Sorry, our audio recording ability has been having some technical difficulties. Here is the text from Pastor Evan’s sermon on May 8:
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C) – May 8, 2016 – Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Freedom from Disconnection – Pastor Evan Davis
They knew a cash cow when they saw it. When these businessmen, these opportunists first heard this woman crying out in the street, yelling what at first seemed meaningless until they listened further, they knew they were staring opportunity in the face. When they first heard her speak of their own future, they knew they couldn’t let this opportunity go. So they bought her, they purchased her, in the marketplace, as they would a goat. They had to pay a premium for this enslaved woman, as she possessed, or was possessed, rather, by a spirit of divination. She was their fortune-telling machine. She was their fortune-making machine.
Why she annoyed Paul so much we don’t really know. The way Luke writes the story it seems as if her following Paul and his companions around town was a daily occurrence.1 Maybe it was simply the repetition. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a spirit of salvation.” That might get annoying after a while. Maybe it was because she used the term, “Most High God,” which was really a term anybody used for the god higher than other gods, still implying many. Maybe it was because this spirit inhabiting her was the source of her insight.2 Maybe because Paul knew she was making money for these unscrupulous businessmen. And so one day he can’t handle it anymore and, very much annoyed, Luke tells us, he rather arbitrarily decides it’s time for the spirit to go.
We might think this woman has been set free, and, in a way, she has. And yet, as soon as the spirit is gone, she disappears from the story. Luke doesn’t find it important to tell us what happens to her. Just like he didn’t find it important enough to record her name. She’s still a slave and her economic usefulness has just been taken away from her. What was going to happen to her now? We might yearn for her to be set free from slavery, from exploitation, from her personhood being taken away from her because she was a woman. On this Mother’s Day, we might celebrate her as a good example of all the unnamed women, and unnamed mothers, of the Bible.
We might yearn for her owners to be set free from the idea that it’s ok to own other human beings. To use them as business assets. To exploit them for profit. When these owners go to the magistrates to get Paul and Silas in trouble, notice that they don’t say what actually happened. They don’t reveal the kind of business they were in. Instead, they appeal to ethnic prejudice and fear: “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.” What customs? Treating people like human beings? What they said was, essentially, “you never know what those Jews might do if we let stick around…” Hearing this story we might yearn for them to be set free from their prejudices as well, from their quickness to divide people along ethnic lines, by fear of the outsiders.
We might yearn for Paul and Silas to be freed from the literal prison in which they find themselves, locked up for being who they are, for irritating two powerful people. And then we meet this jailer. What an interesting fellow. He is a man who must keep other people locked up, or else his own life is forfeit. Just who exactly is the prisoner?
This is a story of God progressively setting people free. Yet even at the end of the story, some are still more free than others. You know what all these people had in common? They were disconnected from one another and from God. The owners were so disconnected from this woman that they could not see her as a human being made in the image of God and worthy of basic dignity, rights, and respect. To them she was just an “it,” a thing, an asset to their business. They were so disconnected from Paul and Silas that they see them as something less, something different, others, Jews, a convenient scapegoat. Paul and Silas are disconnected from this woman…they do not fully recognize her as a sister in Christ. The jailer is disconnected from his prisoners, bound by chains even stronger than the ones he fastened around those under his watch.
Our God is a God of reconnection. Of crossing divides. A God who sends earthquakes that shake the foundations of the prisons in which we find ourselves. A God who stays the sword of this man so disconnected even from himself that he is about to take his own life. God connects him to his prisoners who stayed behind…for him. The jailer’s question is a mysterious one…what must I do to be saved?3 He surely does not think of salvation as we do…to him, what does it mean to be saved? Not just to escape punishment from his superiors, I think, but perhaps to experience the kind of peace and trust and assurance that Paul and Silas felt as they prayed and sang hymns from their cells, as they peacefully stayed put when they could run for their lives. Whatever God they know, I want some of that. I want to know that God.
And we witness again the power of the Word. The power of family – the whole household together receives Christ, just like Lydia’s household whom we heard about last week. The power of repentance – the jailer washes the wounds of these men whom he can now see as men, as brothers. They are now connected. They are now family.
Should we be surprised that this connection, this unity, is what Jesus prays for on the last night of his life? “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus prays that we may all be one – just as he is in the Father and the Father is in him – they are connected – so may we be interconnected, may we be one. Because when we are one, the world will believe we are not making this up. Jesus prays for connection. Jesus prays that we would recognize the image of God in one another.
When I was a pastor in the city of Lancaster and people would just walk up to the church all the time, people would often ask me if Catholics were Christians. As I explained to them, yes, of course, I wondered how we ever became so disconnected. Next year, in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated jointly by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. Christ is slowly but surely reconnecting us. This past Monday and Tuesday I was at a ministry leadership conference held at a nondenominational, evangelical church outside of Charlotte, NC. Their worship was different (their worship band was pretty awesome!), their language was different, some of their priorities were different, but we gathered in the name of the same Christ. They welcomed our Lutheran group that came and made us feel at home. I learned something from them. We were connected.
Jesus is still praying – for you and for me, and for those we have a hard time seeing as people made in the image of God. He’s still praying, and working, to set people free – free from injustice, from fear of outsiders and foreigners, from sexism, from complacency, from spiritual blindness. Look for him. Who is Jesus trying to connect you to right now? Where is the ground trembling under your feet and breaking open the prison walls? What person at the edge of your life is the person Jesus is leading you toward, to be connected, to learn something, to recognize this person also is a child of God? As you pay attention, and look for that person, know that God has already broken down every wall separating him from you – you are connected to Christ, now and forever. Amen.
1Eric Barreto, Commentary on Acts 16:16-34, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2836 (accessed May 5, 2016).