7TH OF EASTER — 16 May 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am
Ac 16:16-34 | Ps 97 | Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 | John 17:20-26
“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
The preacher was warming to his task: “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop frequenting the saloons!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stay out of the casinos!” “Amen, brother, preach the word!” “Brothers and sisters, you’ve got to stop charging your customers too much and paying your employees too little!” “Hey, wait a minute, brother, that’s not preaching the word, that’s meddling in bus'ness!”
One of the things that has from the very beginning been a source of some contention within the Christian Church, and among those outside the Church looking in, has been the role the Church ought to play in regard to the carrying on of the world’s ordinary business. When the Church speaks to the world about the way the world does its business, it is exercising a prophetic ministry on behalf of God’s justice — or, depending on your point of view, it’s “meddling.”
And well before Christianity, the prophets of the Old Testament were constantly getting on the case of the powers-that-were in Israelite society about their greed and corruption and oppression of the poor. Often enough the prophets got themselves cast out, jailed, or even killed for their trouble.
In the first three centuries of the life of the Christian Church, there wasn’t a lot of outward, direct effect the Church could have on the Roman Empire; nor, for that matter, could very many other groups; the Roman Empire was not an open or democratic society. And the Christian Church, particularly, had to lay fairly low much of the time; Christianity was illegal, and although out-and-out persecution was only sporadic, you never knew when some gung-ho local magistrate might go on a tear, and so you had to keep your head down. The Church did have its effect, however, as leaven in the lump, and after the conversion (~) of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the official imperial religion, the Church started wielding a lot more clout in secular society. The history of the later Empire and of the European middle ages is full of struggles between the Church’s concern for justice (at our best) and secular kings’ concern for their own power. (The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by some of King Henry II’s national security staff is but one of the better-known of such episodes.)
Anyway, nowadays when the Church speaks to an issue like the environment, or foreign policy, or economic development, or international debt, or human rights, it’s not too uncommon for a lot a people (including some who claim to be members of the Church) to start having conniptions about “religion” “meddling” in the world’s business. (Some folks are gonna be real surprised when they discover that there’s only one place where the Gospel doesn’t mix with politics or economics—or anything else. And it’s very warm in that place!) The Gospel isn’t really about “religion,” you know. It’s about life. All of life.
Today in the first Scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we catch up with St Paul again. Continuing last week’s episode in our annual Eastertide continuing drama of The Missionary Journeys of St. Paul, Paul and Silas, and maybe Timothy (and maybe not — it isn’t clear whether he accompanied them from Lystra to Troas), but apparently now with young Luke tagging along, have ended up across the Aegean Sea on the European side in the Roman province of Macedonia (though today it’s not in the country of Macedonia but on the northeastern coast of Greece), in a city called Philíppi, which the Romans had taken over as a place to settle retired army veterans.
Here they encounter a slave girl. She is possessed by “a spirit of divination,” Luke tells us. I’m not sure how that would be described in modern medical or psychiatric terminology, and I’m not sure it matters much; the point is, she’s weird. She’s fey. She’s possibly schizophrenic. But she tells fortunes. And she’s real good at it, and her owners are making a lot of money off her.
The girl may be crazy, but she’s not stupid, and in her psychotic-visionary way she is able to discern who Paul and Silas and their companions are, and what they’re up to. And she runs around telling everybody, “Hey, listen to these Jewish guys, they have a message of salvation from God.”
After a while this gets on Paul’s nerves. He’s not mad at the slave girl — it’s not her fault, after all — still, it’s not a good advertisement for your new church if your biggest supporter is the town madwoman. And clearly the girl is (we would say) seriously mentally ill. So Paul heals her. He drives her demon out of her in the name of Jesus Christ.
And now she’s well. She’s happy; she’s calm; she’s at peace. And she can’t tell a fortune from a meatloaf recipe. Her owners are very upset. The Philippi Chamber of Commerce is very upset. The whole town is very upset. Here’s a bunch of religious do-gooders meddling around with the free-enterprise economy! They haul Paul and Silas off to court. “They’re disturbing our city!” (Maybe have to plead guilty to that!) “They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe!” (Like, they’re infringing on our right to make a buck any way we want. Like, they want us to give up sorcery, and exploiting our slaves, and ripping off the rubes! Like, they actually want us to change the way we live our lives! Can you imagine the gall of these people? Who do they think they are, to come busting into our nice little community and meddling?!)
Well. You get the point. We don’t have any problem granting the Gospel’s claim on us to be honest and kind and decent, at least as honest and kind and decent as we can afford to be while we go about our own business trying to make a living. It gets a little dicier if it begins to look like Jesus Christ wants us to make some radical changes in our own agenda for our lives—if he wants us to start going about his business. There is absolutely no area of human life that stands outside Jesus’ summons—or outside his redemption. Deep in our deepest soul, in our innermost heart, the thing that we care about the most, where we will hang on though all else be lost, that which we will not surrender—be it money, power, position, security, honor, pride, loyalty—precisely there it is that Jesus Christ comes and claims us for his own.