Image: Apollo kills the giant serpent Python, by Hendrick Goltzius, Franco Estius, 1589
This morning in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we have what author David Henson calls, “quite possibly the worst attempt to escape from prison ever recorded.”
At first glance, the scene appears to be set up like several other imprisonments earlier in the Book of Acts. We fully expect a miraculous escape, such as when the Apostle Peter was (not once, but twice) liberated by an angel of the Lord. Both times his escape confounded his jailers, and both times Peter continued to preach the good news.
The prison scene in Philippi is set up in similar fashion, but this time with a major twist: there is no escape. When given the opportunity to flee, Paul and his companions, along with all the other prisoners(!), stay put out of concern for the prison guard who is suddenly quite vulnerable.
“We are all here together,” Paul calls out in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself.”
This narrative contains several instances of bondage and liberation, all of which demonstrate to us something of the nature of salvation: (namely) that God is in the business of liberation, but an odd kind of freedom it is.
Our story begins with Paul and Silas heading to a place of prayer, likely a synagogue, in the Roman colony of Philippi. This is the same community where Paul later establishes a church, and to which he writes his letter to the Philippians.
As they are on their way to pray, Paul is repeatedly pestered by a slave girl who has what is called “a spirit of divination.” This is in contrast to a Holy Spirit, that suddenly seems to be possessing God’s people all over the place.
The slave-girl’s particular talent for telling fortunes had proven quite lucrative for her captors. There is something oddly fascinating about this expression “spirit of divination” that is easily lost in translation: In the Greek language, in which this text was written, it is said she had a pneuma pythonos. Literally translated this would mean she had the spirit of a python. Such a suffocating image to think of this slave girl being squeezed and exploited for every dollar and cent by her owners!
Now, everyone in that time and place would have known that Python was the mythical serpent-god who jealously guarded the sacred oracles at Delphi. Python’s association with oracles and fortune telling would have been commonplace in Greco-Roman society. And so, this slave-girl was said to be possessed by Python, a spirit of divination.
While we may think ourselves immune to such mythical hocus-pocus, it would be naive to think we don’t have our own powerful and manipulative cultural forces that promise us security in predicting the future. Stocks and bonds and securities; banks too big to fail. Insurance policies that will fortify us against any and all loss, even in death! A predictable economy where real estate is rock solid, until, of course a mortgage crisis and subsequent market crash proves otherwise. There remain prominent cultural myths that influence our way of thinking, that squeeze the life out of us like a python suffocating its prey. Whether this be the lie of scarcity, or a distortion of the American dream; Whether it is a materialistic mad dash to “keep up with the Jones’” or the subtle lie of the self-sufficient, self-made man…we are all tempted to buy into cultural myths that squeeze us to death.
The Greeks, and then the Romans after them, were no philosophical slouches. They knew the power of myth, both for good or for ill. The knew that there were realities beyond what the human senses could perceive. And they explained these forces by means of angels and demons, miracles and the meddling of the gods in the affairs of mortals.
This slave girl, squeezed by this cultural force of exploitation – this “spirit of divination” – pesters Paul day after day until finally, Paul had had enough. Justice and liberation, it would seem, almost always require painful perseverance. “Very much annoyed, Paul turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’”
Squeezed by bondage, and now loosed in liberation, the slave-girl is set free. Again we can see that God is in the business of liberation; those whom the Son has set free, are free indeed. No longer held captive by this spirit, she is no longer bound to those who have exploited her. She has experienced an inner-liberation.
Now, unfortunately what we don’t hear is whether this inner-freedom was followed by an outer-freedom. We are not told whether she was dismissed by her masters or forced into continued servitude. This narrative is deafeningly silent on the issue of slavery. But what we do know is that, whether slave or free, she was unbound, liberated to new life.
We see also that the liberation of this slave girl comes at a price. “When her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” No longer lucrative to her owners, they turn on Paul and Silas and bind them. One’s liberation led to the other’s binding. These “outsiders” who have exposed this exploitative economy are perceived as a dangerous threat to “our way of life.” Lucrative exploitation of the vulnerable was evidently essential in the economy to “make Philippi great again.” And Paul called this out, he cast it out. He named the horrible truth: that it is often the slave-girls and outsiders – women and children and immigrants – the most vulnerable in society who end up paying the price in an economy of exploitation.
After being accused and severely beaten for threatening the Philippian way of life, Paul and Silas are thrown into the innermost cell (an ancient version of a maximum security prison) with their feet bound in stocks. Freedom and bondage. Bondage and freedom. It’s all here, back to back. They are paying the price for liberation, the odd kind of freedom it is. Despite all this, all through the night they find cause to pray and sing. They know they have subverted the system in some small way. They know that God is in the business of liberation. And they know it’s an odd kind of freedom that Christ brings. Bound and imprisoned in an innermost cell, yet their spirits are free to sing.
This is the kind of freedom, despite circumstances, that turns things upside down. This is the kind of freedom that shakes the foundations, and tears down prison walls. We see that their external bondage has little to no effect on their inner sense of salvation.
So secure are they in their freedom, that even when given the chance to flee, they choose to stand by for the sake of the guard. The guard, who was then duty-bound by The System; duty-bound by honor to take his own life to pay for his disgrace. We see that the guard, too, was anything but free.
In the gospel reading this morning, we heard again the high priestly prayer of Jesus: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
And as if to fulfill the very prayer of Jesus, Paul calls out in a loud voice, “We are all here together.”
“(In Christ) there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female,” Paul will later write in his Epistle to the Galatians, “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
We’re all all here. Do not dismay. We’re in this together.
So powerful were their words, paired with right action, that the defenses of this prison guard crumble as he cries out, “What must I do to be saved?”
He knows deep down that when his superiors arrive, he’s as good as dead. He knows the honorable thing to do would be to “fall on his sword” as the master of his own destiny. But Paul reassures him, we’re all in this together, do not harm yourself.
We see, in the prison guard, another powerful image of bondage and liberation. As this guard is somehow freed from the system that strangled him, he is brought into a new type of community. A community where salvation is experienced not by freedom from responsibility, but a liberation that is gained by binding ourselves to one another in love – that we all may be one.
God is in the business of liberation, and an odd sort of freedom it is: that the way of the cross is the way of salvation – Bearing one another’s burdens so that they don’t seem so suffocating. This is the freedom of binding ourselves to one another in love.
May we be among those to answer the prayer of Jesus – that we all may be one. May we be among those who shout out to those in despair, “Do not harm yourself. We’re all here. We’re in this together.”
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Easter 7c (2016)