St. Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
To vastly oversimplify: The Acts of the Apostles is the story of the Holy Spirit guiding and leading the early church. In the normal course of things, the church resists mightily. But eventually it gets on board with the direction the Spirit wanted to go all along. As the podcast put it, “The Holy Spirit is out in front of the church the whole time.”
To put our passage in context, just a week ago we read the well-known account of Saul/Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus; as we find Paul now, he is well into a missionary journey that takes place after the great turning point that is Acts 15. In that chapter, the Council of Jerusalem is convened to grapple with the basic question: In order to be a Christian, must one first become a Jew? The central issue is that of circumcision. Must men be circumcised before they can be baptized? Many of the disciples have been holding to this position, including Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. But James gives the Spirit-led verdict: “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20-21). The key requirements seem to be aimed, not at satisfying a requirement from the viewpoint of Jewish observance, but from the general goal of not causing scandal by one’s behavior. This decision affirms the ministry of Paul: as the Lord told Ananias in last week’s reading, Paul is God’s chosen instrument to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (9:15).
Our text opens with a surprise: a first person plural point of view, know to scholars as one of the “we passages.” “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer…” The narrator seems to be Silas, who has undertaken this journey with Paul. The two of them are in Philippi (which connects nicely with the NL readings for the end of May and beginning of June). The narrative slips into this first person POV (16:10) and then out again within a few sentences (16:17), only to return later in Acts (20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1– 28). Whether the reader views this as evidence of an earlier source that was redacted into the final narrative, or as the deliberate use of a literary device, it gives the story an exciting sense of immediacy.
The missionaries encounter a slave-girl who is possessed by a “spirit of divination” (in the Greek, a python-spirit; a python was believed to preside at the oracle of Delphi). The girl’s ability has proven lucrative for her owners. She follows Paul and company, crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (16:17). After several days of this Paul orders the spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, to leave the girl, which it does. The owners are furious with Paul’s interference in their enterprise, and drag him and Silas before the authorities, where they are both attacked by the crowd and beaten with rods.
Much is made of the security of Paul and Silas’ prison cell: it is the innermost cell; the men’s feet are fastened in the stocks. Of course, the reader intuits that it will not prevail against the mighty Spirit who is guiding this journey. After midnight, as the men are singing psalms and praying, an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, opening every door and breaking every chain by which prisoners are bound.
When Paul and Silas realize the jailer is about to kill himself (presumably because he believes his charges have all escaped), the men reassure him: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (16:28). The trembling jailer falls at the men’s feet and asks how he might be saved, and he is told: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (16:31). A mutual washing follows: the jailer washes the wounds of Paul and Silas; he and his family are washed, in turn, in the waters of baptism. A celebratory meal (the Lord’s Supper? the text does not specify) follows.
Ideas for Preaching the Text
The Holy and Persistent Spirit: The story contrasts the spirit of divination and the Spirit by which Paul casts out the divination. Ironically, the slave-girl’s spirit of divination is both accurate and truthful—describing Paul and Silas as slaves of Christ, and their message as one of salvation. Is it necessary to pit the two spirits against one another? Is the witness of the slave-girl valid nonetheless? (See Mitzi Smith’s provocative commentary on this passage at Working Preacher).
Paul in Prison: Two weeks ago I visited the Tower of London and visited a chapel known as Saint Peter ad Vincula—Saint Peter ‘in Chains’. It is sobering and surprising each time people of faith are reminded of the imprisonments of the elders of the tradition: Joseph son of Jacob; Peter and Paul. The bones that rest beneath the altar in that chapel serve as reminders of human suffering and sinfulness, as well as honor in the face of betrayal and treachery. How does the imprisonment of the apostle to the Gentiles relate to the story of the early church? In what way does seeing our “heroes” as prisoners connect them more intimately with the crucified and risen Christ whom they preach? In what way can we connect the story of the slave-girl and Paul- both in chains, whether literal or metaphorical? What is it to be a slave for Christ?
Evangelism Outside the Borders: This passage has Paul encountering people of widely different backgrounds, gifts, and life-situations. The gospel is on offer to all of them. How does the diversity of early church life connect with our own contexts?
How about you? Where is the Spirit leading you to explore this passage? As always, I look forward to our conversation in the comments.