Easter 7 – sermon preached by Paul Foster Sunday 29th March

Acts 16.16-34

One of my earliest memories after being newly arrived in Edinburgh nearly twenty years ago was walking along Hanover Street, the stretch between Queen Street and George Street. A lady came up to me and asked me something. I could not make out what she said, so I uttered the single word “sorry” and walked away. You might think that would have been the end of the encounter, but you would be wrong! The lady pursued me at a rapid rate. Among her many high-level skills were the following two noteworthy examples. First, she seemed to be remarkably well informed about my parentage. Second, at least in one particular semantic domain, the lady had a quite remarkable vocabulary, combining a range of Scots words with extensive Anglo-Saxon terminology which she recited at some volume. At this point in the encounter, I had the sense that all the eyes of Edinburgh were upon me. In truth, there were probably only two or three people looking in my direction. I tried to quicken my pace, only to find I was matched by the speedy and articulate lady. At that stage, and not at all to my credit, I took what I considered to be the only course of action available – I legged it. After all, I was twenty years younger back then.

The book of Acts tells us of the recent arrival of Paul, Silas and Timothy in Philippi (although Timothy is remarkably absent from the narrative). Last week, in her sermon, Esther, described the encounter with Lydia the seller of purple. We heard how her positive reception of the gospel message led to the opening of her home, and provision of shelter and hospitality. Philippi was a new city built on an ancient site. In 42 B.C. Mark Antony and Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) defeated Cassius and Brutus. After the ensuing power struggle with Mark Antony, Augustus refounded Philippi as a Roman colony. The city and surrounding area was populated with military veterans and Italian farmers. The new inhabitants enjoyed legal privileges as imperial citizens, there was flourishing economic prosperity, and Roman culture predominated. For those who had left their homes to live in the new colony, they certainly made this new city feel like a Rome away Rome.

Having received hospitality from Lydia, Paul and his associates commenced their ministry of gospel proclamation. However, their next encounter with a female in the city was not so congenial. These new arrivals found themselves pursued and hounded by a slave women crying out details of their identity. The text of the story tells us that this young woman had “a spirit of divination.” It is easy at this point to want to interpret the text through our own lens and maybe to understand this as some kind of mental illness. However, perhaps we are better to read this ancient text as it stands, and to resist the temptation to colonize it with our own modern Western worldview and instead simply read it on its own terms. The Greek text does not actually say the woman had a spirit of divination, but that she had a “spirit of python.” Such a designation draws on the fertile mythology of the ancient world, referring to the Greek god Apollo and the story of his defeat of a giant serpent Python. After Apollo’s victory he gained some of the powers of the defeated serpent. In somewhat overlapping mythologies, oracular gifts were also viewed as being possessed by Apollo’s priestess Pythia (a pythoness) who was considered to be a source or reliable prophetic information. This priestess was based at Delphi and the python spirit was considered to be the source of the opaque but reliable Delphic oracles. Therefore, the author of Acts presents the woman in Philippi as enslaved not just by profiteering masters, but also enslaved to a snake like spirit that gave her special insight at a huge personal cost. It is for another day, but one might ask why ancient writers often portrayed women coming under the influence of serpent. Perhaps you can think of another relevant example.

However, taking the story on its own terms, we see an enslaved woman financially exploited for her gift of fortune-telling. In an almost comic scene, we are told that Paul and Silas were heckled by this individual for a number of days. In the end, rather than taking the coward’s action of “legging it”, Paul confronts the woman and performs an ad hoc exorcism. At this point the woman disappears from the story. However, I cannot help but wonder what became of her. Now deprived of her skill was she cast aside as a valueless commodity, or was it the case that freed from the spirit that possessed her that she returned to a more normal life. Unfortunately, we simply do not know.

Instead, the powerful slave-owners step into the narrative. The author of Acts pulls no punches – their motivation is the profit margin. After all, business is business and the fate of a young women seemed inconsequential in comparison. The charge brought against Paul and his associates was that they were causing confusion in the city and his accusers state that Paul and his companions were “advocating customs that are not lawful for us to accept or observe being Romans.” The elite in the city of Philippi revelled in their status as Romans, not only did it make them feel superior, but moreover they wanted to resist any change to the status quo that protected the elite and oppressed the slaves. Consequently, after some rough justice, Paul and Silas received a beating and were thrown in jail. One of my academic colleagues is conducting research into ancient jails (rather him than me!). They were particularly unpleasant places – often subterranean, poorly ventilated, no separate space for bodily functions – hence they were putrid, disease-ridden, inmates were malnourished, and such prisons were likely designed to shorten life-expectancy. We are told that Paul and Silas were confined in the innermost prison cell – a place of utter imprisonment and darkness. Yet despite the bleakness of the reported circumstances, with feet in stocks, we are told that their response was the singing of hymns in praise to God. The author then provides us with another detail that jars with our own worldview – that of a miraculous earthquake. The response of the Philippian jailer is something that only makes sense in a different context. In our society, those in positions of power tend not to accept responsibility for wrong doing. Rather, blame-shifting, equivocation, and manipulation of facts appear to be the stock in trade. By contrast, out of a heavy sense of personal guilt at failing in his task, the Philippian jailer decides to “fall on his sword” – and that was no metaphor. Paul intervenes, reassuring the man that all the prisoners are still present. Until Paul spoke, that was not obvious to the jailer given the lack of light in the prison.

The response in reported in such a mundane manner that its strangeness might allude us. The Philippian jailer recognizes that Paul and his companions as ‘sirs’ or in the Greek kyrioi, that is as ‘lords’ and asks what he can do that he might be saved. Paul’s response is a rejection of the title kyrioi ‘lords’, and instead directs the jailer to the true Lord as he instructs him to ‘believe in the Lord Jesus.’ The response is instant, the transformation striking, and the profession of faith immediate. The jailer tended to the needs of Paul and Silas, and along with his household received baptism as new believers in God.

The author of Acts has transported to a world which at first we may not recognize as being like our own. Yet it is world where violence is prevalent, people are treated as mere commodities, and the business interests of the elite are given precedence over the needs of the poor. Is it little wonder that despite its strangeness this story still speaks to us so powerfully today?

“It is not guns that kill people, it is people that kill people.” That is a slogan that sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it. This week in Uvalde nineteen children aged between seven and ten and two adults were shot dead. A further seventeen people were injured. Some parents rushed to the school. One father interviewed described how he comforted a little girl splattered with blood. She recounted how she had run when her best friend Amerie Jo Garza was shot dead next to her. It was in that instant, while comforting another little girl, that the father heard the name of his ten year old daughter who had died as a victim of the wanton and incomprehensible violence. There have already been repeated calls, as there have been before, for reform of laws and controls on gun ownership. However, in response a Texan senator rejected the link between the prevalence of gun ownership and the unrelenting sequence of school shootings. The father who learnt of the death of his beloved Amerie asked the unanswerable, what had she ever done wrong to deserve this.

Prioritization of profits over people, politics over principles, and the right to bear arms over the right to live into adulthood are not new perspectives. For all its strangeness the vivid story from Acts is remarkably relevant. If the well-being of the weakest in society is overlooked then our communities will descend into chaos and anarchy. Our gospel reading draws to a conclusion Jesus’ lengthy farewell speech. Rather than expressing concern regarding his own fate, Jesus instead speaks about those unknown by the powerful in the world. His desire is not to retain, but to share his glory, and that those unnamed and unknown in human society might find their identity and sense of being as part of the inner life and community that exists between the Father and the Son. In this way, the love that Jesus receives from the Father is not to be guarded like a commodity, rather it is to be shared as a way of enriching all who will partake of it.

When we gather round our common table shortly we will pour out a little wine into a cup. It reminds us of a life laid down in love. But today, without detracting from Christ’s supreme act of sacrificial love, perhaps it will serve to focus our minds on other broken and needlessly lost lives. To consider ways in which we can provide a sense of belonging and home for the broken and destitute. So, from a troubled lady on the streets of Edinburgh not engaged with the dignity she deserved, to thousands of displaced, damaged and dying people in Ukraine, to desperate and despairing families in Uvalde, for Amerie Jo Garza and twenty others needlessly killed, for the healing of the nations, for the turning of swords into ploughshares, and that the Father might make his home with all those treated by the world as commodities, we ask, Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.