This story from Acts is a troubling one in many ways. Here are some reflections from a sermon I preached in 2010. (Full sermon is posted here.)
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As far as we can tell, Paul does not free this slave girl out of kindness. He commands the spirit to leave the girl because she is getting on his nerves.
How’s that for inspiration? If being a faithful follower of Jesus means snapping at people when they annoy us, I guess I’m well on my way to sainthood.
Here’s the thing, though. The spirit obeys Paul’s command. Paul says, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” And at that moment the spirit leaves her.
Paul would be the first to tell us that he is merely human. He has no power in and of himself; all power comes from Christ who lives in him and works through him. It is not Paul who makes the spirit leave the girl; it is the Holy Spirit.
And so, despite Paul’s flawed motives, he is an agent of God. Despite the fact that he is not concerned about the girl, he brings the healing power of God into her life.
I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God.
I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her.
I am bothered by the fact that we don’t know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name.
And even though Paul abandons her, that possibly her owners abandon her, that even the narrative of Acts abandons her, I trust that God does not abandon her. That this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church, part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.
Despite Paul’s failure to recognize this girl as a child of God, the Holy Spirit is able to work through him for her healing. Since the writer of Acts never mentions her again, we assume that Paul never knows the full extent of the work God does in her life.
It is good to know that God is God. That while we are called to serve God, the availability of God’s saving, healing power is not dependent upon our pure motives, our unflagging patience, our selfless attention to those around us.
Sometimes, God works through us despite our deep failures. Sometimes we do our simple best, and God works through us in ways far beyond our efforts, far beyond our imaginings.