By Laurel Dykstra
In this passage from Acts, a lot is going on.
Paul and a group of Christians are going to an unspecified place of prayer. A slave girl (we don’t know if she is 12 or 20), who makes a lot of money for the men who own her by making predictions, follow them saying ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you* a way of salvation.’
Not just once, but for days.
Paul, out of annoyance, commands the spirit that causes her ability to come out.
Realizing that they stand to lose a lot of money, the men who own this girl, seize Paul and one of his companions Silas, and bring them before the local authorities accusing them of being Jews and teaching observances that are illegal for Romans. The crowd joins in, and the authorities have them stripped, beaten, jailed and chained within their cell.
At midnight the beaten men are praying and singing hymns while the other prisoners listen. There is a violent and very specific earthquake—it causes the doors to open and everyone’s chains fall off. The jailer is about to kill himself, having let his charges escape, when Paul calls out. The man rushes to them and asks “what must I do to be saved?” Paul answers “believe in Jesus—you and your household.” The jailer takes them home, he tends their wounds. He and all his family are baptized, and they share a meal and celebrate.
The story is about gender and ethnicity, class and economics. It is fast paced, full of action and drama and leaves a lot of loose ends and questions.
To see some of the patterns, we need to zoom out a bit.
In this Chapter Paul and his entourage have just arrived in Macedonia (Greece) and this part of the story is considered the arrival of the Gospel into Europe. It is important for white people and for people of colour, for people who love the church and people who are critical of the church to be reminded that Christianity is not a European invention. That the kingdom movement–Jesus and Paul and Mary and Lydia were not a bunch of white men.
The first person Paul meets is Lydia, a woman of means who is baptized with her whole family and offers her house to the movement. Lydia is contrasted with the nameless slave girl who also recognizes the divinity of Jesus and with the nameless guard who too has his household baptized.
Afterwards we learn that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens—the magistrates try to hush up their mistake in arresting them but are forced to release them publicly.
In Luke-Acts there are two other slave girls who come on-stage for a moment and disappear.
There is another story in acts only four chapters before—Peter is in jail in chains and an angel comes and releases him—so this story legitimizes Paul and is about a succession of power, Peter kind of disappears from the story after that. In Peter’s story guards are executed—shows why guard is about to kill himself.
In the Hebrew Bible when God’s people arrive in a new land it is often a woman (like Lydia) who offers the first hospitality.
In Greek literature there is a kind of type story where members of a new religion or representatives of a God come to a new place, gain female converts, come into conflict with male authorities, are unjustly accused, jailed and miraculously released.
I am reading this passage on the one year anniversary of my arrest as part of a wave of non-violent direct actions to prevent the expansion of the Trans-Mountain Pipeline across unceded Indigenous territory. It is approximately six months since I spent a week in jail for that action.
So for me this passage is not first of all about the leadership of Peter and Paul in the early church, or Christianity arriving in Europe—this passage is about freedom and captivity, about singing hymns in jail and about who is free and who is not.
Look at this passage through the lens of freedom, it appears that pretty much everybody is captive in some way.
With the slave-girl it is obvious, she is owned. And in the language of her time she is captive to a “spirit of divination”
The men who own her are captive to their greed.
The crowd to the fear of strangers and outsiders—xenophobia and in this case anti-semitism
The magistrates are captive to the crowd, to their power, and to the “pax Romana” that they are charged with keeping
The jailer is so captive to the domination system of empire, that it is worth his life if he loses a prisoner.
And Paul and Silas are in jail and then out.
So then we must ask ourselves to what are we captive? What keeps us from being free?
-fear, addiction, an abusive relationship. Severe debt? Guilt? The idea of success, an experience in our past, someone else’s idea of who we are or what we should be?
What is it that keeps us from the freedom that God desires for us?
Freedom, or liberation is one of the big themes in scripture. Joseph is sold as a slave by his brothers, Myriam and Moses lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, in the 6th Century thousands of Jews were forced out of Jerusalem and into exile in Babylon, John the baptizer, Jesus, Peter, Paul, Silas, John of Patmos are all imprisoned. Release of the captives is a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom, of the year of Jubilee.
Our faith is not only (or even mostly) about our spiritual and emotional lives. The Hebrews experienced real forced labour, Jesus was born a real peasant and his imprisonment, and that of many of the early church leaders, ended in execution.
So people like us, North Americans who, on a world scale live relatively comfortably and have access to many resources, cannot focus only on what enslaves us, what keeps us from being free.
Our understanding of freedom must extend beyond emotional and spiritual freedom We must engage issues of justice and ask who among our sisters and brothers is not free? And why? For as surely as God desires our freedom, God desires theirs.
We cannot claim to follow Jesus and stay stuck in our own little worlds, this passage is profoundly economic, social—we can’t talk about freedom and mean only minds and hearts when the bodies of our brothers and our sisters, the neighbours we are called to love are literally captive.
So in the passage from Acts, it is the slave-girl who is the key for me.
Something compels her to tell repeatedly what she knows about God. “these men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation”
Paul “heals” her out of annoyance—not in response to any request from her. And she drops out of the story.
Paul and Silas and the author of Acts are so focused on the building of the kingdom movement, the fledgling church that the slave girl is unimportant.
Ronald Cole-Turner writes that Paul “frees her from her possession, but does nothing to free her from being a possession” indeed she is now a much less valuable possession. How will the men who own her, make money from her now?
When Paul and Silas pray in their cell do they pray for her? Or is the idea that some people don’t matter—women, slaves, people who can’t control their shouting in public? One more sign of their captivity.
The slave girl is the least powerful person in the story, yet she does nothing but speak the truth
“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Salvation—the churches in Latin America have taught us that salvation is another word for Liberation, for freedom.
So the slave girl cries out that “these men are slaves who show the way to freedom”
The jailer comes to the prisoners to ask “what must I do to be free?”
The whole story hinges around freedom and captivity. Who is free and who is not. And the fact that our freedom is bound up together.
Many of us may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of being “slaves of God” but that is the language our scripture uses, emphasizing the sameness between Paul and Silas and the unnamed girl. And whether we like it or not, we do need to grapple with it.
Cornel West—Professsor of Religion and African American studies at Princeton university said something that helps me to understand. He was speaking to young people about why he and they must work for social change, despite overwhelming odds. He said —“I am not an optimist, I have been a black man in America for too long for that…I am a prisoner of hope. And that is a different thing altogether.” –to be a slave of the most high God is to be a prisoner of hope.
So I take two things from this story. As Christians, as we live out our stories of captivity and liberation we must listen and keep listening to the truth that the least powerful people speak to us so persistently. And that despite the powers and principalities, the forces of harm and violence and injustice in the world we are all of us prisoners of hope.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory. This post is updated from a sermon preached at St. Andrew’s United Church, North Vancouver in 2010