St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Readings: Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
We’re entering the final stages of our celebration of Easter. Thursday marked a turning point with Jesus’ ascension – his return to the Father in order that the Spirit might come. The risen Christ has been taken into the eternal dimension. He’s no longer to be seen in bodily form, and yet, he does have a body on earth. We are that body. Jesus speaks through us, acts through us, loves and cares through us. It’s through us that others encounter Christ.
The readings from the Acts of the Apostles over the past weeks have given us a glimpse into the life of the early church as our forebears discovered what it is to be Christ in the world. Now that story continues with Paul and Silas. As with Dorcas and Lydia, we’ll find these aren’t stories confined to the first century. They’re also our stories. They’re about how we live out the Christian life today.
It happened in the city of Philippi. Paul and Silas were going off to join others in worship when they met a slave girl with the ability to foretell the future. This was a nice little money-earner for her owners, who hired her out to tell fortunes. She started following Paul and Silas and shouting out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” True, but the young woman uttering the words is deeply disturbed, whom Paul recognises as enslaved by what he describes as demons. So he heals her and sets her free from her bondage. Great! Now she’s free … Actually, no – she’s not free. She’s owned by her masters, who see that she’s no longer a lucrative source of income for them. So they take their frustrations out on Paul and Silas. They weren’t interested in the girl as a person, only for what they could get out of her. They used her for their own ends.
In our communities today: doesn’t this seem familiar? We live in a society that’s quite good at using people. Using them for financial gain, the way the business world sometimes acts, using them to gain the highest possible profits, even though the minimum wage (legal though it is) means that a family can’t be decently fed and clothed. Too often people get used, and money is utilised as a tool for manipulating them. Sadly, it also happens in the church. Money is sometimes used as a means of power and people are manipulated and used. Perhaps you’ve experienced that in your own life – of it being done to you, and maybe, you’ve been tempted to do it to others.
Back in Philippi: the slave girl’s owners call in the authorities, accusing Paul and Silas of creating a disturbance and breaking the societal rules: “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.” It’s as if her owners are saying, “We aren’t against a little religion, as long as it’s kept in its place. These men are Jews and aren’t behaving properly. Religion shouldn’t upset people. It mustn’t disturb the status quo.” So, Paul and Silas find themselves in prison.
Beaten, chained up, and stuck in the innermost cell. It’s a scary place. Whatever we may believe about incarceration polices, let’s have no illusions; prison dehumanises and can even destroy people. Remember, Jesus spoke of visiting those in prison, and seeing himself in them. I thank God for those in this parish who care for prisoners and their families. Who befriend them and offer them Christ-like compassion. Then something surprising happens. How do Paul and Silas react to this awful situation? They’re praying and singing hymns in the darkness of their imprisonment. When the worst happens they’re sustained by prayer and by the patterns of worship.
That’s something that others too have found. In our lives, faith, prayer, worship are what sustains through the tough times. It’s the knowing that Jesus, who suffered and was killed, who rose from the dead and is now ascended and is Lord of all, does not leave us. The ascended Christ understands us; knows what it’s like to be in that frightening place. When the dark nights in damp cells take us captive, we have Jesus who is in earshot, who is with us, for us, supporting and sustaining us. But if you’re like me, and have experienced something of that dark place, then you’ll also know that the place to learn the songs, to get familiar with the prayers, isn’t in the darkness. The time to practice isn’t when the crisis hits. The time to prepare is now: to develop the spiritual resources, the habits of prayer and worship that can give us strength when the darkness comes.
As Paul and Silas are singing their songs and praying in the darkness, an earthquake happens. Earthquakes aren’t normally good news, but on this occasion it leads to the prison doors flying open and everyone’s chains falling off them. The jailer wakes and is horrified. Knowing what happens to jailers who allow their prisoners to escape, he prepares to kill himself. And then Paul speaks: “don’t harm yourself, for we are all here.”
The miracle here isn’t so much the earthquake, but in Paul’s response to the jailer. The jailer is a man in authority over Paul and Silas. He has the power, and it would be understandable for Paul to treat him as a foe. But no: he responds to him with compassion, patience and respect. He doesn’t treat him as an enemy but as a child of God; as a fellow human being with fears and hopes and desires, just like everyone else.
We come back to our lives here, to how we respond to others. We often assume that people fall into two categories: those who are for us, and those who are against us. But there’s a third choice: to accept others with all their foibles and failings and to find the same needs and desires in them, as we know in ourselves. We may assume there are only two outcomes: winning or losing. But there’s another way. To relate to the person who presents as an adversary with love and to work with God to transform the relationship. So what do we do in our own lives? How do we treat those about us, especially those who we regard as a foe? It might be the person whose political views are different from ours, or the one whose theology we regard as unacceptable. Or perhaps it’s the parking warden who gives us a ticket, or that slow person ahead of us in the queue who’s holding us up. Or it could just be someone who isn’t doing things how we want them done. How do we choose to react?
Paul sees his jailer as a beloved child of God, and the jailer recognises something different, something special in Paul and Silas. And he asks the question, “What must I do to be saved?” A conversation about God happens, and the jailer and his family are baptised. That’s how it happens – back then and today. People see in us something different, something that they aren’t expecting. And they ask, “What’s happening here?” A conversation begins and a relationship develops. The jailer washed their wounds and took them home for a meal. Can we see ourselves here?
This is the story of the church. It’s the story of Paul and Silas, Lydia and Dorcas. It’s also our story – the story of people like us learning to allow the risen and ascended Christ to work through them; learning to be Christ to others. This is the story of the people for whom Jesus prayed the night before he died: “that they may be one … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” His deepest desire for us is that the love with which God the Father loved him might be in us. All that we do, all that we are, must be rooted in that desire. May our prayer, our overriding passion, the goal of everything we do – may it be to so know the love that God has for us, that it spills out of our everyday living.