It’s hard to believe we’ve come to the end of our summer series, “Blowing in the Wind.”
Each week we’ve bounced around the book of Acts exploring how we can figure out what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives and how we can join in on the action.
This week we end with a huge story found in Acts 16 where the Apostle Paul visits the Roman Colony of Philippi and has a dramatic encounter with the Empire. The text is so long that we decided to not have it read first and then preach on it, but, instead to let the story unfold throughout the sermon.
Before we dive into this amazing story, I’d like to frame it with some questions for us.
There is so much going on in the world right now. We are over five months into a pandemic that is reshaping the landscape of our society. We are weeks away from a presidential election that will undoubtedly deepen the rifts between the two sides of our volatile political system. We are repeatedly faced with the harsh reality of racial injustice in our systems.
There are so many voices, saying so many things.
It is overwhelming.
So here’s my question.
How does the Gospel intersect with all these things?
Do we, as followers of Jesus, have anything to say in the public sphere? Isn’t faith just a private thing? Are we supposed to speak out, to act out?
If so, what exactly are we to do and say?
OK, I realize this is a HUGE topic that is way too big for a short sermon. So, I won’t pretend to offer a thorough exploration of the question or have solid answers.
Yet, I think the question is so important, and our text for today offers a powerful example of it that we must at least create a list of examples to chew on from it.
Before we can do that, though, we must take a moment and make sure we understand what we mean when we say “The Gospel.”
Do you remember at the beginning of our study in Mark this year when Jesus gave his first sermon? He said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News!” There it is.
The Good News, the Gospel, is that there is an alternative way to live life that stands in contrast to the dominant way humans tend to live.
On the one hand there is the Kingdom of Human Power that operates on greed and control, hatred, fear, and violence. This kingdom is built on rigid systems that view the other as enemy and uses and abuse anyone necessary to bring wealth and power to the elite.
On the one hand there is the Kingdom of God which is ruled by God’s love, justice, and peace for ALL people.
And, the king of this Kingdom is Jesus. He showed us what a godly ruler looks like: one who came to serve the lowest of the low and make sure that all people had opportunity to love and be loved and to be saved from a life of fear and oppression.
That’s good news.
Now, in our story today, in Acts 16, we see how Paul has several encounters. Each encounter tells us something about how the Gospel intersects with society.
Our first encounter is with Lydia (vv.11-15):
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 worshiper 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.
Lydia is a woman with wealth and status. She hears the message of God’s Kingdom and is totally open to it. She uses her resources for hospitality and opens her home to all.
Who are the Lydias among us who are gifted with resources and ready to use them for God’s Kingdom work?
The second encounter is with a slave-girl (vv. 16-18):
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.
The literal translation is that this girl was possessed by the Python Spirit. She had a gift of speaking the truth and predicting the future, but it was at the cost of losing her own identity. She was possessed by the python spirit and possessed by greedy men who saw her, not as a human being, but as a tool to make them profit.
Who are the slave-girls among us today? Millions of children and young adults are sold in human trafficking. They live in a dark pit.
What happens when this girl encounters the Kingdom of God?
She is set free.
The third encounter is with the slave-owners (vv. 19-22):
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace 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,
Now we come to the real confrontation of power in the story. You see, it was not uncommon for people to own slaves in the ancient world. It was everywhere. Humans owning humans to use them for profit.
When the Gospel set this girl free, the men did not rejoice that she was on the path to recovery. All they could see was the disruption of their economic system.
Don’t mess with people’s money.
When the Kingdom of God forces you to choose between the well-being of all people versus the bottom line of the company, things will get ugly.
The slave-owners dragged Paul and Silas into the public square, falsely accused them, and demanded that these trouble makers be dealt with.
…and all they did was set a little girl free from oppressive powers.
Who are the slave-owners among us today? What lives are we willing to sacrifice to protect the bottom line?
Our fourth encounter is with the Magistrates, the rulers of the political system (vv. 22-24):
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.
Notice what the political powers do? They don’t ask questions of Paul and Silas. They listen to the slave-owners. They cruelly and publicly punish Paul and Silas and then quickly bury the Gospel messengers in a dark hole, where they won’t be able to do any more damage to the economy.
What are our political power structures like today?
The fifth encounter is with the jailer (vv 25-27):
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.
First of all, notice how Paul and Silas are dealing with this lack of justice and mistreatment. They just roll with it.
Yesterday we were hanging out at Lydia’s place. Tonight we’re in a Roman prison
Let’s praise God, shall we?
Then we see that the power of the Kingdom of God is greater than any Roman prison. An earthquake shakes the place and everyone is set free.
Again, prisoners set free by the Gospel.
Notice how the jailer reacts. When he sees that the gates are open, he assumes that the prisoners would do what anyone living in the Kingdom of Human Power do, RUN!
The jailer is so afraid of what his punishment will be that he would rather kill himself than face the brutality of the system.
He is just a guy trying to do his job who is ruled by fear and violence.
Who are the jailers among us today?
Let’s take a an interlude and see the snapshot of the Gospel (vv. 28-31).
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.”
The prisoners did not run away. Paul and Silas are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Their testimony to the true King in the darkness of prison had an affect on the other prisoners.
They were free. They did not need to run.
For the first time in the Roman Jailer’s life, he saw true freedom. He saw a way out of the oppressive system that led him to want to destroy his own life.
“I want in on that! What must I do to be saved.”
Then Paul speaks the most important line.
“Trust in the Lord Jesus.”
There is a different kingdom. The Kingdom of God which seeks for justice and peace for all people is here, and Jesus is its king.
Trust him. Trust this way of life. It will save you from all this.
That’s Good News.
Who is proclaiming God’s Kingdom today?
The Jailer’s story continues (vv. 32-34)
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.
This is what happens when we trust in the Lord of the Kingdom of God. Our hearts are opened to hospitality and for the well-being of our neighbors.
That is the same thing that happened to Lydia.
Our Sixth encounter is with the Magistrates (vv. 35-39):
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.
When the political leaders learned that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, their perspective changed.
The Kingdom of Human Power must always create a class system so that some people are on top and can justify the mistreatment of people who are lower than themselves.
The Magistrates made a mistake, but instead of owning it, they wanted to brush it under the rug.
Paul wouldn’t stand for it.
We want justice. Own your mistakes. Come and face us.
You see, being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t mean you are a welcome matte to be walked on and abused. It means that ALL people deserve justice, and it calls abusers of power to accountability.
Who are those among us today who stand up to corruption and call it to account?
Our final encounter brings up back to Lydia’s house (v. 40):
After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
Paul did not let the magistrates intimidate him. He was more concerned with the well-being of his new-found church at Lydia’s house than he was with protecting himself.
When Paul and Silas left that colony, they left behind their own outpost of the Kingdom of God, to shine the light of God justice and peace for all people in the heart of the Kingdom of Human Power.
This was a huge story, and we crammed a lot in.
I leave you with one question. In the midst of all the chaos that is happening in our world today,
Do you trust the Kingdom of God and the King who shows us the way of God’s love, justice, and peace for all people?