I saw one of those eye-popping headlines on the internet this past week. Like most such things, it was designed to get you to click on it—“School cancels graduation because of prayer controversy.” I couldn’t resist because I immediately thought: what high school would cancel its commencement because of a conflict over someone praying at it? So I clicked. Of course, it wasn’t a high school graduation—it was a sixth-grade graduation, which is an outrage of another kind, but I won’t go into that.
Another manufactured controversy, another opportunity for conservative Christians to express their outrage at the affront to their rights and to claim they are being persecuted. Well, if you want to be reminded of what persecution really is like, you could go places in this world where Christians really are persecuted; where it’s a crime to convert to Christianity, for example, or you could read stories like the one we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul and Silas are punished because they cast a spirit of divination out of a young slave girl.
I would like to say just a few words about Roman persecution of early Christians. We’ve been reading from the book of Revelation this Easter season and one of its central themes is the suffering of Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. That in itself constitutes something of a puzzle because what we know historically about it from other sources, there’s very little evidence of widespread persecution of Christians by Romans in the first century. All those stories and images of Christians being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum? Pious legend. Sure, there was persecution, but most of it occurred later in the third and early fourth centuries, and even when it was imperial policy, it was sporadic and it depended on local authorities to pursue it.
The Roman Empire looms with all its majesty and power over the Book of Revelation. It looms as well over the Book of Acts, though in a slightly different way. Paul has been in the Roman colony of Philippi. In fact, his trip to Philippi marks a new stage in the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. As a Roman colony, it was settled and populated first by Roman citizens, probably by retired soldiers who had received land here as a reward for their service. Scholars suggest that Philippi was as Roman as an Italian town—Roman gods were worshiped there; there was a Roman forum, and power and wealth was entirely in the hands of Romans. They locals had been dispossessed and disenfranchised. There was no synagogue in this place, so there was probably no organized Jewish community. And it is here that the first Gentile is converted—the jailer—who has had no previous contact with Judaism.
I would like to focus on the drama in this story. It operates on several levels as Paul and Silas confront the powers of the world that are arrayed against them. The first episode is quite simple; the power involved relatively weak. The slave girl has followed them around apparently for weeks, shouting, “these are slaves of the most high God!” Finally, Paul has had enough and commands the spirit to come out of her.
But her masters, her lords, are angry. Paul has done away with an important source of income for them. They bring Paul and Silas to the marketplace. Their power, their god is money. It defined their relationship with their slave. We might well wonder whether Paul and Silas could have resisted them at this point. Paul had commanded the spirit to leave the girl; could he command the spirit of Mammon to come out of the masters?
Paul and Silas remain silent and passive as the masters level the charges against them and incite the crowd. The charges are that Paul and Silas have offended against Roman social norms and customs. They are ordered stripped and beaten. Now, Roman and civic power have sought and perhaps even succeeded in stripping Paul and Silas, not only of their clothes but of their humanity. The pain inflicted on them is a raw demonstration of the state’s power. Finally, they are thrown in prison, in the innermost cell.But the state’s power cannot completely silence or vanquish Paul and Silas. Passive to this point, they once again become agents of their own fates and proclaim their faith by praying and singing hymns. At midnight, there is an earthquake, perhaps meant to remind us of the earthquake that occurred at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection (I know, I know: the earthquake is in Matthew, not Luke; but still). But something odd happens. Though their bonds have been presumably broken, and Paul and Silas could flee the jail and return to their friends, they do not. Is the earthquake divine intervention or a random natural act?
The jailer fears for his life and livelihood. An empty jail would mean he too would be crushed by the powers of the state that dominate him. About to take his own life, Paul prevents him by assuring him that none of the prisoners have escaped. The jailer begins to experience the power of God, the power of the gospel, not to intimidate or destroy him, but its power to save him. But still he asks, “What must I do to be saved?”
And here we begin to see the full power of the new life in Christ. The power of love and reconciliation takes hold as the prisoners’ wounds are tended to, and they take their place at his table, receiving his hospitality. Here we see, in all its simplicity almost in shorthand, the central rituals, the life of the new community of Christ, taking place at night in a home: The Word is preached, wounds are healed, table fellowship, baptism.
Our reading ends here, but the story continues and its final episode is of great significance. In the morning, the magistrates send the police to see what has happened. They want the episode to end; they want the prisoners to leave town quietly, to leave without disrupting things. But Paul refuses to go quietly:
But Paul replied, ‘They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.’ The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them.”
It’s hard for me to hear this story without thinking about those who languish in our prisons. In Guantanamo, almost 100 of the 166 incarcerated are on hunger strikes protesting their permanent detention and the hopelessness of their lives. Here in the US, the percentage of African-American men in prison continues to be an affront to our humanity. Does the image of Paul and Silas remanded to the darkness of the innermost cell of Philippi’s jail speak to those situations?
Confronted by the destruction of the system of power in which he was enmeshed, the jailer feared for his life. What might freedom from those bonds have looked like to him? So he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” There’s a certain irony, a double-ness in his question. For one thing, he has already been saved, saved from the system of domination in which he was enmeshed and implicated. He has been saved, in the language of the New Testament, he has been restored to wholeness; to use our language he has regained his dignity and his humanity.
What must we do to be saved? This question and the conventional contemporary answer—accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior have lost the rich dimensions they had in the first century. Salvation was not just personal or spiritual—salvation literally meant wholeness, wellness of body and soul. But it extended far beyond the individual person, to encompass the community, society, all of creation.
What must we do to be saved? Where do we experience brokenness or illness? In our bodies, in our relationships, in society? Where do our systems, our personal addictions or sin, rob us of our humanity and dignity, just as the Roman system robbed the jailer and the slave girls of theirs and tried to rob Paul and Silas of theirs? This weekend, many of us our struggling to deal with the death Thursday night of a blind man in the homeless shelter, a death that occurred in spite of heroic efforts in his behalf on the part of volunteers earlier in the day. His death, like so many others in our world, could probably have been prevented.
What must we do to be saved? In the midst of their suffering, as they dealt with the pain of torture, as they experienced the raw power of the Roman state, Paul and Silas sang hymns and praised God. They refused to submit to that Roman power and God’s power came into that dark prison, freeing them and the jailer from the system that sought to crush them. As they worshiped, as they ate together, they shared the new life of Christ; they experienced the power of God to transform lives and the world. May we do the same. May our worship, our common life, our coming together at the Eucharistic feast, bear witness to the work of God that transforms the world and restores broken hearts and bodies. May our worship and our common life restore our hearts, bodies, and souls, and restore the lives of those we encounter.