May 16, 2010
In the late ’70’s, the televangelist Oral Roberts claimed that a 900 foot tall Jesus had appeared to him in a vision and commanded him to build the City of Faith Medical and Research Center. A few years later, a chaplain was talking with a mental patient at the veteran’s hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. The patient asked him, “Why is it that Oral Roberts sees a 900-foot Jesus and people send him tons of money, and when I see a 900-foot Jesus I get locked in here?”
It’s a good question. Back in Jesus’ day, Paul’s day, they didn’t label people “mentally ill.” They said that people “had a spirit.” Generally the people Jesus and his followers encounter have “evil spirits,” but the slave girl in this story just has a “spirit.” Actually, it is a pyhtian spirit, associated with the god Apollo who was known as a snake-slayer. This spirit was said to inspire the oracles at Delphi and give them prophecies. This spirit supposedly allowed this girl to tell people’s fortunes.
So was this girl crazy? Maybe. But this “spirit” that possessed her also, in a way, provided for her. She was a slave, and her owners were able to make money off of her supposed powers. So, as a slave, she would have met with people and probably gone into a trance as she told them their future. I imagine many girls who were slaves had it much worse.
This spirit that the girl has is not called “evil,” and neither is it called “holy.” It is simply a spirit. A spirit that enables the girl to tell fortunes. A spirit that compels her to follow Paul and his entourage proclaiming, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
She may be crazy, but she is also right. These men are servants of God; they are telling the people the way to be saved.
Paul, however, does not appreciate her proclamations. Day after day, this girl following him, yelling to the people that he is trying to talk to.
In fact, Paul yells things quite similar to what this girl yells. Paul sees visions. We could ask, is Paul crazy? Well, despite all of the nutty things Paul does in the book of Acts, despite his drastic mood swings that are obvious in the letters he writes, history has nonetheless placed Paul in the “sane” category.
And because he is considered sane, even saintly, scholar after scholar works to justify Paul’s actions in this story.
The girl, they say, was not referring to Yahweh, but to a pagan god. The girl, they say, was trying to get Paul and his friends into trouble. Paul, they say, turned to her in kindness to free her from this oppressive spirit.
We really don’t have enough information here to argue the girls’ motives one way or another–though her proclamation seems on its surface to be perfectly faithful and affirming of Paul’s message.
But we do know Paul’s motive. Or at least we know what motive the writer of Acts ascribes to Paul. And it is not kindness or love. Paul’s motive is not to redeem the girl; it is not to challenge the oppressive economic system that allows certain people to be owned by other people. In this instance, Paul is motivated by his emotional state–specifically, he demands that the spirit come out because he is annoyed.
He does not care about the girl. He doesn’t even look at her; she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her; he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. She disappears from the story.
Paul does not free the 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.
A pastor named Mike Yaconelli tells a story about a deacon in his church who did not live up to the title. Deacons are kind of like those in this church who serve on the ministry team. But this deacon did not pray for folks in the church or send them cards or call them or visit the sick or do any of those things that he should have done.
1One day Mike Yaconelli said to him, “I have a group of young people that go to the old folks home and put on a worship service once a month. Would you drive them to the old folks home and at least do that?” The deacon agreed.
The first Sunday the deacon was at the old folks home, he was in the back with his arms folded as the kids were doing their thing up front. All of a sudden, someone was tugging at his arm. He looked down and here was this old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand and the old man held his hand all during the service. The next month that was repeated. The man in the wheelchair came and held the hand of the deacon. The next month, the next month, and the next month.
Then the old man wasn’t there. The deacon inquired and he was told, “Oh, he’s down the hall, right hand side, third door. He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go down and pray over his body that’s alright.”
The deacon went and there were tubes and wires hanging out all over the place. The deacon took the man’s hand and prayed that God would receive the man, that God would bring this man from this life into the next and give him eternal blessings. As soon as he finished the prayer, the old man squeezed the deacon’s hand and the deacon knew that he had been heard. He was so moved by this that tears began to run down his cheeks. He stumbled out of the room and as he did so he bumped into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.”
The deacon was amazed at this. He said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Well, my father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.'”
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It is a comfort to me that God can use us even when we are not at our best, our most patient. That we can be the presence of Christ to others even when we are reluctant, uncomfortable, unsure of what we are doing. It is a comfort to me that God can use us for good in each others’ lives despite ourselves.
And yet, there is this other story in our reading this morning. This story of Paul and Silas in jail. There is, of course, a narrative connection between the first and second story–Paul’s exorcism of the girl is what lands him in jail. But Paul seems almost like a different person in this second story.
Whereas, in the first story, Paul is self-absorbed and irritable, in this second story he displays amazing patience. He and Silas are praying and singing in their cell, unconcerned about their own physical discomforts. And then, miracle of miracles, the earth shakes, the cell doors open, and the chains fall off.
Here is the point in the story where I would know God was at work. And I would also know that when God works to open a cell door and break chains, God wants me to walk out that door and continue proclaiming the Gospel. Why else would God perform this miracle?
Yet somehow Paul discerns God’s broader purpose in this miraculous event. And while God works through Paul earlier despite Paul’s impulsive, selfish actions, here we see God’s work accomplished because Paul exercises incredible self restraint, because Paul cares more about the life of the jailer than about his own life.
We know, of course, that on this particular occasion, all turns out well for Paul. But Paul did not know how this story would end. The jailer could have killed him. The authorities could have locked him up again–and there may or may not have been another earthquake.
Because of Paul’s restraint, his accurate discernment of God’s will, his courage, the jailer’s life is saved. The jailer and his entire household are saved. They hear and receive the Good News of Jesus.
This is a joyful event for Paul. To share the Gospel. To baptize the household. To share a meal with them and join them in rejoicing in God’s grace and love.
It strikes me that Paul missed out on all of this with the slave girl. He never told her, personally, about the love of Christ. He never baptized her or ate a meal with her. He missed the the joy.
It is, perhaps, a comfort to know that God does not need us to be faithful, attentive, perfect. That God can work through us despite our selfishness. That we can be agents of God’s healing power even if we do not intend to be. It is a comfort.
But how much richer our lives are when we are conscious agents for the work of God, following the Great Commandment to love God with all of our hearts and to love others as we love ourselves.
How much better to have our eyes open to the miracles God is performing within us and around us.
God can use us whether we cooperate or not. But the abundant life Jesus came to bring is realized most fully when we lose our lives in order to be part of the Life God is bringing into the world. What a blessing to be part of the joy.
Thanks be to God.