Scripture: Acts 19:23-41 (Acts 16:16-40)
We’re going to get to the story we just heard from Acts 19, but first I want to back up a couple chapters to another story about one of Paul’s many adventures. This story takes place just after Paul meets Lydia – who you may remember from last week as the Philippian businesswoman who starts the first European house church. Paul and his companions remain in Philippi for a little while, staying with Lydia, and while they are there they meet a certain woman who happens to be of a very different status from their hostess: this woman is a slave.
She’s also possessed by a spirit that somehow gives her the power to predict the future, so her owners use her to tell people’s fortunes and they make a tidy little profit off of that. When Paul and Silas meet her, something about this spirit immediately picks up on the presence an outside spiritual power, and the woman follows them around Philippi shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God! They are preaching a way of salvation!” The text says this happened for many days, which presumably got old quickly.
At some point Paul gets so exasperated that he just turns around and yells, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stop it!” and the spirit leaves the woman. It’s a happy ending, except for – who? The woman’s owners, who find their share prices suddenly taking a dive.
So they drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities. Only it maybe doesn’t sound so great to try to charge them and throw them in jail for exorcising a spirit, so instead, they accuse the religious-minority Paul and Silas of un-Roman activities. This kind of fear sells, of course, and Paul and Silas end up in jail.
Paul and Silas do get the last word in this little episode. Late that night as they are praying and singing hymns in their prison cell, there is a great earthquake, and all the cell doors swing open and their chains fall off. When the jailkeeper sees this he thinks he’s lost all his prisoners and is ready to kill himself, but when he realized they’re still there, he ends up getting saved instead.
I admit it might have been nice if Paul had gotten rid of that spirit more for the sake of healing the slave woman and less just because it got on his last nerve. Still, no matter what Paul’s motives, Jesus was at work. In the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he stood up and read from Isaiah in the synagogue, he said: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release of the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That day in Philippi, those words were still true. This is, then and now, the power of the Gospel.
We also learn in this story that the Gospel, at times, has the tendency to cut into the profit margins of the economic powers that be. This will be important.
Fast forward a couple of chapters and the missionary team is now in the city of Ephesus. Here, again, Paul finds himself in trouble, which will be a recurring theme for the rest of Acts. Things get interesting quickly in Ephesus – we learn, for example, that even a small towel that touches Paul and then is taken to a sick person has the power to heal people. Also, a number of people who previously practiced sorcery come to believe in Jesus, and hold a huge bonfire where they burn all their old sorcery texts. All eye-catching, to be sure, but it’s a silversmith named Demetrius who decides that Paul is a threat to society. Paul is going around preaching the Gospel, telling everyone that new life and hope can be found in Jesus, but Demetrius makes shrines to the goddess Artemis. Artmesis’s temple was in Ephesus and it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and she was not only the patron goddess of the city but also, as it turns out, the patron goddess of banking. Demetrius see the writing on the wall and figure if everyone in Ephesus starts worshiping the one God we know in Jesus, there might not be much of a market for Artemis shrines anymore, and then he and a bunch of his fellow craftsmen are out of a job.
So he gathers his fellow craftsmen and riles them up real good. “We can’t let this happen!” he says. “It’s not just about our profits – I mean, it is a little bit about our profits – but we can’t let this happen to Artemis!” Everyone yells and cheers – “Make Artemis great again!” and before you know it, there’s a full-scale riot going on in downtown Ephesus.
Paul is persuaded by his friends to lay low as all of this is going on, and eventually the city manager shuts the whole thing down and tells the people to take it to court.
Sometimes (I think) we think – though we probably wouldn’t put it in so many words – that being a good Christian means something like being a good citizen, if being a good citizen means something like living a nice, quiet life, helping little old ladies cross the street, picking up litter sometimes, and generally not making waves. If we do these things then we are pretty well following the path of Jesus.
Not if we read Acts.
Sometimes I think we need a reminder that while there’s certainly nothing wrong with picking up litter or helping little old ladies cross the street, being a good Christian and being a so-called good citizen are not, in fact, the same thing. Sometimes, following the way of Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel will butt heads with the very values a society is built on.
That’s true, of course, in places across the world where simply to go to church or profess faith in Jesus can get you in trouble – and there are those places. But it’s also what happens when we look at aspects of our society and dare to say, “God won’t stand for this.” For Paul in these stories, the problem isn’t talking about Jesus. The problem is that these societies are built on power and profit, and Jesus threatens those things.
The Gospel has the power to disrupt our community life as we know it. If we’re following Jesus, we “good citizens” should probably be prepared to make and get into a little trouble.
Does that sound like something you signed up for?
I have to tell you that I wrote much of this sermon yesterday, at Jon’s parents’ house where the internet is pretty sketchy. Then as we drove home and came back into civilization, I started reading my Facebook news feed in horror about everything that had taken place in Charlottesville that day.
As you know, yesterday white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, protesting a decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in a local park. In the morning, they surrounded a downtown church where people were gathered, in response, for an interfaith prayer service. It was pointed out that this Klan-type group didn’t even feel the need to wear hoods. Somehow, militant racists don’t feel like they have to be anonymous these days. Street violence broke out between the white nationalists and counter-protestors. Later that afternoon, a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing at least one person and injuring many others. This was all two hours south of here. (Was anyone there?)
You know, I’ve always liked to imagine myself as someone, if I had lived during the 60s, who would have joined the Freedom Riders. I would have been one of those religious leaders you see in the pictures who locked arms with Martin Luther King – never mind that none of them were women at the time – and I would have faced the water cannons and bravely gone to jail. In these ways I would have let the Gospel which says that all people are created in the image of God come to life in my life.
I like to imagine that, but a week or so ago, Bishop Lewis sent an email out to clergy asking us to be there, be physically present if possible. I read the email and didn’t dismiss it, but Jon and I had plans to go to his parents’ this weekend already. Besides, having the baby always complicates these things, and besides, this is DC and there is always a protest or counter-protest going on, which I will very occasionally attend. So it wasn’t something I gave that much thought to. I confess that what was happening there was a lot bigger than I realized. So I wasn’t there yesterday. Some of my friends were, and I am thankful for their witness. They may not have caused a riot like Paul did, but they willingly walked into one. They did so to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of love and justice, the Gospel that sets all of us free from both the power others wield over us and the power we wield over others. They did so to say racism is evil and God won’t stand for it. They did so to live out their baptismal vows: to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
I’ve heard people say that if you’ve ever wondered if you would have been a part of the civil rights movement back then, the best indication is whether you are part of it now. That always gives me pause.
It’s not about one day, but to be honest, I think I could sometimes let my living out of the Gospel be a little more disruptive.
That’s not to say that I or anyone else missed their chance. Because at the same time showing up at a protest or counter-protest can be a way to preach the Gospel, we can’t be fooled into thinking that racism in our society is mostly represented by people carrying torches. That is too easy to denounce – though that kind of blatant racism does seem to be making a comeback these days. Still, far more often, racism is simply embedded in the world as we know it. It’s who gets called back for a second interview. It’s how people fare in the hands of police. It’s who gets labeled as beautiful. It’s who has economic power. Remember what got Paul in trouble wasn’t instigating anything but living and preaching in a way that poked at the values of a society, and specifically the profit and privilege of the people in power. God wants to disrupt all of that. God has work for us to do preaching and living out a Gospel that exposes all of those things as a lie.
God has plenty of chances for us, in plenty of ways, to disrupt a culture of fear, hatred, greed, exploitation, and discrimination by instead proclaiming a Gospel of hope, love, justice and grace – out loud. And if we do it right, it might get us in trouble.
Again, Paul isn’t starting any demonstrations in these stories; he’s just proclaiming the Gospel in word and in action, in preaching and healing. It’s just that as it turns out, the Gospel is a disruptive force. Love is a disruptive force. Justice is a disruptive force. Healing is a disruptive force. Peace is a disruptive force. Paul doesn’t set out to start a riot or go to jail but neither does he shy away from living out the Gospel, even when that tears at the fabric of a society held together by greed, exploitation, and carefully manipulated fear.
That’s an important distinction, because there is a danger here, and that is that we might make it more about us than about Jesus. We might think that the more waves we’re making, the better we’re doing; we may want to be a martyr. In these days when it’s cool to “resist”, it’s worth examining our motives: how much am I trying to follow the hard and risky call of Jesus to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice, and how much do I mainly want to put that selfie with the protest sign on Instagram for everyone to see? I ask that because it is a temptation I have struggled with.
Maybe a good question is this: how much have we let this disruptive Gospel first disrupt us?
Have we let Jesus challenge both our pride and our complacency? Have we let him challenge both the fear that holds us back and the desire for glory that makes it about us, or the need to be part of something bigger that isn’t of God? Have we let him disrupt this idea of the Christian as a “good citizen” with the call to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?
On the other hand, if we’re not quite sure our motives are pure, that’s hardly an excuse for doing nothing.
How does Paul do it? How is it possible for him to keep facing the trouble that he knows awaits as he takes the Gospel to new places? How does he remain faithful in the midst of it all?
Well, Paul knows there’s something bigger. He knows that God’s promise is true: that love really does win over fear, and grace really does win over greed, and liberation really does win over oppression, and life really does win over death. He knows because he’s experienced it for himself.
And with that he’s ready to walk out into the world and say so – come what may.