Rev. Teri Peterson
11 May 2014, Easter 4, NL4-37
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
One day, 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 market-place 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.
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.’ 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. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
I wonder if they thought about her.
The enslaved woman who started all this—did Paul and Silas think about her while they were being beaten, or while they were in prison singing, or while they were telling the good news of Jesus to the jailer, or while they were using their privilege of Roman citizenship in a show of nonviolent resistance?
Or was she just an irritant to be brushed off and forgotten?
We like to read this as if she is yet another person set free from a demon by the power of Christ’s name. And that is true, but it is not the whole truth. The text does not tell us if she was truly set free, or if she was just made disposable to her owners. After all, she was a slave who used to bring in money, and now she doesn’t, and her owners are angry about that. What will happen to her?
Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to her. She just disappears, as if she’s nothing more than a way for Paul and Silas to make a point in the prison and with the magistrates.
But to God she is a precious child, carrying God’s image. To God, she has a name, and a story, and value beyond what income she can generate. And that means that she has value to us as well. We who follow Jesus can never simply assume that some people are collateral damage, that some people are disposable, that some people matter more than others.
Paul and Silas’ trip to Philippi had started well. They’d gotten to know the town a bit, looking for the places where the light of Christ was already shining, where the Spirit was already visible. Once they found that bright spot, they were able to begin work there and let the light spread. That bright spot happened to be down by the river, where the women worked and prayed. Philippi was a Roman colony, so it did not have a synagogue but it did have a vibrant economy. Down at the river, they encountered Lydia, a wealthy merchant woman whose business was dirty but profitable work, extracting costly purple dye from small snails. The work meant she was unclean according to Jewish law, but she was a Gentile anyway. In fact, she’s often considered the first European convert to the Way of Christ. The Spirit was already moving in that little community by the river, and when Paul and Silas brought the story of God in Christ, they immediately embraced it in both word and deed, with radical hospitality and grace.
A fledgling church began in Lydia’s home, and news must have spread. By the time the slave woman gets on Paul’s last nerve, they’ve been there for a while and are beginning to be known. But they are still Jews in a Roman colony—outsiders. And that makes it easy to accuse them when they lash out and hurt someone’s bottom line.
As they sang in the darkness, did they think about her? Were they praying for their freedom in Christ to become literal freedom for themselves and for her? Or was she forgotten?
Freedom did come for them. The earth shook and the doors open and the chains fell to the floor. The jailer knew that their freedom meant his own expendability was now front and center—and Paul knew this too. As the jailer’s despair deepened to match the pitch-black darkness of a maximum security prison in the dead of night, a voice came out of the dark. Imagine the freedom he must have felt, to hear the words “we are all here.” It’s almost a resurrection story all over again, with life coming out of death in the middle of the night. In fact, not even “almost”—it is a resurrection story, for where the jailer previously thought his life was tied only to the value of his work, he now rejoices in knowing that he, and everyone, is a part of the Body of Christ.
So I wonder if they thought about her?
Was she part of the Body too? Later in his career, Paul will write that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Is that true for this woman, so easily cast aside? Is it true for the thousands of women and men and children whose names we will never know but who live their lives chained to sewing machines to make our lives easier and cheaper? Is it true for the Nigerian mothers weeping for their daughters while we spend twenty billion dollars on cards and flowers and gifts for our own mothers? Is it true for the hundreds of thousands of people sold, like this woman, into sex slavery? Do we all suffer together with those whom Christ loves but we ignore as useful at best and disposable at worst?
When the magistrates try to brush off Paul and Silas as an irritant, sending them away in secret, Paul uses his privilege in exactly the way Jesus teaches us to resist oppressors: by highlighting their cruelty through turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. He brings up his citizenship for the first time in the story, and forces the leaders of the colony to come out and make a scene, apologizing for their wrongdoing in public where everyone can see they were in the wrong. It’s a brilliant move that puts the good news of God’s story of freedom front-and-center in the town square, at the same moment it highlights the weakness of the Empire’s assumptions and its mob justice.
Did they go look for her? Did they try to set her free in a literal sense now that she was spiritually free? Because spiritual freedom is important, but it’s only one part of freedom. God didn’t just set the Israelites free in their hearts, God led them out of Egypt. God didn’t just tell the disciples that death had now power, God raised Jesus from the dead and freed him from the tomb. Paul and Silas had all the spiritual freedom they could want, yet still the earth shook and the doors of the prison opened.
Conversely, it’s easy to assume our freedom because we have no literal shackles. But we are just as bound. Whether we are shackled to our socio-economic status, to our insistence that our desires be met at every turn, to our complicity in a world system where some people are disposable, to our history, or to our material possessions, or to any other impermanent thing that has tricked us into believing it is ultimate…Christ has come to set us free. It may be earth-shaking, it may be hard, it may take a massive shift in how we see ourselves and others, but God’s will is always for freedom, for justice, for grace, for peace—in other words, for good news for all, not just for some. For as often as we do it to the least of these, we do it to Christ. And the least of these have names, and stories, and value as children of God, regardless of their value to our economy or interest to our media.
As we seek the freedom and hope that Christ came to give, and remember that with that freedom comes a responsibility to one another, I invite you to pick up a little piece of that responsibility by committing to pray for another member of the body. In these baskets are the known names of the Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing. Take one or two, and hold them fiercely, surrounding them with the light and love of God that breaks open prisons. For until their prisons are opened, ours can never be. And while you’re praying for them, confess also the ways in which our own system benefits us at their expense, whether economically or geographically or socially or politically. May the earth shake loose our shackles and theirs, until all the world is set free by this Truth: Christ is risen, he is risen indeed—and freedom is coming.
May it be so. Amen.