How can I keep from singing?
On Good Friday in 1963, 53 blacks, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched into downtown Birmingham to protest the existing segregation laws. All were arrested. This caused the clergymen of this Southern town to compose a letter appealing to the black population to stop their demonstrations. This letter appeared in the Birmingham Newspaper. In response, Martin Luther King drafted a document that would mark the turning point of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” strives to justify the need for nonviolent direct action. He talks writes about the absolute immorality of unjust laws together with what a just law is. He also expresses his utter disappointment with the Church who had not lived up to their responsibilities as people of God.
The Acts text provides another narrative of gospel activists thrown in jail for “disturbing the peace.” The story has all the ingredients of a status quo script. There is a used slave-girl fortune-teller who we imagine has very few options for putting food on the table for her family. We think of her modern counterparts—enslaved in the evil of sex-trafficking. There are money-making exploiters who use the innocent fortune-teller to generate private wealth. There are the magistrates who use their authority to maintain the status quo and prevent any social “disturbance.” And there’s a prison system to effectively erase all social and economic misfits. Who is in need of liberation in this story?
Into this contested third space—this space that is about sex, money, freedom and community—into this space come the apostles proclaiming an alternative “way of salvation” (verse 17). The Pentecost Spirit not only leads them to riverside prayer gatherings, but to bustling marketplaces where there are all kinds of people. The Philippi market is full of color and energy. It’s a good place for Paul to sell some tents. Over the course of several days, a fortune-telling slave girl follows Paul and company around, crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Eventually, Paul gets annoyed.
Despite the free advertising, Paul gets tired of being heckled by the spirit in the girl. The spirit that recognizes who he is, who his God is, and what he has to offer. He doesn’t need this distraction. He’s focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn’t appear to be a part of his missional vision. One day Paul has had enough. He turns to the girl and orders the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. Silence.
Sometimes when you challenge the status quo you end up in jail. Sometimes the political and religious powers want to censor you…take your program off T.V. …tell you just to quiet down. The owners of the girl see their hope of making money vanish with the exorcism. They’re not happy. So they take the apostles to court. Because when your economic interests are being threatened by exorcisms, reform, or civil rights movements, you fight back.
You stir up the crowd. Your write letters to the newspaper calling the black preacher and his followers to settle down. You throw around vague accusations and racial epithets—these men are disturbing the peace…they are Jews…they are Negros. Whether the dangerous outsiders are protesters at Kent State in the 60s, blacks marching for Civil Rights, or apostles of a Jewish Messiah, the trump card of the powers is always violence. It’s not water hoses or automatic weapons in our text—it is a beating with rods—but the purpose is the same. Fear. Intimidation. Control.
So they come and lock you up—thinking this will silence you. What do you do when you are beaten and thrown into jail for being a Gospel activist? If you are Paul and Silas, you remember other times of being sent to prison (Acts 5:19 and 12:5-10). Other times when angels opened prison doors. So you do not lose hope. You pray…sing songs… or start a canning program.
During the 1960s, MCC sent workers who were conscientious objectors to do alternative service in Greece. They were known as PAXmen. Many of them were straight from American/Canadian farms. They were looking for ways to assist in rebuilding postwar Greece. The PAXmen noticed all the fruit growing throughout the summer, often going to waste, and in winter there was none. So drawing on their experiences from home, they wrote their mothers asking for canning jars. Eventually, a number of Greek entrepreneurs set up canning operations.
Whether you are PAXmen doing alternative service, or a black preacher in a Birmingham jail—the time is always right to do good (MLK). But how is it possible to sing songs amidst tumult and the strife? Perhaps it is only possible if you are tuned in to a far off hymn that hails a new creation. Whether you are a Roman citizen, an American citizen, or a son or daughter of African ancestors the new creation hymn echoes so deeply in your soul that no prison walls can silence it. It bursts forth. So even in prison—you pray, write letters and have hymn sings. You confront the principalities and powers and you wait for God to work.
This time it isn’t angels that open prison doors—it’s an earthquake. The earthquake seems to be God’s answer to their prayers. The way out has been provided. Paul and Silas refuse it. We wonder for what then they have been praying?
The jailer now comes into view in our story. He is about to take his life because he would be the fall guy for a prison break—even one caused by a natural disaster. He raises his sword. Paul shouts across the rubble in a loud voice. “Don’t do it. Do not harm yourself. We’re all here.” The jailer lowers his sword and calls for lights. Lanterns and candles are brought in and he falls before his own prisoners—the falsely accused disturbers of the peace. He leads them outside where they can talk. What is going on? What the world!
When your life has been defined by the dominant script of empire… when you have been a cog in the system…working 9 to 5 to bring a paycheck home…when the dominant script has you running ragged to make ends meet so you can have the house, take the family vacation to Disneyworld, buy your kids all the stuff they want to have the status afforded by the dominant script…when you are caught in this rat race…sometimes an earthquake is good news.
Sometimes you need a crisis to get you free from the script that controls your life. When you find yourself in this place, the best thing you can do is ask the question the jailer asks: What must I do to be saved?
Ronald Cole-Turner reflects on this question in the context of this story and poses this question for each one of us, personally: “What must I do to be saved from what destroys me? What must I do to be saved from my particular bondage, my oppressive addiction, emptiness, or boredom?”
The answer to this question involves many things. Today’s text highlights the importance of belief. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. Believing has to do with our minds, our hearts and our bodies. Our physical lives reflect our beliefs. We see again in this story that the journey of salvation begins with a physical practice—baptism. This is about more than a change of heart…a change of mind…responding to an altar call. Because salvation is worked out in the physical realm of life, the jailer and his entire family are baptized without delay. Belief and baptism immediately lead to the gospel ministry of hospitality. The jailer brings Paul and Silas (and others) back to his house. Food is set before them and the entire household has a party. Baptisms and fellowship meals go together in Acts…at SMC. (bulletin announcement)
We are left to wonder what became of the slave girl fortune-teller. What of her owners who had their scam exposed? What of the puppet politicians who offered a public apology to Paul the Roman citizen upon his release the next day. Would this experience change their ways? We are skeptical.
The gospel story offers liberation for all who need it. In this story liberation is needed by a spirit possessed slave girl. Liberation is needed by men who, possessed by greed, used her for their own gain. Liberation is needed by the men who, worried about holding on to their seats in the next election, appease the crowds and judged Paul. Liberation is needed by a jailer who is owned by the empire. Liberation is needed, most surprisingly of all, by Paul and Silas who themselves, need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking.
Where are we in this Story? Perhaps we are like Paul, annoyed by the distractions on the way to our agenda. How does this story call us to see gospel possibilities in surprising places? Perhaps we are like the jailer, in need of a crisis to help free us from the dead end script we are living our lives by. In either case there is Good News. We can be free to walk in new boldness according to a different script. The Good News is that God is reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, inviting us to believe and step into the gospel story of transformation and redemption.
There is a far off hymn that hails a new creation. Above earth’s lamentation. Do you hear it? What though the darkness gather ‘round. Songs in the night he giveth. Let’s sing.