Just past dawn, all along the Via Egnatia, they would set up their booths. Silk and spices, jewels from the east, exotic animals from Asia and cattle from Gaul, lined the wide stone road from the old agora to the forum. The locals liked to think of it as “little Rome,” guarded by a legion of the Empire’s best troops and enriched by the gold mines in the Macedonian hills above. They weren’t particularly religious, they were business people, and the gods they treasured most dearly were the coins with the Emperor’s face that plinked down into their wooden boxes.
The slave trade was strong here as well. Captured Gauls or Africans were displayed in naked desperation on platforms decorated with the bright colors of the Imperial court. It was a city of commerce, the gateway to Europe, and making money was its ethic. A century before, the partisans who had murdered Julius gathered with their frightened troops on the plain to the west and faced the vengeance of Marc Antony and Octavius. The blood of Brutus, Cassius and the democrats soaked the sandy soil under the furious boots of Imperial retribution. The Pax Romana settled over the city, to keep it safe from the anarchic dreams of rulebreakers.
These days it was again crowded with refugees from Rome. After the Emperor had ordered that the Imperial see be purged of the troublesome presence of the Jews, they had wandered east and stopped at the first place they could hope to survive, the city of Phillip II, King of Macedonia, hero of Europe.
And it was here, too that four dreamers wandered, telling tales of a Jewish prophet who had stood against the Empire and walked out of a grave sealed by Imperial security. They gathered a little group in the home of one of the city’ most prominent merchants, Lydia, the purple-trader. Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke spent their days wandering amid the merchant booths and their nights in song, feasting and stories about the invisible God and his far scattered people.
It was Paul’s famous temper that had got them there. After a bitter feud with his best friend John Barnabas, Paul had taken his companions to the west, convinced by a dream that Europe needed to know about Jesus. And now his mood had turned dark again.
For days, after they had been laughed away from the soothsayer’s tent, a young slave girl had followed them through the market. Every time they would find a listening ear, they would see her there, and she would push her way in and shout excitedly: “these men are slaves of the Most High God and they have come to show you the way of salvation!” This always brought a round of guffaws. What kind of a god would need a crazy girl to spread his message?
Paul tried ignoring her, but she would only get louder. He tried ordering her back to her crystal ball and her tarot cards, but she would shriek in protest until her owners would come and fetch her back to their tent. She was a money maker, and she could weave the most amazing stories of the futures of bored and lonely traders with more money than common sense. Her owners gladly parted fools from their gold and silver.
This particular morning Paul’s eyes flashed black when he saw her. He turned to leave when she ran in front of him, screaming: “Listen to him! His god can save you!”
That was it. He was not going to have the Gospel disrupted by a mad spirit of the snake god. “I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of her!” The girl looked at him in terror, her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in a heap at his feet. Paul and his friends walked away, as the crowd murmured. Her owners showed up just then, a minute too late to save their business.
Paul had hardly started his conversation with another group of traders when the police showed up, swords flashing. Behind them, a dark cloud of fury rose over the soon-to-be-bankrupt slaveowners, “That’s him! The Jew!”
The trial, if you could call it that, was mercilessly short. Patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrels in every age, was on trial: Paul and Silas were declared enemies of the state, for they had dared to challenge the economic order of men who exploit little girls for money. Empire, strong as it is, can tolerate all sorts of dissent, but dissent which challenges the right of rich to make money without restriction must be quashed. “These men are filling people’ minds with unlawful ideas and customs. The Emperor is our protector!” The magistrates nodded in the wordless assent of bored bureaucrats everywhere. The suspects were found guilty, beaten with the Imperial clubs and hauled off to the inner cell of the city jail. Empire, you see, has no tolerance for justice.
As the hours stretched before them, Paul and Silas sat in the murky dark of the cell, chained and locked down in stocks. But Paul’ mood was light and he started humming an old sacred tune. Silas joined in and they laughed at their impromptu harmony. Before long, their arms stopped aching and they nearly forgot about the blood crusting on their foreheads. They sang and the other prisoners clapped.
They were in the middle of an antiphonal psalm when the earth beneath their feet trembled. The ceiling beams collapsed around them and the outer walls of the jail crumbled away. When it was over, Paul and Silas walked quietly among the prisoners and told them to stay put. They crawled across the rubble into the front office of the jail, and heard the jailer stumbling about. The sound of a sword being pulled from its scabbard stopped them. They jailer was mumbling a prayer to his god. Moonlight flashed on the sword as the jailer held it before his chest.
“Stop! We’re all here. Don’t harm yourself!” Paul’s voice came calmly through the darkness. The jailer grabbed a torch and lit it from the embers beneath the collapsed fireplace. In the flickering light he saw the two Jews and behind them the shadowy forms of the rest of his charges. He knelt before two men with chains dangling from their arms. “Sirs, thank you. Now what must I do to be saved?”
These men were obviously messengers of the gods and the power of the Imperial prison was no match for the power of the Olympians. Paul’s quiet answer must have surprised him as he spoke of a different God. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” This salvation was not to be simply a way out of the punishment for a jailer who lets his prisoners escape, but was of a whole different sort— salvation from the Empire itself and its death-dealing ways.
Paul and Silas’ adventure in the Philippian jail is a great story, to be sure. But it is not given to us as mere entertainment. It is given as a lesson in the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel is not some religious fable, told simply to soothe the guilty consciences of those aware of their human failings; it is a radical, revolutionary message that rocks the very foundations of the system that enslaves, oppresses and dehumanizes all who fall under its demonic spirit.
Paul’s exorcism of the slave girl was a direct attack on the injustice of an economic order that would use children to create wealth for the rich. It challenges our own complicity in the modern Empire where children, who are little more than slaves, labor in desperate sweatshops so that we can buy cheap running shoes or the latest gadget that fills our crowded lives with bright LED’s. The Gospel forces us to look at every tomato we eat, every cantaloupe we slice, every $4.50 frappucino we sip. It asks us: “What must we do to be saved from the slavery to stuff made by slaves?”
To our south lie lands torn by violence, a violence of our own making. Our bored and rich culture, hungry for the numbness which comes from coca or cannabis, has created a war zone where human life serves the cause of the drug trade. Our hunger for narco-salvation knows no justice. When the refugees from this war zone slip across the border in a desperate quest for freedom, for a tiny slice of the good life that we take for granted, we demonize them as the source of all our own problems. But we joyfully feast on the harvest fertilized with their blood.
The Church of Jesus Christ is afraid today, so totally have we been chained and locked in stocks. We are afraid to tell political leaders that immigration reform is a spiritual issue, that war is a spiritual issue, that the black globs washing up on Gulf Coast beaches are a spiritual issue and an affront to the One who came to liberate slave girls, jailers, ill-mooded apostles and even us.
Today’s story of Paul and Silas is reduced by the Church to a story of semi-salvation, where baptism gets you a ticket to the communion rail and a place at the Pearly Gate. Yet the Gospel of Jesus Christ defies this reductionism. Father Chuck reminded us last week about how enslaved we have become to our own narrow way of seeing the world, and how our blindness and deafness shuts out the faces and voices of those whose station in life is to insure our own comfort. We have breathed in the serpentine spirit of the culture and learned to be liberals. We have not breathed in the Holy Spirit and learned to be radicals. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a liberal manifesto. It is a radical call to do justice and to love mercy.
“Radical” comes from the Latin radix, and it means “root.” That’s what Jesus calls himself in Revelation 22: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Root demands our rootedness–our “oneness,” as John 17 says, in him.
That’s why the Gospel is for radicals: it comes from the Radical and is a radical call to oneness with our sisters and brothers in the third world, the second world and the first. This oneness is meant to display our love, the love with which we were loved first. A love which shakes our prisons to the ground.
When Paul tells the Philippian jailer to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not giving him some televangelist-approved magic spell that bribes God into compliance with human desire for pleasure without cost. He is telling him that the way of Empire is a dead-end, a collapsed prison, an empty reliquary of parlor-trick magicians. He is calling him to join in a new way of seeing the world, where anyone who is thirsty can come, anyone who wishes can take the gift of life freely.
Today’s Gospel reading, which compiles Jesus’ teachings on love into a priestly prayer, reminds us that love is the center of the Gospel and that it is stronger than Empire, stronger than sin, stronger than slavery. In the final chapter of Revelation, John of Patmos sees the Kingdom of God come to earth: a bright and shining city, which stretches to the heavens. Its gates are open to anyone who wishes to come in, anyone who is thirsty or hungry or frightened or exploited. And it’s strange that even though the golden city is there for anyone to enter, outside there are still people who prefer to stay there, even though it’ dark, even though you’re likely to be torn apart by wild dogs or led astray by the sorcerers who proclaim the triumph of the Empire. Yet the final words of Holy Scripture are words of grace.
After all the terror of the Revelation’s visions, at its end there is a promise: “Surely I am coming soon.” Our call, as those who have believed on him for salvation, is to call the rest of the world into that holy space, to stand up, in the quake-shattered wreck of the Imperial prison and tell our jailers: “Do not harm yourself.” For they are only slaves themselves, broken, fearful and lost. And even though we may still have chains attached to our wrists, we have seen the coming of the Lord. We have tasted the waters of freedom.
Amen, Come Lord Jesus. Come and set us free. Come and liberate us. Come. Amen.