Tuesday, May 11, 2010

If I Do Not Go, The Advocate Will Not Come To You. But If I Go, I Will Send Him To You.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 16:22-34
The crowd in Philippi joined
in the attack on Paul and Silas,
and the magistrates had them stripped
and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
After inflicting many blows on them,
they threw them into prison
and instructed the jailer
to guard them securely.
When he received these instructions,
he put them in the innermost cell
and secured their feet to a stake.
About midnight,
while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God
as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open,
 and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up
and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear,
he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
So they spoke the word of the Lord
to him and to everyone in his house.
He took them in at that hour of the night
and bathed their wounds;
then he and all his family were baptized at once.
He brought them up into his house and provided a meal
and with his household rejoiced
at having come to faith in God.
Today we have part of one of the most dramatic events in the story of the Acts.

Paul is still in Philippi. We might wonder at the sudden attack on Paul and Silas with which today’s reading opens. It is such a change from the positive welcome they had been receiving up to this. In fact, the first part of the story and also the sequel are omitted in the reading but they are needed if we are to appreciate today’s passage fully.

One day on their way to the river for prayer, Paul had incurred the anger of the owners of a slave girl who had fortune-telling gifts. The text says literally “with a Python spirit”. The Python was the serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi. It later came to designate a “spirit that pronounced oracles” and also a ventriloquist who, it was thought, had such a spirit in the belly.

This girl kept shouting after them calling them “slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to a you a way of salvation”. Even though what she was saying could be interpreted favourably, Paul became irritated by her pestering and exorcised the evil spirit from her. She immediately lost her psychic powers and, as a result, could no longer earn money for her masters. They were understandably not very happy about this and hauled Paul and Silas off to court. They accused them of being Jews who were disturbing the peace and breaking Roman laws. Basically they were accused of proselytising which was indeed against Roman law.

It is at this point that today’s reading takes up the story. By this time the crowds had been worked up so the magistrates sentenced Paul and his companion to a flogging with rods and had them thrown into an inner cell and had their feet put in stocks. Here they could be watched closely, could not escape or be rescued by their friends.

During the night while Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God (they rejoiced to suffer for the name of Christ), a severe earthquake (Greece is very earthquake-prone) struck. The prison building collapsed, the chains fell from the walls and the gates were thrown open.

The jailer, who was responsible with his own life for the security of his prisoners, presumed they must all have run away and was prepared to kill himself. To take his own life would remove the shame and distress and was preferable to public execution. It was then he heard Paul calling from inside: “Don’t do yourself any harm; we are all here.”

He went in to check and, on seeing Paul and Silas, fell trembling at their feet. He is beginning to realise that the people he was treating as dangerous criminals were in fact messengers of God.

In deep gratitude, the jailer asked what he should do to be saved. Perhaps he meant it in a more immediate sense vis-a-vis his superiors, who might blame him for the loss of the prisoners.

On the other hand, between the frightening earthquake and the possible escape of his prisoners, he had been close to death. He also realised he was in the presence of two very special people. All this obviously made him reflect. He very likely had heard that these men were preachers of a way of salvation. Now with the earthquake and his own near death, he wanted to know about their Way. Paul showed him where real salvation lay - by putting his faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

And so it was that he and all his household were instructed in the word of the Lord. Late in the night though it was, the jailer had Paul’s and his companion’s wounds dressed after which the new converts were baptised.

He then brought them to his own house and shared a meal with them while the whole household joyfully celebrated their conversion to belief in God. Whatever form it took, it was truly a eucharistic meal, a meal of thanksgiving for all concerned.

(Incidentally, their accusers are nowhere in sight; they were probably too much concerned with the damage the earthquake had caused in the city to be bothered with a couple of wandering preachers.)

It is at that point that the reading ends but it is not the end of the story, which needs to be heard for completeness. On the next morning, the magistrates instructed the lictors with an order that Paul and Silas be released. Lictors were the equivalent of police officers, among whose duties were the arrest and punishment of criminals. The message was passed to Paul by the jailer. He told them they were free to go and he wished them well.

However, that was not good enough for Paul. He said: “They have beaten us publicly, even though we are Roman citizens and have not been tried, and have thrown us into prison. And now they are going to release us secretly? By no means. Let them come themselves and lead us out.”

There had been a very serious miscarriage of justice and the magistrates were alarmed that they had treated two Roman citizens in this way. Roman citizenship granted special privileges with regard to criminal process. Roman law forbade under severe penalty the beating of Roman citizens. This will not be the last time that Paul will cause alarm by revealing his citizenship, which granted privileges totally unknown to the ordinary resident of Roman colonies.

The magistrates humbly came along, led Paul and Silas out of the prison and begged them to leave the city. However, Paul and Silas first went to say farewell to Lydia, their host, and to the other Christian brothers and sisters and only then left the city.

This story once again indicates how God can write straight with crooked lines. Out of what seemed catastrophe for both the evangelisers (flogging and jail) and the jailer (the earthquake and its consequences) there came out something beautiful for all of them and in the midst of it all was the love of Christ. A thriving community was left behind who would be the recipients of one of Paul’s most beautiful letters. We, too, continue to benefit from this saga.

If only we could see Jesus at the heart of everything that happens in our own lives!
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Psalm 138
Your right hand saves me, O Lord.
I will give thanks to you,
O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels
I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple,
and give thanks to your name.
Your right hand saves me, O Lord.
Because of your kindness and your truth,
you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called, you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
Your right hand saves me, O Lord.
Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete
what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
Your right hand saves me, O Lord.
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John 16:5-11
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Now I am going to the one who sent me,
and not one of you asks me,
‘Where are you going?’
But because I told you this,
grief has filled your hearts.
But I tell you the truth,
 it is better for you that I go.
For if I do not go,
the Advocate will not come to you.
But if I go, I will send him to you.
And when he comes
he will convict the world
in regard to sin
and righteousness
and condemnation:
sin, because they do not believe in me;
righteousness, because I am going to the Father
and you will no longer see me;
condemnation, because the ruler of this world
has been condemned.”
The disciples are sad because Jesus is going to leave them. He now reassures them that, contrary to what they must be thinking at this moment, it is better for him to go. If Jesus does not go away, then the Spirit, the  Paraclete, the Advocate, will not come.

As long as Jesus is with his disciples in his present form, he is actually very limited in his presence. It is fine as long as they are all together but what would happen if they were to be scattered in various places to do his work? And what of the many more disciples in distant places who would never have an opportunity to be in direct contact with Jesus?

It is through the Spirit of Jesus, the risen and ascended Jesus, that he can continue to be with his people at all times and in any place on earth. Yes, it is better that Jesus should go and come back through the Spirit.

And the Spirit “will show the world how wrong it was, about sin, about who was in the right, and about judgment”. That is, the Spirit will reveal the wrongness of the world, that world of the purely secular, in not putting its trust in the Way of Jesus.

The world’s sin is primarily one of unbelief, an unreadiness to open its mind to the vision of life that Jesus gives. The Spirit will clearly show the rightness of Jesus in his claims to come from God and to being the Word of God to the world. The Spirit will reveal the meaning of Christ’s death as the condemnation of all that is evil in the world, above all in its denial of love as the centre of living.

The New American Bible expresses it thus:

These verses illustrate the forensic character of the Paraclete’s role: in the forum of the disciples’ conscience he prosecutes the world. He leads believers to see (a) that the basic sin was and is refusal to believe in Jesus; (b) that, although Jesus was found guilty and apparently died in disgrace, in reality righteousness has triumphed, for Jesus has returned to his Father; (c) finally, that it is “the ruler of this world”, Satan, who has been condemned through Jesus’ death.

On which side am I? On that of the Spirit or that of the world?

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

When I was a child, my father explained to me that, without belief in God, correct behaviour has to depend on some kind of honour code. I think his ideas had been formed by observations of human behaviour during the Second World War.

Honour is important, but without belief in God it becomes like a tyrannical little god itself. Without belief in God, we have to construct our own self-worth - an idol. The honour idol demands sacrifices. At first they seem neutral or beneficial, but once the god of honour has established itself in the individual and society, nasty blood sacrifices inevitably follow. People kill family members for some idea of honour and, ultimate irony, an individual will sacrifice his life to save his honour. Individuals and society become prisoners of the honour code.

The Romans seemed willing to fall on their swords at the slightest provocation. It could appear noble in a great leader but here, in the case of a jailer, there is something pathetically comic about it!

I see the prison being shaken as the honour code itself. The jailer wants to be saved. He holds the key. He can either lock himself in and fall on his sword, saving his honour, or release himself, open his ears to the Word and choose life. He holds the key because honour only becomes an idol where God does not reign. What great joy for him and his family when he chooses life! Paul, the joyful prisoner, was truly there for him and showed the jailer how to set himself free through belief in Jesus. In his epistles, of course, he remains there for us too.

In our own lives, we are all our own personal jailers. We too hold the key. We can lock ourselves in as gods of our personal space, or open the door to God, freedom and life.