St. Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

Scripture can be found here; Working Preacher Commentary and “I Love to Tell the Story” Podcast are here.

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.

7 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: In Chains

  1. Pat, I love your suggestion of thinking about imprisonment, and your being reminded of the harsh reality of it on your trip. I think there’s a connection, too, with people around the world and closer to home who are imprisoned for various things — immigration matters, being too poor to afford an attorney, debt…a long list…and the question of where the Spirit may be at work. A wise post, as always — thank you!


    1. Thanks so much for joining in Mary! I remember once telling a mom whose son was in jail that Jesus had been in jail too… it was amazing how she clung to that, and found it incredibly comforting.

      And thanks for your kind words!


  2. Struggling a great deal to find the gospel. I’m so hung up on the slave-girl piece I can’t get passed it. It feels so crappy. Between it and the Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped I’m feeling completely stumped for Sunday. Maybe it’s about calling people out on treating people as “disposable” letting ourselves be annoyed by their story instead of having our hearts and minds and energy engaged. It took 3 weeks for this story of almost 300 girls being abducted to even become a story. Three weeks! The plane that went down holding as many people was a story in about 3 hours. What was the difference? Dare I call out racism and classism this Sunday?
    Got up to go slice an orange and talk through things with my awesome secretary. Processed the above with her, and I think I have my sermon direction. It’s about disposable people – – the ministry, the real relationships, the human connections that are lost when we allow ourselves to see some people as disposal annoyances instead of real life children of God. I’m going to confront some of those things that seem to be how we decide if someone is disposable or “worth it” both in these stories from Acts and in our contemporary society; they aren’t all that different – race, gender, financial worth. I’m going to use all three stories in this chapter, reading from Lydia through the jailer’s conversion. I think I’m going to even bring up my tour of the jail last night. I saw more black people in the county jail last night than I have ever seen in one day in my community. There’s going to be a challenge to open our eyes (physical and spiritual) to who is worth our time, and attention, and relationship. Then I need to make sure I offer some specific ideas about how to get outside of ourselves figure out what is going on with people who don’t fit our usual expectations of “worth it” so we can make some human connections, so we can learn each other’s names and stories and pains and fears and joys and struggles. So we can minister to each other (Paul is fed/welcomed by both Lydia and the jailer) in the name of the Lord.


    1. Stephanie, in my study group we also talked about continuing through verse 40, so you get the whole business of Paul being outraged that they were treated so poorly when they’re Roman citizens, which is potentially an opportunity to add that to the list of things that make someone disposable: citizenship, or lack thereof…


      1. Good thought. This does my help my people (and me) who were already on the fence with Paul. 🙂 Mother’s Day is shaping up to be a real crowd pleaser.


    2. Consider the amount of money spent to look for a plane where everyone was most likely already dead. Yet 26 countries have spent 100s of millions (don’t know a good figure) .. How much spent to find girls?? It really is crazy when you think about it.


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