assurance of a home in glory land.
Gospel: Easter 7: 8 May John 17:20-26
Epistle: Easter 7: 8 May Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21