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As the season of Easter comes to an end and we hear the rattling of doors and shutters that signals the eminent arrival of the Holy Spirit, our reading from the book of Acts offers one last glimpse of resurrection. And just as it did on that first day of the week, when the women found the stone moved and the tomb empty, resurrection proves to be a somewhat fearful and complicated blessing. That’s because resurrection is about far more than flowers in the springtime, the return of life as we’ve known it before in the regular cycle of nature.
No, resurrection is revolutionary. Meaning that resurrection upends everything. Depending on where you’re sitting then, resurrection either turns the world upside down, or right side up.
But regardless of where we sit, resurrection is nothing that we are prepared for. It catches us by surprise and raises far more questions than it answers.
Take what happens in this 16th chapter of Acts, that finds Paul and Silas in the Macedonian city of Philippi. The two missionaries had made their way there, crossing the Aegean Sea, after Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia asking for their help. It didn’t take long for the two to find a receptive patron in the Gentile business woman named Lydia. And that’s where our story picks up, with Paul and Silas going about their work in Philippi, sharing the good news about Jesus at the place of prayer.
The young woman they encounter along the way represents a sharp contrast to their Patroness, Lydia. First where Lydia has a name, this young woman’s name is unknown. That’s because, unlike Lydia who appears to be in charge of her trade in expensive purple cloth, this young woman belongs to someone else as a slave. She is their stock and trade. Her life is not her own, and in more ways than one. Not only has she been made someone’s property, but she also carries what we’re told is a spirit of divination.
The Greek is far more telling, for literally what she carries is a spirit, a snake. This serpentine image evokes the same symbolism used at the shrine to the god Apollo in Delphi. It is the fortune telling oracle of Delphi whose words and warnings factor so heavily in Sophocles’ tragic play, Oedipus Rex. And this young woman seems to have the same gift; a gift that those who own her are happy to exploit for their own considerable profit.
While others are made to pay for what she can see, she freely announces that Paul and Silas are slaves themselves; slaves of “the Most High God.” It reminds me a little of the old Bob Dylan song, Gotta Serve Somebody. Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. They are both slaves. But unlike her, who proclaims to others their fate, these two proclaim a way of salvation; that is, a way out of fate’s captivity. Strangely, she can’t seem to let it go. Day after day, when she sees them she cries out the same thing, until Paul can’t take it anymore. This same thing used to happen to Jesus. He would show up someplace and the thing that had a hold of someone would recognize God’s power present in him and have something to say about it until he cast them out.
These days we don’t tend to traffic too much in the language of spirits or demons, at least not in the literal sense. But we might talk about the combat veteran suffering from PTSD, or the person who experienced abuse as a child, as someone who has their demons. The first two steps in the recovery process from addiction are admitting that one is powerless over the thing has enslaved them making their lives unmanageable, and the awareness of a power greater than themselves that can restore them.
We recognize that there are powerful forces at work in the world that can get ahold of us until our lives are no longer our own, and these powers have a vested interest in maintaining that hold. They recognize a threat when they see one. That is until they are cast out, until they are ordered to leave. Which is what Paul does, setting the young woman free and inevitably turning her life upside down, or right side up? It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to tell because we never get to hear the rest of her story. Instead we hear how the name of Jesus, the power of resurrection, completely destroys the business model of the people who owned and exploited this young woman’s condition. And we hear how enraged they are by it.
A friend of mine once told me a story about how one summer day his dad noticed that he was wearing long sleeves and saw that his hands were pretty cut up, so he asked him about it. My friend explained to his dad that he had been at a party the night before and there was a guy there dragging a girl out by her hair. He walked up to the guy and told him to let go of the girl.
Then, with a measure of pride, he told his dad how he had saved the girl, how words were exchanged and a punch thrown. He eagerly went on about how easily the guy went down and how he’d pinned his arms and thrown more punches until he was pulled off the guy. He told his dad how he had stopped it.
And then his dad asked him, “what happened to the girl?” My friend didn’t have an answer for his dad. He didn’t know. That’s when his dad observed, “Then it wasn’t about saving her, it was about you looking like a hero. It’s good to know what you can do, but it’s more important to know what you will do…”
The people who owned the young slave didn’t consider Paul heroic, they considered him a disturbance, an outsider who was disrupting the civil religion of Rome that put religious custom and practice in service to the state. They didn’t like how he was disturbing the way they’d always done things. They didn’t like how this good news he had to announce about Jesus and resurrection upended their business and ruined their best asset. They had them arrested, stripped, beaten and imprisoned. But it doesn’t answer the question, “what happened to the girl?” Maybe the answer lies somewhere in what happens next to Paul and Silas.
Because even though Paul and Silas are jailed, and put in the stocks reserved for only the most dangerous and violent offenders, they sing. They praise God. They have every reason to bemoan their fate, to rail against the injustice of it, to play the victims and complain bitterly about their treatment. Only they are not captive to fate. They may be prisoners of the state, but they are not imprisoned by this fate. They know the way of salvation. They have experienced the power of resurrection, and so they pray and sing, and seem not at all surprised by the earthquake that shakes the foundations of the very place that would hold them, opens the doors that had been closed upon them and breaks the chains that would bind them.
And that can be a fearful thing, because slavery is far easier. The slaves in Egypt cried out to God because their lives had been made bitter in hard labor. God heard those cries and sent a deliverer to lead them out of slavery, through the waters of the sea to their freedom. But they barely make it to the water’s edge before they start complaining and begging to go back. Because it is easier to be a slave to what you know, what has become common and conventional, and accepted- no matter how horrible- than it is to be set free by the power of God’s resurrection.
Just look at the jailer who has witnessed a miracle before his very eyes and is ready to kill himself. He had one job. And the shame of failing at it, even though it was through no fault of his own and the very power of God set loose in the world that did it, is crushing. He would rather die than face that shame. You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
But the way out of our slavery to shame, the way out from under the weight of expectations that threaten to crush us, the way of salvation is trusting in the power of resurrection to turn the whole thing on its head. It is trusting that what is promised in Jesus is a whole new kind of life that is not measured by the profits we earn for others, or the duties we may or may not be able to carry out. It is the daily practice of resurrection that calls into question the powers that be and the fears that drive them, and lives instead from a place freedom. Free to love and be loved not for what we produce or how we perform, but simply for who we are as God’s very own, as God’s beloved.
This way of salvation looks a lot like what happens next in that jail, as wounds are tended and baptismal waters flow and people who once we're strangers find friendship and kinship around a table, sharing a joyful feast.