Acts 16: 16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. 19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself ! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God–he and his whole household.
So, what I’ve always wondered is, What were Paul and Silas singing in that prison? What song or hymn was it that made that prison rock and roll? I briefly thought of “Jailhouse Rock,” but Elvis Presley wasn’t invented yet.
I wish I knew, so that we don’t risk singing that same song in a beautiful sanctuary like this. Those are some heavy beams up there. I’d also like to know because this is the first mention in the Bible of a specifically Christian hymnody. Notice that it was not sung in a Christian sanctuary nor during a typical service of worship. It was sung where most of the first Anabaptist and Mennonite hymns were composed and sung: under duress, in prison. This song came from where so many of the best of all Christian hymns come from, not from the heights of grandeur, power, prestige and success, but “out of the depths” as the Psalm says, “out of the depths,” of loss, pain, persecution and powerlessness. The song we heard this morning in Kituba, Swahili and then English was composed by a woman born blind, Fanny Crosby. Like Bartimaeus, she wanted Jesus to stop for her and give her sight– “Pass Me Not”–. But failing that, she anticipated the moment after death when her eyes would finally be opened, and her first vision would be of the Healer who would give her sight, Jesus.
Had Paul and Silas been Mennonites, they might have sung, “The Work is Thine.” It was sung in many former General Conference Churches upon sending missionaries overseas. Verse 2 says:
“Through suffering thou, O Christ, didst go unto thy throne above,
and leadest now the self-same way those true in faith and love.
So lead us, then, though sufferings wait, to share thy kingdom’s heavenly state.
Thy death has broken Satan’s might, and leads the faithful to the light,
eternal light, from darkness into light.”
I wonder if some of those Mennonite missionaries thought of that commissioning song when they too were locked up, not in jail cells and stocks, but in granaries or the trunks of cars in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. When rebellions broke out in the 1950’s nd 60’s, rebels and bandits targeted all foreign workers for kidnapping and killing. But they were locked into these granaries and car trunks for their own protection, hidden or moved by Congolese Christians who were also risking their lives on their behalf. We sang it some seven or eight years ago for another Silas, Silas Dauji, on his last Sunday with us before going back to take up his ministry in Nigeria. I heard recently that some of his work with well-drilling was destroyed by extremist Muslim militants.
I suppose we’ll just have to ask Paul and that other Silas, “Just what were you singing?” when we meet them in the New Jerusalem. But this story poses some questions to us, which we must answer. The first is: Why would we ever think that our witness to the world would or should be easy, our missional engagement a leisurely affair, something we can do in our spare time like a mere hobby, with parts and pieces we find conveniently around the home? The second question is: What is our witness worth to us? In other words, What are we willing to pay for our part in God’s mission to redeem the world? Thirdly, this passage makes me wonder, Should things go south and our witness prove dangerous or costly, how will we respond? In faith or fear? Worry or worship? Will I be Silas the singer, or Oscar the Grouch?
As for that first question, “What ever made us think that our part in God’s mission to the world would be easy, convenient or cheap?” I ask because I confess that that is my mental default mode. I’m easily surprised and dismayed whenever it turns out hard or requires time and trouble. After all, the first church in Philippi seemed to get off to an easy start. Earlier in chapter 16, we read that because Philippi did not have enough of a Jewish community to constitute a synagogue, Paul and Silas went on the sabbath to the other customary place where what few Jews there were would gather for prayer: by the river. There they met Lydia, whose heart was opened to their message. With her and her Jewish household they immediately had the first Church of Europe.
That was easy. One and done. Shall we move on to Athens or Corinth now that the church is planted in Philippi? Paul and Silas may wondered. Had they done so, that church might have remained a minority of the tiny Jewish minority in Philippi.
But God was just getting warmed up. He had bigger fish to fry. Philippi was a Roman colony, basically Rome-point-2, or Rome East, a town settled and run by Roman citizens, especially Roman Army veterans, whose final mission was the spreading Roman power, Roman virtues, values and vices in the Greek peninsula. That made Philippi a toxic spiritual brew of idolatry, slavery, sorcery, racism, greed, violence, antisemitism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, all of which we can see in the Roman reactions to the slave girl’s deliverance. “Not only will we lose our soothsaying business, these Jews are advocating things contrary to Roman ideals.”
Such a confrontation was inevitable. But the confrontation led to a conflagration, the spread of Holy Spirit fire into the pagan Roman community. For these battle-hardened worshipers of Mars, the Roman god of war, it took this dramatic come-back victory of Paul and Silas from the jaws of defeat to serve notice as to whose God was stronger. So, why would I think that our part in God’s mission to the world should be any easier?
If it sounds like I am trying to scare us about doing any outreach, you’re right, I am. Even in advance of the mission focus discernment that we’ll do during adult Christian Education time today. Actually, I’m trying to remind us of how precious in every sense of the word is our role in God’s work to renew Creation. In Jesus, God gave us his everything. And that could cost us everything. But as a missionary martyr, Jiim Elliot, put it some 60 years ago, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Which raises a second question for me: What is our witness worth to us, our part in God’s mission to redeem the world? God already set the price in that it cost him his everything on the cross. The life and blood of Jesus speak of more than the pain and death of one man. It speaks of how God Almighty himself entered fully into the human experience, drank it up down to the dregs, and that to do so he surrendered all his divine prerogatives and powers to protect himself, or to punish his opponents.
When Paul and Silas entered the Roman colony of Philippi, they risked and lost their freedom, their security and their dignity for the sake of their witness. This may sound very foreign to the many of us who grew up in Christian homes, in predominantly Christian communities. But looks can be deceiving. For those of us who grew up in historically Mennonite communities, the memories of martyrdom are only a few generations behind us, some as late as war-torn Europe in the 1940’s, some going back to migrations for religious liberty in the 1870’s or the 1920’s. For Ethiopian and other African members among us, the cost is personal, suffering is a recent memory.
Some among us took risks and paid prices to testify to Christ’s indiscriminate love for friend and foe when we applied for conscientious objector status and did alternative service. Just a generation before, some conscientious objectors had been sent home to South Dakota from military training camps in caskets, their dead bodies dressed in the uniforms that they had refused to wear in life.
And even if we have not personally had to face such resistance and pay such prices, our witness has still cost us something in terms of choices made and opportunities lost. Some among us have passed up more lucrative careers for reasons of faith and conscience. Some have chosen to give some years of their lives to the poor, here or abroad, thereby losing years of growth in salaries, savings, investments or real estate. And many of us can name friends and family members who have withdrawn, turned their back or grown cold to us because of our Christian faith and values. Hopefully we try to live graciously with family and friends whose opinions or life styles are different from ours. But there is not guarantee that they will always be gracious to us.
I say all that not to scare us, but to help us take stock of what we have already paid for our witness in the world. We should not be surprised if there were more to come. Which raises the third question: What will we do when our witness turns costly? Even when the best of our intentions should blow up in our faces, for no fault of our own, and all hell breaks loose, like it did in Philippi? Notice, I said, when, not if. Hopefully we try as hard as we can to make our witness to Jesus friendly, respectful and appropriate. Hopefully we spend more time listening than talking, so that we communicate God’s love, and so that when we do preach what we practice, we “scratch where people itch.” But we’re not finally responsible for how people respond to our witness. Its nice when people can respectfully agree to disagree, like most of my unbelieving friends and neighbors do. But sometimes I wonder why they are so politely tolerant. For there’s no denying what Paul calls “the scandal of the gospel,” or “the offence of the cross.” For the Romans, it was scandalous that Jesus would care so much for a slave girl as to free her from both economic and spiritual bondage, at the cost of their business. For my Muslim friends, its scandalous that God would take on human flesh and suffer death and defeat with us in the body and person of Jesus. For many people its scandalous to say that we would even need a Savior. Or its scandalous that discipleship would have anything to say about our conduct, our appetites and our actions. So, should the thin veneer of human politness be pulled back and the toxic brew of fear and pride boils over in our faces, like it did in Philippi, how will we respond?
Will we respond in fear or in faith, faith that God has the last word over and against human fear and folly? Faith that God can turn a breakdown of polite convention into a breakthrough for the gospel? The faith that can see the opening in the opposition, because rejection just may show that someone is closer to change than when they are indifferent? While someone is just cold, disinterested and indifferent, they have constructed a wall that is hard to penetrate. But when people explode in rejection and anger, like what they did in Philippi, its usually more about themselves than about the target of their attacks. It shows that someone or something has gotten under their skin and touched them at the point of deep insecurity. Being unable to defend that point rationally, they react irrationally. But then they may be closer to conversion than the one who is disinterested and disengaged.
In such times, will we have the faith to see opportunities, where others see only obstacles? At the very least, there is the opportunity for the wider world to see just what the resistance to the gospel is made of. When Paul and Silas were so badly mistreated, not once but twice, it was evident for all to see whose character was really peaceable, and whose spiritual power was greatest. It was evident and visible to all just who cared more for people than for profits. Sometimes people need to see the differences laid out so starkly in order to get beyond their denial and indifference, and make a choice.
A Russian proverb says, “The Czar has a sweet smile and iron teeth.” When the world shows its teeth, will we choose to worry or to worship? Just as Paul and Silas witnessed under duress, so they worshiped under duress. That sounds counter-intuitive, even crazy. Don’t we usually think of worship as having to do with praising and thanking God for all his blessings and benefits to us? What benefits could there possibly have been to being jammed into the stocks after being beaten to a pulp?
But had they known the song, “I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free…” they just might have sung that too, in that prison, as a testament to the human spirit that no chains can shackle, no rods can beat into submission. Whatever they were singing, it was a testimony to a surprising level of inner freedom from outer circumstances. More than that, it was a testament to the freedom and the power of God to redeem our resistance for his purposes, to turn any situation to his advantage. When his servants were most chained and constrained, God was most free and forceful.
So again, why would we ever expect that our part in God’s mission would be easy, automatic or cheap? And, What our witness worth to us? If it should prove costly, or when, how will we respond? With faith or with fear? With worry or worship? I know of nothing more valuable than our life with Christ, and our witness to him. If we value our life with Christ in any way, then we already know that whatever the cost of our witness, the benefit is always infinitely greater, both for those who receive it, and for we who share it.