Lectionary: Easter 7C

by Matthew B. Harper

Acts 16:16–34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21
John 17:20–26

We are in the seventh week of Easter, and our extra readings from the Acts of the Apostles are drawing to a close. But before they do, we read this wonderful account of God shaking the very walls of prison. It is a fitting place to read for this Prison Lectionary.

We are in the “us” passages of Acts. These are the sections where our author, Luke, is traveling with Paul as he makes his way throughout the Mediterranean world. Our reading today finds them in Philippi, having been joined by Silas and Timothy.

In every new city Paul begins his ministry at the synagogue, or, if they don’t have one, at the place they do gather for prayer. In Philippi he has been traveling to this place of prayer to meet with believers and spread the Gospel.

But while he travels to this place of prayer something new happens. A young woman, a slave, begins to follow them, proclaiming them “slaves of the Most High God.” It is quite an introduction, and quite an unlikely one.

Perhaps it seemed to be a sincere proclamation, a bold statement of her faith, for Paul allowed it to go on for several days before responding to it. Sometimes the right words can be spoken, and it takes us time to discern that instead of sincerity they are said in accusation, full of sarcasm and scorn. Sometimes when our enemies speak the truth, even by accident, it is best to allow the words their own power.

Is this young woman the enemy of Paul and Silas? Of course not. She is a young woman many time victimized, first as a slave, then as one possessed by an evil spirit, and then again by those who are responsible for her and choose to exploit her for money. Life was indeed cheap for women, and slavery widely practiced. There was no one to speak up for or defend this young woman.

But the spirit that had control over her proclaims the truth. These spirits, as in the Gospels, see with clarity obscured to us. They are able to see to the heart of the matter, and to accuse and wound. Spirits tried to subvert the work of Jesus, just as they now try to do with Paul. Instead he finally tires of the noise, the sarcasm, the accusations, and the distraction, commands in the name of the Lord for the spirit to leave her. She is set free.

I have to wonder what took him so long.

Now, finally, someone takes notice. Those who wouldn’t protected her before speak up now. Deprived of the money from her fortune-telling the woman’s owners complain. Accusing Paul and Silas of anti-Roman preaching they have them thrown in prison.

In one short story we have religion, money, and politics: the perfect tri-fecta of controversy. It’s no wonder someone ends up in prison!

And then we all know the story. Paul and Silas sing, they pray, they rejoice, and the walls are shaken. The doors fall open, but no one leaves! Imagine if today all the fences and walls were to fall over and the doors swing open, it would be mass exodus! But God, working through Paul, has something greater in mind.

The jailer and his family come to faith and are baptized. The leaders of Philippi come to personally escort Paul and Silas out of prison.

So this is a story not of escape, but of being set free. Free from demonic possession, free from prison, and even a profound freedom while in prison singing, praying, and praising. It seems as if there was no one to stand up for the slave woman, and no one to stand up at trial for Paul (because Paul didn’t even get a trial). But God stood up for them—the Almighty One—in the words of the slave: “The Most High God.” God is our advocate and protector.

We can assume that this woman didn’t understand what she said, and neither did the people listening. In Philippi words like that would have been understood to refer to Zeus or some other member of the Greco-Roman pantheon. It was the truth, even if poorly spoken and misunderstood.

Today’s Psalm leaves no room for misunderstanding. This is the Good and Great Almighty God, The God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Hearing Jesus pray we discover the earth-shaking truth that this God holds us. We belong to Jesus and somehow we live in God, and God lives in us. God loves us, and through us God is at work in the world.

Good. Because we desperately need God. We need our walls shaken, we need the doors to our prisons, and the chains on our hearts, to be cast off. There are too many lost and hurting in the world today. There are too many like this young woman who are held in bondage and exploited with no one to speak for them. We all suffer from our own fears and demons. We all need to be set free.

God loves us. God sets us free. God is at work in us and through us. Our eternity is safe in Jesus.

There is work left to do, work that seems to never end. When Paul and Silas were set free they immediately gathered with the other believers, and we can assume they met up again with Luke and Timothy. They rejoiced, they prayed, and they set out. They set out for the next city, the next mission, the next task. There was work still to do, and in a world lost and hurting there still is.

When it all come to a close, at the end of the end, let us trust in the promise of John’ revelation, that there is only glory, salvation, life, and love. One day the work does end. The prisons are shaken open, the oppressed set free, and the praise never ends.

In the end there is only love.

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, Come!

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