In the seven chapters between last week’s reading and this week’s, Paul has quickly gone from a persecutor of the church to one of the most influential apostles in that same church. Specifically, he is the apostles to the Gentiles; a large order as the Gentiles are everyone who isn’t Jewish. Jesus has given him the leadership and responsibility to spearhead the “and to the ends of the earth” portion of Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8. But, as we see throughout Acts (and the Gospels), for every success in witness comes some sort of backlash from opponents. Paul was even part of that backlash prior to Jesus’ dramatic call. The question was never how to avoid setbacks and suffering, but how to respond to it.
The Set-Up (Acts 16:16-18)
Every story has a starting point, and this specific episode starts with Paul and Silas heading to a place of prayer in Philippi, the chief city in the Roman colony of Macedonia. They encounter a slave-girl, apparently possessed by a spirit of prophecy in the tradition of the oracle at Delphi. It’s not surprising that her owners would find a way to profit from her “special ability.”
Two curious things come from this scene. First, this pagan spirit publicly proclaims the good news Paul and Silas brought to the city. In the Gospels, spirits were clearly opponents of Jesus’ work. The second curious thing is that Paul didn’t deliver the girl from the spirit out of compassion or because it was the right thing to do. He did it because she was annoying him (Acts 16:18). But, whatever the circumstances, Paul enacts the salvation the spirit was proclaiming, on the spirit itself.
The Backlash (Acts 16:19-24)
Paul “killed the golden goose” for the slaveholders, so it’s not surprising at all that they got angry. And, either from a spirit of revenge or justice, they took him to court, with a charge of disturbing the peace and proselytizing to the good Romans.
There is a faint parallel here between this story and the one we recently heard of Jesus being brought before the Roman leader of his area, Pontius Pilate. In both, actions done with the power of God make people upset. The “offended” bring our godly representative before the Roman leader(s). These people riled up the crowds, which influence the leaders’ decisions. These supposed troublemakers are humiliated, beaten and thrown into prison (or crucified). Roman prisons were nothing like modern prisons. People were not sentenced to prison, they were either being held until trial or condemned to die of starvation. It’s unclear from the text which category Paul and Silas were in.
Our Heroes Respond (Acts 16:25-34)
Paul and Silas are hurting. The pain from the flogging must have been severe, and now they were thrown into a vile hole where they weren’t even able to stand up. Prayer would be a natural response, usually of the “get me out of here” variety. However, Paul and Silas also responded to their dire circumstances by singing hymns to God, praising God in their suffering. They chose to trust God, rather than despair.
God came through for them with a very localized earthquake. It was so strong that it broke the stocks/chains of the prisoners but was not strong enough to collapse any buildings (if it did, those details would probably be in the story). Paul and Silas (and the other prisoners) didn’t use this opportunity to escape, but instead, they waited until morning (for some reason, possibly compassion for the jailer, possibly a desire for due process). However, the response of our spiritual heroes here led to a whole household joining the Body of Christ.
A Curious Ending (Acts 16:35-40)
The last scene in our story here (not included in the Narrative Lectionary reading) is very strange to me. Paul endured the flogging and the night of suffering in prison, and then he pulls out his Roman citizen card. Claiming their Roman citizenship at the beginning would likely have avoided this whole affair! Why wait until now? The result, and perhaps Paul’s purpose, was that now the prisoner held the power. Under Roman law, the magistrates’ actions were illegal and could make them lose their jobs, or worse. Paul’s mercy might have transferred to the fledgling Philippian church, and given them some protection.
How do we respond to setbacks and suffering? Do we groan and complain or stress and worry (my tendency)? How often do we respond to suffering by praising God? For most of us, not very often. Now, the joy that motivated Paul and Silas to sing could have two different causes. First, it could be they were simply responding to the joy of the Spirit welling up inside them, regardless of their circumstances. Second, they could have made the conscious decision to respond to their suffering by turning to God in prayer and praise.
The text doesn’t say, but I prefer the second possibility. Frankly, the first has the prerequisite of a joy within. Now, this can be something that we can cultivate, but it seems to me that it’s a long, though worthwhile process. The second is about the practice of spiritual disciplines, with the focus on discipline. It’s the times when “I don’t want to” that marks a discipline. That is a decision we can make, to cling to the power of praise through music, to practice the discipline. We all might know this, but now the difficult part is to actually do it.
Paul and Silas are heroes in the faith and, empowered by the Spirit, maybe even can be called superheroes. This week’s free resource, “Superheroes for Jesus” plays on the common interest in superheroes to inspire participants to become heroes in the faith themselves. This activity comes from our Living the Word: Kids (3rd-6th) product and can be used in a classroom or worship service (probably with a group of young disciples). You can also find original praise songs for children following the Narrative Lectionary in our Living the Word: Singing God’s Story product!
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2018-2019 (NL Year 1) faith formation materials are now available for purchase! Fall lessons can be downloaded right away!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!
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