Sermon June 2, 2019
O God, whose blessed Son, our great high priest, has entered once for all into the Holy Place and ever liveth to intercede on our behalf: grant that we, sanctified by the offering of his body may draw near with full assurance of faith by the way which he has dedicated for us and evermore serve thee, the living God; through the same thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
I need to start this week by recalling back to last week, when we read from the Acts of the Apostles, as we do throughout the Easter Season. Last Sunday, we heard about a woman called Lydia. St. Paul and company met her as she was worshipping God at a place of prayer close to a river by the gate of the ancient city of Philippi. Luke mentions that she was a merchant, having sold textiles dyed deep blue and purple. Her inventory was among the most sought after items by the Roman upper classes, and thus we can imagine that she was quite successful. Lydia, by her being a among the upper echelons of the Philippian merchant class, and being a gentile to boot, was kind of dark horse candidate for conversion to the Gospel of Jesus. At least, that’s probably what Paul thought at first, and likely why Luke was so interested in her story when he wrote the Acts. And yet, Luke recorded that her zeal was such that she had her whole household baptized and extended great hospitality to Paul and his compatriots.
I bring her up again because we heard about two more folks in today’s lessons from Acts that would not necessarily seem like prime candidates for conversion, especially given the little details that Luke gives about their background. But, as we’ve also heard today, the same God who speaks to the hearts of the most unexpected people, is the same God that moves the earth to free his Apostles.
First, we met a woman who is described as having a “spirit of divination” in our English translation. I was curious as to what this meant, and the original Greek language didn’t disappoint. It’s a small detail but it’s at least a little interesting that Luke described her as having a “pythian” spirit. This was a small way for Luke to tie her into the well-known oracles at Delphi, who thought of themselves as servants of Apollo, Greek god and slayer of a giant snake that guarded an area called Pytho. Bonus Fact: It’s where we get the word Python. In any case, This young woman, this lesser oracle, saw Paul and his colleagues for who they were and, rather annoyingly apparently, announced that “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” And even though she was correct, Paul rebuked the Pythian spirit in the girl and she was freed to follow up on her own announcement. This was an unexpected, but yet more blessed turn of events!
But the reaction to follow was about as normal as it gets. She was being trafficked as a soothsayer and her owners were not thrilled by their sudden shortfall of revenue. They took Paul and Silas to court and accused them of being Jews (which was not illegal but anti-semitism ran deep even then) and for preaching sedition (which was illegal but not exactly what they were doing). They were sent to the pokey for disturbing the peace and that is where we meet our next unexpected convert, the Roman jailer.
Very likely a retired Roman soldier, he was placed in charge of all the prisoners in that jail. A man born of the crucible of severe Roman military discipline, part of what kept him in line was the punishment that might befall his failure. Meting out and Suffering from extreme punishment was a professional liability for folks like him. This was not a soft dude by any stretch, and my favorite word to describe a guy like this jailer would be, “grizzled.” He would not seem a likely candidate for conversion to the Gospel of Love. But, just like the freed soothsayer and Lydia before her, he was faced with the peculiar ministry of St. Paul and his missionary associates who brought with them the Word and power of God.
The jailer would have been used to lamentations, wailing, complaining, cursing from his usual charges. But instead, his jailed preachers sang hymns and prayed psalms, filling that Roman jail with a sound probably not too far off from our own singing this morning. When the earthquake came, and the doors flung open, he knew his goose was cooked: the prisoners would escape and he would have to face punishment. But instead, Paul cries out not to harm himself; not to commit himself to the Roman sword of justice. The missionaries had stuck around. They and their God did not mean for them to be chained, but that didn’t mean they wanted harm to come to their jailer. What kind of people do this sort of thing? What sort of Lord watches like this one? His words ring out to the ages to all folks who come face to face with God’s incredible working. He says: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” And his household, just as Lydias’, was baptized into the salvation of Christ.
These are amazing stories and Luke was being very intentional in telling them the way he did, especially with the little meaningful details like Lydia the merchant of purple textiles, the pythian oracular wannabe, the grizzled yet astounded Roman prison guard. These are folks, who, in the first century may have been written off as far as being able to hear and receive the Gospel of Jesus. But that’s just not how this thing works. Despite all the details of their lives that should have, by all accounts, kept these folks out of the Lamb’s book of life, God found ways to work through his Church’s ministry to open their hearts. Think about what that means for the people we know around us. Think about all those folks we might be tempted to write off as far as hearing the Word of Salvation is concerned. If a Roman prison guard can have his heart turned toward Christ, then it might be possible for that one person who at work who drives you crazy by forgetting the cover page on the TPS report. If a slave girl caught in the maelstrom of forced labor and spiritual malpractice can receive liberating healing, then it might be possible for that one weird kid at school, or friend if your kid, or maybe even your kid. If the lady whose time was taken up by selling purple to the Roman elite can have her worship perfected by the ministry of Christ’s Gospel, then every single one of us can approach the same with open hearts ready to be transformed to the pattern of Christ and welcomed into the abundant life of grace so that we can approach Christ with the hospitality of our obedience to him.
This week, I pray that we would all have our own hearts opened for our own conversion and repentance, but also that we might have open hearts to love and care for those around us who may yet need a little more beauty, truth, and love in their lives. So, this week recall Jesus’ own prayer from this morning as a call and guarantee when he says: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
To Him be all Glory. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
The Very Reverend David Bumsted
Sermon from June 2, 2019