Sermons from St Faith's   


Fred Nye, Sunday, 8th May, 2016

‘Suddenly there was an earthquake…..and everyone’s chains were unfastened’.

Cecil B de Mille, when asked how he managed to produce so many blockbuster epic movies, said ‘You begin with an earthquake, and then build up to a climax’!  
In this morning’s reading from Acts we have not one, but two, earthquakes. There’s the geological earthquake that conveniently releases Paul and Silas from prison, but before that we have the story of another very different sort of earthquake. Paul’s exorcism of the Roman slave girl was in it’s own way just as earth-shattering: it so angered the crowd and the Roman authorities that Paul and Silas found themselves stripped naked, severely beaten up, and then shackled and banged up in jail.

So what’s going on in this extraordinary exorcism, that almost brought Paul’s mission and ministry to a premature end? To understand it we need to know a little more about the status of slaves in the first century Roman Empire. If you visit Pompei you can still see in the basements of the villas the cramped, cold and almost pitch black cubicles where the slaves slept. So in a way that says it all. The riches of the wealthy were built upon the oppression of the poor. For many domestic slaves life was indeed nasty brutish and short: the fate of those employed in agriculture or industry was probably even worse.  And yet in a society where there was no welfare state, not even a ‘poor law’, when times were hard slaves would still be fed and have a roof over their heads: they had a degree of precarious security not shared by those living in poverty around them. So the life of a slave was an uneasy mix of exploitation and dependency.

And some slaves were particularly valuable. The girl in the story had a peculiar gift that was very useful to her Roman owners. We are told that she had a ‘spirit of divination’ which in Greek translates as the ‘Python’ spirit. The name comes from the snake associated in legend with the oracle at Delphi, where the priestess, inspired by the same spirit, had the power to speak in riddles and foretell the future. So to own a young woman with such amazing magical powers, which could readily be turned into hard cash, was to put it mildly a stroke of luck for her masters.

And then Paul comes along and kills the goose that lay the golden eggs. It’s hard to say exactly what he found disturbing about the slave girl. She certainly kept following him and pestering him, using the same sort of language that the unclean spirits in the gospel stories had used to address Jesus the Messiah. And so Paul uses Jesus’s name, that’s to say Our Lord’s power and authority, to rid her of her demon. But I wonder if Paul was also moved by her enslavement. Not only did her masters own her, body and soul, they were also abusing and exploiting her, using whatever it was that was tormenting this poor young woman as a means of filling their own pockets. Whether we call it a demon or a mental illness - a psychosis - which troubled her, once she was healed she was of no value to her owners. I wonder how they reacted? I guess they probably dumped her, abandoned her completely.

Tantalisingly, we are not told what happened to the slave girl afterwards, as the focus of the story shifts to the revenge that her owners took on Paul and Silas. Perhaps like many Gentile slaves she became a Christian, and found acceptance and security within a new family, the family of the early church that Paul had founded in Phillipi. But she probably had some mixed feelings about her new way of life. As a walking oracle, speaking in riddles, she had been something of a celebrity, the centre of attention – now, all that was over: she had been stripped of any sort of false glamour, and had to re-discover her own real self-worth.

So, where is all this going? We don’t believe in demons any more, and we like to think that slavery is a thing of the past. But deep down this is a story that is all about the power of money.

We live in a global society where increasingly human values are measured in pounds, or dollars or euros. The modern mantra has it that competition rather than co-operation is the way to human prosperity and happiness, that what gives citizens value and worth is our purchasing power as consumers, and that riches have some sort of intrinsic merit, while poverty is just another name for failure. Inequality has been re-labelled as virtuous, because the free market ensures that everyone gets exactly what they deserve. Everything is weighed in the currency of economic growth. It is Mammon who is now the master, and the whole planet – it’s natural and its human resources – are in danger of becoming slaves to money, of being exploited for the sake of money. It’s the economy, stupid!

But we confess the faith of Christ crucified, we proclaim a risen Lord, the reign of God on earth, and the love of neighbour as ourselves. And with Paul, we believe that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of us are one in Christ’. So let’s never miss the opportunity to proclaim that gospel, to challenge money as a measure of human worth, to do what we can to remove the chains of inequality, and to exchange them for the bonds of peace and justice. We need to re-discover the true value of human beings as children of God.

We will need some help and courage, the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, to fight this battle, because like Paul and Silas we risk the wrath of those whose self-interest lies in maintaining the status quo. And like the slave girl when she was removed from her abusive masters, we too will have something to lose. Here in the comfortable West we are also trapped in an economic system that partly exploits and partly protects us. The chains of self-interest and destructiveness which are such a denial of Christ’s Lordship bind us too.

So as a Christian community we need to start a debate on how we can de-value some of the worth that we all of us attach to comfort, money and possessions. There are so many chains to be unfastened, so many habits to be challenged: our unthinking dependence on climate-damaging energy to heat our homes or use the car, or to go on foreign holidays; perhaps our attitudes to taxation and migration, certainly our reluctance to lobby for global justice. But above all we need to lose our fear of generosity. How many of us should be tithing our incomes, and of those who do, how many should be giving a little more? Would that, for me at least, be one earthquake too far? Perhaps like the slave girl when she was freed from her previous way of life we may be reluctant to let go. In re-discovering our true value as children of God, we stand to lose something that we had begun to enjoy.

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