Do folks remember the movie Ghost, with Patrick Swazye, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg? You remember the premise, right? Patrick Swayze has died, foul play, and his spirit goes to Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Oda Mae Brown, who can see and speak with the spirits of the dead. She helps him to communicate with his still-living wife in a series of encounters that are comic, romantic and poignant. That movie came out twenty years ago, which doesn’t seem possible to me.
Well, we have something like the plot to Ghost going on in the story from Acts in this morning’s readings. Here the character of Oda Mae Brown is a young slave girl who can also communicate with the dead and, like Oda Mae, this talent is being used for profit. Except in the case of the young slave girl from Acts, the money is being collected by her owners. Our translation says that she had a spirit of divination, which is a translation of the Greek phrase pneuma pythōna, or a spirit of the snake.
Now, before we jump to any conclusions about the snake in the garden of Eden, or the snake as a symbol for the devil, we have to remember that Paul and Silas are still traveling in Greece. We’ve picked up right where we left off last week, when Paul and Timothy encountered Lydia, the wealthy businesswoman who traded in purple cloth and who had her entire family baptized when she heard the good news from Paul by the river. So, in the area of Greece where the apostle is traveling there were mystery cults dedicated to the Greek gods, including Apollo, who was the patron of healing and knowledge among other things. When you go to the doctor, even today, you might recognize that the symbol for their profession is a staff with two snakes wrapped around it, called a caduceus. There’s a longer story there, about how the caduceus is sort of the wrong symbol for the profession, but that’s a story for another day. The point here is that in this region of the world, the snake was associated with both healing and death, both poison and cure, and this girl was thought to have the snake’s spirit inside of her, which allowed her access to the world of the dead.
When Paul and Silas come to town, the slave girl recognizes that they have something in common. She is a slave with an owner, but when she sees them she calls out, “these men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Again, we’re dealing with Greek terminology. Up until now we haven’t heard that name for God used too often in scripture. That’s because it’s the phrase the Greeks used to speak of Zeus, the all-father of the Greek gods in their religion, their “most high god.” The slave girl’s illness gives her a special insight into the nature of possession. Even as she is possessed by the spirit of the snake, and by the people who are exploiting her illness for profit, she recognizes that Paul and Silas are possessed by the Spirit of the Most High God, a God she can only name in terms of what she has known in the confines of her culture.
The book of Acts is full of scenes in which Peter, Paul and others repeat the teaching ministry and healing miracles of Jesus. That is a part of the book’s function. Authored by the same evangelist who composed the gospel of Luke, the book of Acts is trying to show us how Jesus’ ministry was picked up and carried into the world by the early church. So, just as Jesus cast spirits out of possessed people and heals them, here Paul casts the spirit out of the slave girl and heals her. And you would think that would be the end of it, but it’s not.
Because someone had been making money off of her illness, and when the owners of the slave girl see that they’ve lost their source of income they have Paul and Silas dragged into the marketplace (notice that the authorities and the magistrates are gathered in the marketplace, which is a clue to their ultimate concern). Here they’re tried on trumped up charges – rather than suing for the loss of income due to damages to their property, the angry owners of the slave girl have Paul and Silas tried for crimes against the state – saying that their faith as Jews goes against the laws of Rome. We get a glimpse of the first century anti-Semitism that spread from the Roman Empire to the whole of Europe right here, and we have to notice that it’s a false accusation. They weren’t advocating unlawful customs, or doing anything particularly Jewish. They healed a girl of her illness, and somehow that brought the whole civil establishment down on them.
Which brings me to a topic I want to spend just a little bit of time on this morning, since today is the Sunday that the Faith Caucus of the Campaign for Better Healthcare has designated as “Sound the Alarm” Sunday. You may remember that we observed “Sound the Alarm” Sunday last year as well when the healthcare reform debate was in full swing – but now that federal legislation expanding healthcare coverage has been passed, it’s kind of hard to imagine what we are being encouraged to advocate for.
Just to review the recent advances made in our country:
- Under the new legislation families can get some peace of mind, knowing that their insurance won’t be taken away, even if they lose their job or become sick.
- Seniors will benefit from lower prescription costs and free preventive care; people living with chronic conditions will no longer have lifetime limits placed on their coverage, and will now have access to insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions, and children with pre-existing conditions will no longer be able to have coverage denied; young adults will be able to stay on their parents’ insurance up to age 26 – which is especially critical during this recession, as young adults are graduating from college with fewer prospects for work, especially work with health benefits.
- We have offered tax credits to small businesses so that they can afford coverage for themselves and their employees, making it easier for them to compete for talent in the job market where people are always looking for the best benefits packages, which in turn drives innovation and expansion and helps heal our aching economy.
- We have extended protection to an additional four million American children, expanded rural community health centers, and guaranteed that people who lose a job with health insurance can keep affordable COBRA coverage (that’s kind of funny right, another snake reference in a healthcare conversation).
You may notice I’m saying “we” a lot here – “we” have extended coverage and tax credits and all that. I’m not reading a letter from President Obama up here in the pulpit, and I’m not speaking for the Democratic party. I’m saying “we” did this because these new laws only came into being because of a massive uprising of people who organized for change – not only during the presidential and congressional elections, but throughout the healthcare reform debate. Of course they weren’t supported by everyone, but nei
ther were Social Security, Medicare, or the original State Children’s Health Insurance Program – and like those comprehensive social safety nets, this legislation isn’t perfect, but it can be improved upon over time.
The point I’m making here is that we have healed the slave girl, even with her pre-existing condition. Our society has taken a great leap forward in the work of making health and healing accessible to people from all walks of life. We have begun to replace one system of medicine with another, trading the spirit of the snake for a more inclusive, encompassing spirit.
And now we are on trial in the marketplace.
Already there are all sorts of accusations being made about the healing that has begun to take place. We are trying to heal people, but there are voices in the marketplace that want to make that case that we are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Americans to adopt. We are hearing that it’s un-American, that it’s socialism (a sort of name-calling, like the Greeks assailing Paul and Silas for being Jews), even though most legal experts, even conservative ones, agree that this legislation is entirely constitutional; and our courts have repeatedly ruled in over seventy years of case law that the federal government has the power to establish programs to help people.
And here is where the story from Acts becomes particularly instructive. Paul and Silas healed the girl, just as Jesus healed those who were held captive to unclean spirits. Paul and Silas are brought before the authorities on trumped up charges, just as Jesus was brought before the authorities on trumped up charges. In fact, if you remember, early in the gospel of Luke Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, and from that day on the temple authorities look for a way to destroy him.
So, it’s not coincidental that it is an act of healing that gets Paul and Silas beaten in public and thrown in prison. Scripture is pretty consistent in telling the truth that the powers that rule this world, the powers of the marketplace, will always resist those who come with healing for hurting people – because there is money to be made in sickness, not in health. But we are slaves of the Most High God, so we are working with a different agenda. One that may get us beaten up a little bit, maybe called names, maybe even slapped with some fines or some jail time, but that’s part of what goes with the territory for followers of Jesus – and that is what the book of Acts tells us.
And then the story takes it one step further. As Paul and Silas wait for judgment in their jail cell, they begin to pray and to sing. The more they worship God, the weaker the walls that hold them become. Finally they are so filled with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that the entire prison collapses on itself.
What an amazing metaphor for what it means to give yourself over to God’s agenda. To become a slave of the most high God isn’t like slavery at all – it is like freedom. What the world looks at as foolishness becomes the deepest kind of joy. Paul and Silas experience the kind of freedom in the gospel that Martin Luther called “the freedom of the Christian.” Luther famously writes, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Once again, the book of Acts models itself on the gospels. Jesus, the Beloved child of the Most High God, who we celebrate as Christ the King, makes himself subject to the world’s worst punishment in order to give his life in service to a truth that in God’s love we are all children of the most high God. Lord of all, servant to all. Likewise, Paul and Silas are immediately recognized by the slave girl as “slaves of the Most High God,” though in their imprisonment they have found the freedom only God can give.
In fact, they are so free that when they are given the chance to escape from their prison cell, they stay right where they are. The guard who had been assigned to watch over them fears that he will lose his life if they escape, and he prepares to kill himself rather than face the punishment – but Paul calls out to him, “do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”
We are all here. We are all in this prison cell, and we are all being set free. That is Paul’s testimony. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” learns that lesson in the sixteenth chapter of Acts. He and his Jews – Silas and Timothy – have met with the Greeks – Lydia and the slave girl and the jailor, and they are all healed or baptized into the family of faith. These men encounter those women, and they become part of one body of believers. These slaves of the most high God encounter free citizens of Rome, and all are liberated together to be a part of a vast kingdom, more expansive than anything the marketplace could ever imagine.
The gospel of John says it with poetry,
“the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
And the book of Revelation says it with that musical crescendo of an invitation,
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift…
The one who testifies to these things says, ‘surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all.