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“Disturbing the Peace” – Acts 16:16-34
June 2, 2019
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
It seems as though the primary reason for the inclusion of the slave girl in the narrative
was to explain how Paul and Silas ended up in jail.
Over the course of this narrative in Acts 16, there is very little focus on the vulnerable slave girl.
Unlike Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, who in the last chapter of Acts
became host of the house church in Philippi, we are not even given this young girl’s name.
She is just another vulnerable person on the streets.
She seems to be just another person whom most people would overlook or make quick judgments about.
I wonder who she was? I wonder what her name was and if she had any family?
Was this young person born into slavery?
Or perhaps sold into slavery as a child in order to settle some debt?
All that we know about her is that:
1) she made a great deal of money for the men who owned her by telling fortunes.
2) She annoyed Paul by following him and the others around the city for many days, crying out:
‘These men are slaves of the Most High God; they proclaim a way of salvation.’
3) When Paul ordered the spirit to come out of her, it came out of her that very hour.
That’s it; that’s all we are told. The rest of the story is about Paul and Silas.
Because the slave girls’ owners get upset with their loss of income,
Paul and Silas are seized, beaten, and thrown in jail without a trial.
Their feet are put in stocks in the innermost cell, and the slave girl is no longer in the story.
By the time Paul and Silas sing hymns and songs in the jail about midnight
and the sudden earthquake comes, the slave girl has disappeared entirely from the story.
This story of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail is an important story, an engaging story.
We could spend interesting time exploring:
their courage to stay in the jail in order to protect the jailer and keep him from killing himself,
their just demands as Roman citizens of an apology the next day from the magistrates,
the perhaps surprising story of how they baptized the Philippian jailer and his household without delay.
The Book of Acts, written by the physician Luke, tells the story of Paul and Silas and of the early church
in what Luke calls “an orderly fashion”.
Given Luke’s relatively generous treatment of female characters elsewhere,
and his frequent use of the names of individuals,
we almost have to assume that Luke was not able to ascertain anything else about the slave girl.
We can imagine Luke, some months or years later, grilling Paul and Silas on that fateful day
when they were beaten and thrown into jail…..
So who was that slave girl? Do we know her? Is she known to the church in Philippi?
What ever became of her?
This young person was freed of a spirit of divination, but was she ever freed from her owners?
Did she ever meet Lydia and attend the house church in Lydia’s home?
Did she get baptized and became part of the early church?
Whether or not she gained liberty from her owners, did she find freedom from faith in Jesus Christ?
To Paul and Silas and to the church throughout history,
she has been known only as the “slave girl with a spirit of divination”.
As far as we know, she remained an unknown, vulnerable person, perhaps even more vulnerable
when she was no longer able to make fortune-telling money for her owners.
She could be regarded as a lost sheep in the wilderness in need of hope and rescue.
I have heard people in Decatur say lately: We have a “homeless problem.”
It does seem true that our community includes more persons recently who have no home,
no place to go, no bed or shelter when the night comes.
This is, of course, a problem, most notably a problem for the vulnerable people
who are suffering from this condition.
Poverty and homelessness in the wealthiest nation in the world is a real and disturbing problem.
This is a problem that is complicated, far beyond the resources of this one congregation,
a problem that needs to be addressed by a coalition of church, government, and business.
Most of us will go home tonight to a cool and safe place to sleep,
while there will be others who will be outside – hot, stressed and at risk when the sun begins to set.
Just after worship today, our session will meet to consider a new signage proposal.
We have been reminded that we, as a church, cannot do everything or be everything to all people.
We can do some things very well.
We worship well; we have a stellar chancel choir and amazing organist.
We do Bible and Music Camp well; thanks to Emily and Lori and others,
it’s going to be a terrific week around here.
We do youth ministry well; I can’t wait to hear some of the stories from the youth trips this summer.
We do Threshold Ministry fairly well – we provide hospitality to vulnerable people
in a Christian environment.
We refer people as best we can to shelters and other services in the broader community.
We provide some measure of financial assistance in specific situations.
But we do not, at the present time, have the will nor the resources to oversee a “tent city” on our
We want to be good neighbors to everyone around us, not only to the vulnerable people without a home,
but also to local businesses and schools and residents of local condominiums.
The goal in our meeting today will not simply be to free our property from the mess that some people
are leaving on the ground, or to free our property from the illicit acts or drug deals of a few,
nor even simply to keep persons from urinating in the bushes,
though we would very much like that to stop.
Our goal will be to consider the longer term needs of the very needful and vulnerable individuals
who have been staying here.
Our hope is that Mr Hinton, a decorated veteran, will find stable housing.
Our hope is that Ms. Reed, who struggles to care for a mentally ill relative,
can be connected to life-saving resources for him and peace of mind for her.
Our hope is that Moshay, Carl, can find stable income and be able to create his entertaining music
There will be ramifications if our session decides to make some changes:
if people are not allowed to sleep on our benches, where will they sleep?
We know that there are not enough beds in the shelters.
We know that many people feel more safe on our property than they do elsewhere.
What we do not know is where they were sleeping before they came here
or where they might go if they cannot sleep on this property overnight.
I wish we could free every vulnerable person on the street from the stress of homelessness.
I wish we could free every poor person in our nation from the weight and hopelessness of poverty.
I wish I could free our nation from the diseases of apathy and racism that contribute mightily
to these issues.
This challenge of homelessness in America is tremendous.
This is a huge sociological issue that we are not addressing well as a city or as a nation.
Whatever our session decides to do about the use of our property at night time,
my great hope and desire would be that our congregation would go deeper into this issue,
that we would corral human resources in collaboration with local governments and businesses
in order to seek and find real solutions.
One of the groups working on the problem of homelessness in Atlanta is called Partners for Home.
Their stated mission is that homelessness in Atlanta would become “rare, brief, and nonrecurring”.
They are pulling together the resources of non-profits, governments, and business leaders
in order to collaborate toward a consistent and measured approach to helping people escape
and avoid homelessness.
The needs of the vulnerable seem endless and overwhelming at times.
There are many lone sheep in the wilderness, like the slave girl of Philippi, vulnerable and at risk,
like the women who have been hanging out on the front porch of the Sycamore House.
But the Spirit of Jesus, working through the Church and its people, has before and will again
address the needs of needful individuals.
As Paul said elsewhere, the Spirit of Jesus can “accomplish abundantly far more
than all we can ask or imagine”.
May this be the spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, that is alive and at work among us.
And I pray that all we do be acceptable and pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church