One of the first things you notice about this reading we’ve just shared from the Acts of the Apostles is the unique way in which it begins: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer…”
What’s so different about that, you ask? It’s… we! This is a story told in the first person! Now, that may seem like a minor thing on the face of it, but take in mind that it’s only in this 16th chapter – the 10th verse, to be exact – that the Book of Acts very abruptly and without explanation shifts from a standard third person narrative to a first person account; in other words, it’s no longer about “him,” or “her” or “them,” but everything is explained in reference to “we” and “us:” what we saw, what we witnessed, what happened to us as we accompanied Paul on his journeys.
It’s almost as if Luke, in writing this massive two-part work about Jesus and the early church (because, remember, Luke and Acts are meant to be taken together) suddenly realized that the story he was telling was his story, too! So this wasn’t simply a narrative account suitable for publication in the “Macedonia Monitor” or the “Jerusalem Union Leader;” this represents a passionate witness of what Luke himself had seen and heard and believed. What we have in the Book of Acts is Luke’s own proclamation of the growing power of the Gospel in his own life as well as out into the world.
And that’s important; because not only is this Luke’s story, or that of Paul and Silas or the other disciples, but ultimately it’s also our story; yours and mine. Because you and I, like all of those saints who have walked the way before us, are followers of Jesus Christ; and this is our history and our heritage as believers, our “family album,” if you will. And just as old family albums tend not only to show us how we were but have a way of revealing who we are, these “Acts” of the Apostles – this one-time motley assortment who by virtue of the Risen Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit within them were now men of true faith and integrity unafraid to rock the boat for the sake of what they believed – ultimately end up revealing something of the Gospel’s power for our lives in the here and now!
Take this morning’s story, for instance; the riveting tale of a fortune-telling slave girl freed of a demon, her vengeful owners, and a resulting prison drama complete with an earthquake and a midnight hymn-sing! But more than simply being the tale of a long-ago people in a far off place, this particular story says a great deal about integrity: the integrity that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ; the integrity of living one’s life wholly focused on God’s principles, as opposed to the ever-changing tenets of worldly culture. As such, then, this is a story that’s not only about proclaiming a faith in Jesus Christ, but also what it means to live out that proclamation; and unless I miss my guess that’s one plot point that figures mightily in our story as well!
To begin with, understand that Paul and Silas had not come to the “place of prayer” that day intending to cast out demons; in fact, it seems as though this exorcism by Paul had come about as the result of frayed nerves than anything else! Luke describes it this way: “We met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination…” (That is, the ability to tell fortunes, which also gave her the ability to make a great deal of money for her owners) and “…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.’” This had actually been going on for many days; so finally, having been hounded wherever they went by this loud and obnoxious person, Paul (“very much annoyed,” Luke says!) turns and says to the spirit, “‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
You have to wonder what it was that pushed Paul “over the edge,” as it were; was Paul really that annoyed by her incessant shouting, or was it that her words fairly well dripped with sarcasm and ridicule? Truth be told, there would have been very few who could have put up with that for very long; but where it might have been tempting to respond out of anger, Paul acted in accordance with his mission. What we see here that despite this incredible distraction – and belittlement, really – in the end Paul remained true to the Gospel of Christ that had saved him; he acted boldly and faithfully, and kept his integrity… his integrity with God!
I wonder; how many of us latter-day Christians can say the same?
One of the cable networks has recently been running old episodes of the 1970’s era television sit-com, “One Day at Time;” and though I have to say some of those shows don’t particularly hold up all that well, I happened to see one the other night that rang very true. The story was that one of the two daughters on that show had had what she was calling a religious experience; and she’s running around telling everyone, over and over again in a very pious and self-involved way, “Jesus loves you!” But when her younger sister begins to challenge this new-found belief system, almost immediately the older sister starts reverting back to the old patterns of their relationship; until finally, with perfect sisterly venom, she just says, “Jesus… tries hard to love you!” And of course, at that moment it becomes clear that there was never any real depth to this faith experience and no integrity about it at all.
And that kind of thing really does happen, doesn’t it? It’s not that as Christian people we aren’t going to feel annoyed sometimes (even we clergy types can get a little cranky from time to time… believe it or not!); the fact is, we’re human, not at all perfect and each one of us has buttons we don’t want to have pushed! The question for us is whether amidst all the button pushers of this life we’re able to have Jesus Christ be our only source of truth; and then be willing to make our choices out of that truth. So no, it’s not about staying quiet and letting people walk all over us, “going along to get along,” or engaging in all manner of passive-aggressive behaviors for fear of stirring up yet another hornet’s nest. But it is about our acting firmly and assertively out of our faith; that’s certainly what gives us integrity with others, and even more so it shows forth our integrity with God!
We actually find another example of this later on in the story; in how Paul and Silas react to their imprisonment. What’s interesting is that these two are arrested not so much because of Paul’s having cast out the demon; but rather it comes as the result of the owners of this fortune-telling slave girl suddenly finding themselves without the considerable income this girl was providing! So they go to the Roman authorities with false accusations of these two being Jewish rabble-rousers, which is more than enough to get Paul and Silas beaten, stripped, chained, shackled and locked in a jail cell with little hope for any kind of vindication.
But what do Paul and Silas do in the dark of the night in what almost certainly had to be a cold, dark and dank prison? They sing! They sing hymns of faith and joy with voices clear and strong; and I know in my heart, just as my grandmother Lowry used to say, not “the slow, draggy hymns either!” They sang hymns of victory even amidst what seemed like complete defeat!
Friends, again I ask; how many of us can claim the same level of certainty, confidence and utter joy in our faith? Way too many of us who carry the name of Christian will let ourselves be filled with fear and agony and even doubt at the first hint of trouble; I confess that I let that happen in my own spirit sometimes. And that’s the great irony, isn’t it? Because when you talk to people who have been through great challenges, or who have endured great suffering or unspeakable tragedies in their lives, so often what they’ll tell you is that it was faith, and faith alone (even faith the size of a tiny mustard seed!) that got them through.
It’s one thing for us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God” (Colossians 4:16) when all is well, and we’re celebrating the abundance of our blessing; it’s another to sing when the world has seemed to have come crushing down on top of us. But that’s just what Paul and Silas did; they sang, and their singing came out of an understanding that the same God who is the Lord of clear and sunny days is also the Lord of dark and painful nights. To live out of that conviction “all night, all day;” to hold firmly to the assurance of hope and to praise God no matter what; that takes integrity of faith, which is an integrity with God.
And there’s one more example: of course, you know the dramatic climax of this story comes in an earthquake, “so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken,” the doors flew open and all the chains of the prisoners come loose. It’s a powerful miracle of the Holy Spirit, but it has an unexpected effect on the jailer, who as it turns out, had been sleeping throughout the long night. Luke tells us that that when all this happened, the jailer “drew his sword and was about to kill himself,” assuming that the prisoners had escaped on his watch, and the penalty for such a mistake was death. But Paul, rather than grabbing Silas and making a run for it, reaches out to the jailer, calming his fears and offering him an answer to the most important question he could ever ask: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And Paul and Silas tell him – and everyone else around them in the now open prison – about Jesus, about salvation, about life that is both abundant and eternal; and the jailer is so moved that immediately his fear turns to joy. Luke tells us that “at this same hour of the night” he proceeds to wash the wounds of these two men who’d previously been his prisoners, and from that moment his life shifts in way that would last… forever. And this all came about because first, Paul had integrity with God; that at that pivotal moment, Paul found more interest in the salvation of this one jailer than in the possibility of his own escape.
And yet again, oh that we could say the same! Maybe you’ve seen the cartoon that’s done the rounds in a lot of church newsletters, in which one man is saying to the other, “I know we’re supposed to be marching in the army of the Lord, but mostly I just feel like I want to be in the Secret Service!” The sad truth is that most of us are far more willing to talk about jobs, family, politics or the latest scuttlebutt rather than even mention that which is the most precious thing of all, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ! I ask you: is a Christian faith unexpressed and unshared really that much of a faith? As disciples of Christ, we have been commissioned to spread the good news of the Gospel; to do so with boldness – to let our faith in Jesus Christ speak to the concerns and challenges we face in this life – is to have integrity with God.
And here’s the thing; so often it’s our integrity with God that makes all the difference in a world that rife with conflict, uncertainty and despair.
For even now, beloved, in the extended circle of friends, family and co-workers, even amongst those who we barely know, there are those who are crying out to receive what we have to share; because whether they’re saying it or not, they’re worried, and stressed, and scared about this thing called life; and because maybe, just maybe, we can be that first word of comfort and the means to opening the door to a new life; and because our story might be the start of their story, too.
I pray that the stories that we tell this week, by what we say and in what we do, serve as a true reflection of our integrity with God. May the Spirit move in new and exciting ways as we continue the journey of faith begun so long ago; and may our thanks and praise be unto God as we do.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry