Lawrence Farris, an American theologian observes that everyone in the story weve read from the Acts of the apostles needs to be freed: Not only the slave girl but the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power or maybe for the public peace), the jailer (owned by the empire), and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, and not only in the physical sense, as they find themselves in jail, but also in a figurative sense as they are freed from their preoccupation with how they think the gospel is best spread amongst the people. Their annoyance with the slave girl leads to her founding a new Christian Church while their spell in jail changes the jailer from being the servant of one empire (Caesar's) to being the servant of another empire (Christs) changing from enemy into brother in Christ.
It is a fantastic story with a surprising depth that doesnt show unless one is prepared to look at it with more than fleeting attention. This is not just a story about Jesus followers getting involved in all sorts of wild and wonderful adventures after he has gone. In this story the core of what happens when the Spirit of Christ gets involved in our lives is revealed. It tells us that where the Spirit breathes through our lives miracles start to happen, miracles of liberation and healing, want it or not.
Smiling, it shows us, our lives as the mirror image of the lives of people of ancient days where Christians struggled to give shape to the gospel in their lives exactly like we do.
We meet Paul and Silas, busy trying to spread the gospel, working their socks off for the young Church, piously on their way to the place of prayer, probably trying to focus on what might help show others the way to Christ. Their hearts full of zeal to bring the good news to people they will meet.
And then there is the slave girl. A total annoyance!
She doesnt fit in with Pauls and Silass expectation of what their ministry entails. She breaks their concentration, she destroys their focus, she interferes with their train of thought.
Shut up! Enough! I cant think!
Paul puts her down as one would do a dog. Not very nice and Christian, but effective nevertheless. Whatever it was that caused her compulsive and disturbing behaviour leaves her - and Paul and Silas can proceed to their destination: the place of prayer in peace.
Unfortunately, when the disturbing spirit left her, she also loses her ability to divine the future and has become useless to her owners. As you can imagine they are not at all happy and they go see the police to complain about Paul and Silas.
Who are still trying to reach the place of prayer to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Their intention is once again thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. Instead of amongst the faithful of the city they find themselves in jail thrown in with its criminals. Bang! Once again a door closes on their desire to respond to their calling as servants and followers of Christ to the best of their ability. If we didnt know better one might start to doubt the place of prayer is where they are supposed to go in the first place. As everything seems to be working against them reaching their destination.
But jail? Surely......
As one who does not believe in predestination, but has experienced this kind of serendipitous erraticism of circumstance many times I can tell you it is unnerving when it happens. You can be as stubborn as you want, but in the end, if the Spirit has decided to conspire against you she will get you where she wants you to be.
So it is with Paul and Silas, in prison when the earth seems to start shaking just to help them make a point. People who are confident their inner freedom cant be touched by outer, physical shackling, dont need to escape at the cost of another if they get an opportunity. And so it happens that the jailer finds them waiting for him in the morning with the doors to their cells wide open where he had expected them all to be gone. This, in turn, leads him to Christ and what he has to offer, and scares the living daylights out of the authorities.
A couple of nutters praying to someone who is long dead is one thing, but Roman citizens showing an inner freedom and peace capable of transforming a prison full of criminals and their jailer into people singing Gods praises is unnerving and cant be tolerated. Please leave is the response of those who cant handle what the slave girl and the jailer both have embraced. In other words: Please leave us alone, we dont want what you have to offer, redemption, liberation, transformation. We are happy enough as we are...
In the meantime the slave girl has organised the Church Paul and Silas had hoped to make a start with the previous morning when they set out to recruit new converts from the place of prayer. While they were in prison converting both the prisoners and the jailer, she has built a Church from the people she knows that is ready to receive their words of encouragement and faith.
Youll have to forgive me, but I couldnt help identifying myself and our Church with Paul and Silas. Focussed and concentrating hard on what we assume needs to be done to safeguard the future of the Church. On our way to share the good news with those we expect will be interested to hear it. Hoping we may bring about a community that will follow Christ and encourage one another. Annoyed when someone wreaks havoc with our good intentions. We work hard, and with our eyes firmly on the road we imagine will lead wherever it is we think we are going. And look, the pews are still emptying, the hair is getting grey-er by the minute as we desperately scramble for ideas to turn the tide.
It may be time to stop scrambling. To stop trying to get to where we expect the Church to grow from and let ourselves float along on the breath of the Spirit. Give God a chance for a change. Make room for the unexpected and trust that it may be, surprisingly, good. Even better than what we were striving for in the first place.
Giving up on the familiar is not easy. Although I have decided to leave TUC this doesnt mean the decision came easily. I love this Church and apart from everything else, you have provided me and my family with our first Church Home in Australia and that makes you very special. I could see, and do still see, so many opportunities and possibilities that need to be worked on and deserve following up on. For me however, the time has come to leave. In my conversations with St. Aidans in North Balwyn I felt the breath of the Spirit, a pull and push I cant rationally explain but which I have become familiar with over the years. And I must admit it is a pull and push I had not felt for a while.
Giving things up and allowing change to happen is hard. In our limited view of life we may not, at the time we have to do it, understand why we cant just continue on our way. Why the plans and expectations we may have had need to be disrupted and why we are being forced into a change of direction.
It is possible however that in the meantime the Spirit is working in other ways, with someone else, to get a Church together that will encourage and support you and me both. It is possible that while we spend our time full of frustration waiting for dawn to break God is busy opening the jail we may have landed ourselves in so we can welcome people into his community we would otherwise never have met.
I dont find it easy to let go. And I dont think any of us ever do. Going on the story of Paul and Silas, life can become a roller coaster in the hands of the Spirit. An interesting roller coaster, where liberation, healing and community keep happening in the most unexpected ways, but not an easy one.
When we gather at the table we are invited to surrender, to take our place and let ourselves be nourished with food and drink infused with Spirit, around the table here, and in communion with all those who believe following Jesus Christ is worth taking the risk of entrusting ourselves to a power beyond our understanding. An invitation to be part of the living breathing body of Christ that brings liberation and healing to the world, in Toorak, in Balwyn, or wherever else we are. That welcomes everyone and is wedded to only one thing: to make way for God to happen in this world wherever and however GOD thinks this is appropriate without us getting in the way with our own agendas and stubbornly held beliefs about where we should be going and what we should do. The place of prayer didnt prove to be the best place for Paul and Silas to spread the gospel in the end, however much they may have been convinced it was. It was an annoying slave girl and a prison sentence where the Spirit got down to work in the end and created healing, liberating community. Turning Pauls words of annoyance into blessing and a prison sentence into a conversion experience for criminals and jailer alike. Amen.