Today the scriptures teach us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.
We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts. We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on. She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination. We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “[She] brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”
This woman was being doubly exploited. First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract. She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.
But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it. “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,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.” Why was he annoyed? Well, anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while. It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.
But it’s possible there’s another explanation for his annoyance. This woman was an ever-present reminder of the very injustice she was undergoing. Slaves were supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive, like sentient furniture, living bodies that could anticipate and do your will without your having to engage them as human beings. This woman trapped in slavery would not be silent. And when oppressed people refuse to be silent, people with the power to do something about that oppression, who don’t really want to deal with it, get very annoyed.
For those of us in the dominant culture, this is precisely our situation with those suffering from racial and economic injustice in our own country and around the world. We do anything we can to not hear their cries, the proclamation that God’s power could make a change if we would let it. Most of the time it’s a low level of discomfort that we can stifle with materialism and busyness. But sometimes it gets loud enough to disturb the public square, and we become very much annoyed. We don’t want to know that there are enslaved people around us and we are ignoring them.
Awful as that truth is, we’re in good company. Saint Paul himself fell into the same trap. But Paul eventually lets his discomfort drive him to do the work that he is being called to do. He, through the power of Jesus, liberates this woman from her exploitation. “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.” And then they all went home and lived happily ever after.
Oh, no, wait, that’s not what happened. “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…The crowd joined in attacking them, 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.”
Ouch. Paul and Silas have succeeded in unleashing the liberating power of the gospel, but the result is that they have exchanged their own freedom for the freedom of the slave girl. And that’s another truth that we don’t really want to grapple with. If and when we finally listen to the Spirit enough to get serious about participating in the liberation of oppressed people in our communities, there will be a cost.
For some activists, it is as literal as actual jail time for civil disobedience, just like Paul and Silas. But for most of us, the cost will be much more subtle. It will be the loss of some of our own privileged position, some of our own wealth, some of our own comfort and security, some of our own certainty that we are right. And some of us would frankly prefer literal chains around our hands and feet like Paul. That’s much more glamorous and dramatic and noble than the humble spiritual discipline of letting go of our own power.
We have seen the liberation of the enslaved woman, and we are about to see the liberation of Paul and Silas and their compatriots from their unjust imprisonment. But what makes this story remarkable is that there is much more liberation happening here than just the obvious. What makes this story about the transformative power of Jesus Christ is that the oppressors are liberated right along with the oppressed. The enslaved woman cracks open the fault line of liberation, and Paul and Silas help the seismic shift along until God’s earthquake comes and the jailer himself, the ultimate oppressor, says yes to the liberation of Jesus.
When people are willing to give themselves for the liberation of others, to walk freely the way of the Cross for the sake of those denied their dignity as children of God, the rocks and stones themselves start to sing, as Jesus foretold. Justice rolls down like waters. The torrents call to one another, from deep to deep. Every valley is exalted and every hill made low. This is the earth-shattering power of the marriage of justice and mercy that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this remaking of the earth is the laying of the foundation stones of the new Kingdom of God.
Do we live our lives as though that were true? A great deal of the time, the earthquakes of God are shattering our walls all around us, and we’re so terrified of that loss of control that we cling to our chains and call them comfort and harmony. Liberation, which is Jesus by another name, is disruptive and scary and can feel out of control. It changes things forever, and for we who are powerful and comfortable, it rarely feels to us like it’s for the better. Among the many who are liberated in this story, the owners of the slave girl were liberated from their wealth and their ability to continue exploiting her. But they probably didn’t call it liberation. They likely called it unfair and wrong and a threat to the rule of law.
Are we doing the same? Is God’s earthquake knocking at our doors while we’re calling it unseemly and unnecessarily divisive and impractical? The question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is going to take 647 proclamations of the truth to us from oppressed people for us to hear the message, the broken record of the enslaved woman, or whether we might covet some freedom of our own enough to listen a little sooner.
The liberation of Jesus Christ breaks open not just our own chains and those of everyone we have failed to support in their quest for justice. It will, in the long term, free us from those very labels of oppressed and oppressor that imprison us now. God’s people, healed, forgiven, and free, will be known by new names.
This is the last Sunday of Easter. For forty days we have proclaimed the Resurrection, but each of us must ask in the privacy of our own hearts whether we are actually living as though it were true. Last week, Jesus asked us, “Do you want to be healed?” Today he asks us, “Do you want to be free?” Proclaiming truth to power and singing to God from jail are terrible risks, but the earthquake of God is our liberation made real.
The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Missouri and currently the Associate Rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, Missouri. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She created and leads workshops and retreats such as Evangelism With Integrity, Sacred Body, Senior VBS, and Questions of Jesus. See www.thehiveapiary.com and www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com for more of her work.