Easter 7 C: On Not Running from the Good Fight

The readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter are…

First Reading        Acts 16:16–34

Psalm                    Psalm 97

New Testament      Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21

Gospel                   John 17:20–26

Last week we saw how the great theme of the Holy Spirit’s boundary busting is illustrated in Acts by the story of Paul breaking through the barrier of hostility between East and West—between Asia and Europe—and doing it with the boundary busting help of Lydia, who crossed that geographical barrier herself and who succeeded as a woman in a man’s world of big business.

This week, our story in Acts demonstrates how the Spirit breaks through the walls of hostility because people like the Apostle Paul refuse to run away from the good fight.

The first good fight for Paul is a tussle with a demon of two faces.

One face is the face of exploitation. Down by the riverside place of prayer there is a slave woman who was being cruelly used by her owners to make money.

She was a slave. She was property. She could be used in any way the owners desired.

Besides this she had a mental problem—but her problem could be used by her owners to enrich themselves. She acted strange, but her owners, instead of relieving her distress, convinced people she was possessed by the same kind of “python spirit” that was said to guard the great Oracle of Delphi in Greece. That’s where the rich and powerful and common folk alike flocked to get guidance for making tough decisions in life. “Save the trip to Delphi,” they would have told the credulent. Get your future and your fate told right here…for a price.”

Another dimension of her exploitation was that she was kept subservient by being called a girl. We can’t say whether this slave was young or old or middle aged. Actually, the form of the Greek word for “girl” that Acts uses here is only used for slave girls. It’s the same way whites in this country, whether we want to admit it or not, have called male blacks of any age “boy” to keep them in their place. Just like bell boys in hotels can be middle aged. Just like when you call for the “garçon” in a restaurant, you are calling him a “boy” no matter his age. You are demeaning—putting him in his place as your servant.

The second face of the demon is metaphysical. Are demons real? Are there spirits that have power over people? Did her owners believe this woman had supernatural powers? Did the customers? Did Paul? Did the author of Acts? In all practicality, things have power over us if we surrender to them. If we allow it. Superstitions work this way. Lady luck works this way. Following the idea of Martin Luther in the Catechism, whatever we give our fear, love, or trust–be it a real force, or a mere idea—has power over us.

So, down by the riverside, Paul had a good fight on his hands with both the demonic ways the slave owners used this woman, and with the ways people fear, love, or trust evil powers.

The woman followed Paul and his friends for days, crying out “These guys are slaves too—they are slaves of the Most High God. They proclaim a way of salvation.”

It annoyed Paul. Her outbursts drove people away and drowned out their message about life and salvation in Christ.

Now here is the breakthrough: Paul didn’t run away from the good fight. He didn’t strike out at this annoying woman. He didn’t hate. He didn’t attack the slave woman. He didn’t try to prove that the python spirit was fake. But he simply used the power of the name of Jesus. Speaking to the supernatural power he said, “I have a stronger power. I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And in that very hour it came out.

Now comes “Good Fight” number two: an even bigger and better fight.

You might say Paul was doing a good deed. You might say he was stopping this woman’s owners from exploiting her mental illness and ripping off their customers. You might say Paul was looking at her not as a slave-girl, but as a human being. You might say he was trying to love someone,

Do you remember what Martin Luther King preached in his last sermon? He had premonitions of his assassination, and he said, “At my funeral don’t mention my Nobel Peace Prize, or my hundreds of other awards. Say Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. Say Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”

What did MLK get for trying to love somebody?

Well the Apostle Paul got more of a good fight—the kind that is all too familiar today. The owner of this slave woman didn’t like their “girl” being cured. They had made money from her illness. So they used the social media of the day—they went to the town square and started screaming out their ignorant vitriol. “These guys are Jews,” they said. “These guys are trouble makers. They are spouting the kind of religion Rome doesn’t allow,” either lying, or just plain ignorant of the fact that Judaism, though a convenient whipping boy for many, was not officially outlawed by Rome.

The good fight gets hotter when the crowds of people turn into a mob—whipped up into a frenzy by these sour slave owners who miss their profits.

Then the poison of the mob spills over into the official government. The mob pressures the magistrates, and the magistrates, ignoring the laws of due process, have Paul and his friends stripped and beaten mercilessly by the police. By the way, the Greek word for police here means “guys who beat people with rods,” and that’s just what they do. And that too is familiar in our day when the “thin blue line” that is supposed to serve and protect by enforcing the law and deescalating tense situations too often gets carried away by raw emotion and uses those billy clubs and flash grenades indiscriminately.

The good fight then continues when a zealous warden dumps Paul and Silas and company, beaten and bleeding from their wounds, into the deepest and darkest part of the prison, and doubles down by clamping their legs in stocks.

Still Paul and Silas don’t run away from the good fight. No, Paul they don’t hate the enemy. Instead, they sing their prayers in hymns, and heaven answers with a earthquake. Suddenly the chains and stocks give way, and not only Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners in that dungeon have doors open and nothing hindering their escape.

Amazingly they still do not run away.

They don’t slink away in fright.

Nor do they turn from the fight through passive-aggressive vengefulness. They do not leave the jailer to face almost certain death himself as punishment for allowing so many prisoners to flee.

They stay. They baptize. They teach about Jesus. And the jailer and his household, some of whom may have already been Christians, celebrate the jailer’s conversion with a big meal with a bunch of former jailbirds.

If you read on beyond today’s lesson you see one more way Paul doesn’t run away from the good fight. The morning after all this drama the magistrates try to sweep their own criminality under the rug. They realized the trouble they would be in once their superiors learned about their gross breach of the law by allowing a public beating of Roman citizens who had not been duly convicted of anything. So they sent word to the jailer, and the jailer said to Paul and the other prisoners, “You guys are free to go in peace.” But Paul says, “Oh no. We’re not going along with this whitewash of injustice.” And because they didn’t run away from the good fight they got their public apology from the magistrates.

Jesus frees us to love our enemies. But Jesus also empowers us with the Holy Spirit to never run away from good fights—fights where walls of hostility can be broken down. When we try to love the exploited and demand respect for all people, we can easily get our teeth kicked in for our troubles. Thank God we can stand our ground and fight.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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