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Spirits Moving

Several years ago, Jamie Tworkowski found himself in a car with his friend Renee. Renee was 19, a drug addict and very sick. He writes, “She hasn’t slept in 36 hours and she won’t for another 24. It is a familiar blur of coke, pot, pills and alcohol. She has agreed to meet us, to listen and to let us pray. We ask Renee to come with us, to leave this broken night. She says she’ll go to rehab tomorrow, but she isn’t ready now. It is too great a change. We pray and say goodbye and it is hard to leave without her.”

Renee had been abused in every way a young woman can be. Her arms were covered in scars from self-inflicted wounds, the most recent of which carves an obscene phrase into her arm- words describing the way she feels about herself. The next day, Jamie and his friends convince Renee to go to a treatment center, but the center has no detox. They can’t admit her until she has been clean for five days. Jamie writes, “For the next five days, she is ours to love. We become her hospital and the possibility of healing fills our living room with life. It is unspoken and there are only a few of us, but we will be her church, the body of Christ coming alive to meet her needs, to write love on her arms.”

For the next five days, this group of friends rallies around Renee, going to concerts and coffeeshops, an Orlando Magic game and bookstore. Distracting her, keeping her safe, buying her time to get her mind clear, helping her to see that she is worthy of good things. “Sunday night is church and many gather after the service to pray for Renee, this her last night before entering rehab. Some are strangers but all are friends tonight. The prayers move from broken to bold, all encouraging. We’re talking to God but I think as much, we’re talking to her, telling her she’s loved, saying she does not go alone…After church our house fills with friends, there for a few more moments before goodbye. Everyone has some gift for her, some note or hug or piece of encouragement. She pulls me aside and tells me she would like to give me something…She hands me her last razor blade, tells me it is the one she used to cut her arm and her last lines of cocaine five nights before. She’s had it with her ever since, she shares that tonight will be the hardest night and she shouldn’t have it. I hold it carefully, thank her and know instantly that this moment, this gift, will stay with me. It hits me to wonder if this great feeling is what Christ knows when we surrender our broken hearts, when we trade death for life.” Renee did go to rehab, buoyed by the love of the people who carried her through her darkest days.

Our text today is such a rich story. It’s a story about trading death for life. There are so many fascinating details, and yet many questions linger. The scene opens in Philippi, a city in which Paul and Silas and apparently other believers have been staying for some time. Philippi was a large city in Macedonia and was very much a Roman city. Other clues in the text indicate that there was a very small Jewish population there, so Paul and the others were perceived as outsiders. They encounter a girl who has what the Greek calls a “pneuma pythona,” meaning she has the spirit of divination. She has been enslaved by men who used her to tell fortunes, give oracles, and they made a great deal of money off of her. For days, the girl had followed Paul and the others around the city, proclaiming that they were “slaves of the Most High God who proclaim a way of salvation.” What she said about Paul and the others was pretty accurate, so it’s hard to know what was so annoying to Paul, but for whatever reason, he did not enjoy this girl calling attention to him in this way. And so, he orders the spirit to come of her in Jesus’ name. And it does.

Her owners, of course, are furious that they had lost the revenue stream that was this girl’s fortunetelling ability. They react violently, dragging Paul and Silas before the authorities. The men accuse Paul and Silas of disturbing the Roman way of life- essentially, they charge them with being different, not fitting in with the customs of the city. As you know, those kinds of accusations can often get a crowd riled up; Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten and thrown into jail.

And Paul and Silas, their feet bound in stocks, locked in the innermost cell of the jail, began praying and singing hymns in worship. The other prisoners are captivated. An earthquake shakes the ground, and miraculously, all that binds Paul and Silas and all the other prisoners come undone. The chains fall away, the doors swing open. The jailer wakes up to the scene and realizes that every one of the prisoners he has been charged with guarding are free. He pulls his sword out and decides to fall on it- you see, his honor is completely bound up in his competence at his job. To fail at his job is to be a failure as a human, as a Roman. Paul calls out in the dark, understanding what the jailer intends to do. He tells the jailer that all of the prisoners are still there; no one has left.

They light the torches, and the jailer comes to Paul and Silas, trembling. He brings them outside and asks “What must I do to be saved?” He likely is not asking Paul and Silas about spiritual salvation; it’s more likely that he means “how do I get out of this terrible situation?” Nonetheless, Paul and Silas respond by telling him to “believe on the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they teach him about Jesus. The jailer takes Paul and Silas home with him and cleans their wounds and gives them food. His entire family is baptized, and they rejoice.

We often hear this story and marvel at Paul and Silas’ courage, and especially at their ability to worship God in the midst of a harrowing situation. It is remarkable, and we’ll get to it- but I first want to pause to acknowledge the many ways that many people experience injustice, victims of other people’s sin throughout this story. First, the girl is a victim of slavery- economic injustice. This girl is exploited for the wealth of others. I sure wish we knew what happened to her! Sadly she disappears from the story. Regardless, we know that she, like so many before and after her- like so many today- is the victim of economic injustice. To see just how far that kind of injustice goes, we can look to the consequences of her exorcism. In removing the spirit that allowed her to act as a fortuneteller, Paul removes her value to owners. In response, her owners retaliate with physical violence and legal action. Here’s a hard reality: both then and now, those who would interrupt economic systems in the name of justice will face some hard consequences. So much of the brokenness and immorality in this country comes down to this question- who profits off this situation? From the opioid crisis, to common sense gun reforms, to the ways technology and social media has a death grip on our lives, we should all be asking- who is making money off the status quo?

We also see ethnic injustice in this story. The enslavers use Paul and Silas’s ethnic background as a means of rallying support against them and having them punished. The accusation is that they are Jews with different customs. They essentially say “these men are different, and different is bad.” And it works. It works in the same ways that those arguments continue to work today. So, Paul and Silas then experience legal injustice- they are beaten and thrown into jail without due process. Dr. Jerusha Matsen Neal writes, “Paul and Silas are not imprisoned because they break a law. They are imprisoned because they are imprisonable people- vulnerable people- who threaten the bottom line of the powerful.” In the verses following this story, Paul and Silas reveal that they are Roman citizens. Roman citizens held certain rights; rights that were trampled on by the police in Philippi.

And finally, I look at the jailer and think ‘what kind of system of labor has so controlled this man’s life and identity that he would be willing to die rather than face the consequences of escaped prisoners?’ But this system of honor is the bedrock of Roman society- one in which your function is not to be a human but to be a laborer. A system in which any worker’s honor, wholeness, and very life is so connected to their labor is fundamentally unjust. And yet, what we know is that for very many people, work is a fundamental part of their identity. We also know that one of the most common stressors among adults is work-related stress and that losing one’s job is associated with a variety of negative physical, mental, and emotional outcomes.

Here's my point- the people in this story, just like people today, are living in complicated, broken, and harmful systems. The enslaved girl, Paul and Silas, the jailer, all of them are in unjust situations out of their control. But they are the outsiders, vulnerable, minorities, those without power. And so when the jailer asks “what must I do to be saved?” The question resounds across all of these people, all of us, all of humanity. What must we do to be saved from the bondage of sin that has us all in its grip? What must we do to be saved from the brokenness of life in a society shot through with greed, lust, exploitation, violence? What must we do to live in a world that looks like God’s dream? God’s kingdom?

Paul and Silas have the answer. What must I do? I must believe in Jesus Christ. Accept God’s grace through Jesus. Believe. And believe he does! The jailer believes and also repents. True belief cannot be separated from repentance, from changing one’s mind. Remember- the word “repent” doesn’t mean burn yourself as a sacrifice. Repent, metanoeo, means to change your mind, to be transformed.

Notice this subtlety in the story- the man who was willing to die when he thought the prisoners on his watch had escaped has been transformed into someone who himself escorts those same prisoners to his home for medical help and food. In coming to believe in Jesus, the jailer is no longer a jailer- he has abandoned the unjust system of labor, he disregards the guidance of an unjust legal system, he ignores the ethnic differences between himself and the apostles, he risks it all. He is changed. His belief in Jesus changes everything about his life in a matter of minutes! Instead of one who lives in fear of the powerful leaders and systems of his day, he stands in courage, rooted in the rightness of helping Paul and Silas. And together, the group forms a community, a faith community of people who are held together by the bonds of God’s grace, their belief, mutual love.

Jamie Tworkowski of the story I shared with you earlier, ends his story, an education into healing like this: “We often ask God to show up. We pray prayers of rescue. Perhaps God would ask us to be that rescue, to be His body, to move for things that matter. He is not invisible when we come alive. I might be simple but more and more, I believe God works in love, speaks in love, is revealed in our love. I have seen that this week and honestly, it has been simple: Take a broken girl, treat her like a famous princess, give her the best seats in the house. Buy her coffee and cigarettes for the coming down, books and bathroom things for the days ahead. Tell her something true when all she’s known are lies. Tell her God loves her. Tell her about forgiveness, the possibility of freedom, tell her she was made to dance in white dresses. All these things are true.

We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless. We don’t get to choose all the endings, but we are asked to play the rescuers. We won’t solve all mysteries and our hearts will certainly break in such a vulnerable life, but it is the best way. We were made to be lovers bold in broken places, pouring ourselves out again and again until we’re called home.”

I think this is how Paul and Silas could worship in jail as they sat immobilized by pain after being beaten, terrified about what would come next. Where the authorities had written sin and injustice and violence across their backs with whips, God had written love. They knew what is true, what matters in the end. And so, when the jailer asked the question that so many of us have uttered ourselves, they had the answer. “Believe. Believe what is true. Live in that belief.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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