Our Sacred Story this week comes from Acts 16:16-34. Read the full text here.
Y’all are going to get real tired of hearing about my trip to Turkey and Greece, but there were too many revelations for me not to share. Early on in the trip, we came to the Greek city of Philippi where this story happened. We’re walking around ancient temples, overlooking a large forum, headed down to a section of the imperial Roman road, when we come to a little stone alcove. Tucked into the side of the hill there were these fragments of red primitive bricks cobbled together into arches and walls. The entrance is blocked by a gate but there’s a little sign there that labels this cave-like crevice as the prison cell where Paul and Silas were kept. I go crazy snapping away with my camera when over my shoulder I hear the tour guide announce that this isn’t actually a jail. It’s just an old Roman bath…but now I have awesome pictures of an old Roman bath.
Even though the structure may not be genuine, the significance of the site is no less. Everywhere we went, it was made more and more apparent that what Paul and the apostles were saying and doing…wasn’t happening in a vacuum. Their words and actions don’t take place in an abstract fantasy world, or a kind of biblical movie set. Paul was rubbing elbows with actual local business owners in the public market and speaking to the crowds on the steps of city hall. The message they carried about the Gospel, the Good News that God has saved the whole world, flies directly in the face of the empire which proclaims that Augustus Caesar (and the socio-political-economic system that he has created) has saved the whole world. And this concept of Caesar wasn’t just in people’s heads; it wasn’t just a sort of general understanding.
Savior of the World was the title of Caesar, and is inscribed in stone. One inscription reads that “Providence … has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order.” This is the leader of the free world. This is the world Christ is born into. This is the imperial power that Paul is up against. This is why followers of the Way, what we would eventually call Christians, keep ending up in jail.
True Christianity will always be criminalized by empire because it asserts that there is a higher authority than those holding office and even those people and things that are worshiped as practical saviors. This kind of Christianity is not just the “I attend worship and you can find a bible among my possessions” Christianity. It is living faith, a resurrection life that causes us to join Jesus in the work of “setting the prisoners free.” People need freedom from all kinds of things: addiction, greed, shame, perfection, even incarceration.
Just as Paul’s story does not exist in the abstract, it doesn’t land on our ears in the abstract. When you and I hear the word prison, we hear it in a country that has the second highest incarceration rate in the world – higher than Cuba, China, and Russia. And we hear it in a country that can not talk about imprisonment without considering the role of race, where ”in 2016, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population.” Are black people really more likely to be criminals? No!
What this biblical text shows us is that the thing that’s REALLY supposed to be dangerous is Christianity. Christians are dangerous; they are a threat… to the status quo. Not just by insisting that we have more prayer in public schools or that radio dj’s say merry Christmas rather than happy holidays, but because Christians are the rabble rousers who insist that people be treated with the God-given dignity that society and systems deny them. They disrupt unjust supply chains that keep CEO’s in excess while their employees are paid less than a livable wages and survive on food stamps. Jesus talked back to religious and political authorities and it got him executed by the state. Only one of the apostles (the early church leaders) dies of old age, the rest are martyred. This is not a call to anarchy, but as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to fellow clergy who were white….from behind Birmingham bars…” One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Paul and Silas are just a couple of the faithful folks practicing civil disobedience across the eons. We see it again and again, from black students walking into a white’s only Woolworth lunch counter, to today’s students walking out on the epidemic of gun violence. The people of God have practiced civil disobedience for millennia. Remember the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and saved the Jewish infants rather than kill them, babies like Moses? Y’ALL, we who live in the tradition of Martin Luther are PROTESTANTS, protest is literally our name.
The message Christians carry is a danger to the idolatry that props up ultimate hope and salvation in anything other God, our creator.
What if Christians were seen as suspect and policed harshly? What if someone saw two people with crosses on their neck, sitting a little too long at a table in starbucks? They’re probably here to mess up our business like that other one...Paul. What if someone saw you praying and it made them scared and so you get shot?...if this was the situation in our country, we would think it impossible to deny the bias and systematic oppression against a particular population.
This is why we care about who goes to jail and not forgetting them when they’re there. Because they are children of God, and we know that we deserve a place right next to them. But the promise of liberation is not just for noble freedom fighters. It is also for thieves like the ones Jesus found himself hanging beside on the cross. It is for those imprisoned mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The gospel means that liberation is also for the jailers, those complicit in injustice. It is liberation for the jailers AND all their people – their families, their culture, their society. The gospel shifts our sense of security and hope, our faith and belief from governments and systems, a hamster wheel of consumption that will imprison and enslave us all…to God and God’s kingdom which will not disappoint. Cleanses and heals us in the waters of baptism. And Invites us to a feast of rejoicing together. Amen.