This week, I explored the relationship between the Acts lesson and the gospel lesson, and why they might have been selected to be read together.
20[Jesus said,] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I 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.
24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our gracious God, through the risen and uniting Christ. Amen.
This passage from John’s gospel today is the end of what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, his lengthy speech to his disciples at the Last Supper. Here in particular, Jesus prays that his followers would all be one.
How well has that hope gone?
How many times have you been asked, or perhaps heard someone asking, “why should I be a part of this church thing if y’all can’t even get along?”
A fair question.
It’s one that drives our ecumenical dialogues and our interfaith efforts in the Lutheran church. However, I’m seeing a subtle but interesting reflection of “that they may all be one” in the Acts reading today – not in the baptism of the jailer so much as what we don’t know about what ultimately happens to the slave girl.
16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
This episode with the slave girl is, perhaps, not one of Paul’s finer moments. Here he and his colleagues are basically getting free advertising and his response is annoyance. Paul has discerned that this is coming from a dark spirit and commands it to come out of the slave girl, which it does.
Paul and Silas are called to account, because the girl’s owners have lost one of their sources of income.
Yet we never hear about what happens to the slave girl.
Now I suppose we could wave that aside, saying “well you know patriarchal society, likely male writers of the book” and so on. And those are truths about the context here. But they aren’t any reason to stop asking “what happened to the slave girl? How do we see her character echoed in our lives today?”
I think this is an intriguing part of this lesson, and may provide a clue as to why it’s paired with THIS particular gospel passage.
“That they may they all be one” is Jesus’ prayer. Still, this Acts story tells us how societal structures and systems can stand in the way of realizing the fullness of Jesus’ prayer and God’s intent for the world.
Societal structures like that of slavery and class divisions.
Societal systems like those of patriarchy, power and privilege.
And considering this story within those contextual realities gives us a way to think what may have happened to this girl next.
She was a slave. Was it only for her so-called divination powers? If so, when she is freed from that particular spirit, was she also freed from slavery?
If so, did she have a family to return to?
If not, what options, if any, did she have?
I think this is where Paul falls short in this story. His is a human character that is ever-evolving, like all of us. But to have no apparent concern for this girl after he gets rid of the irritating spirit is something that he is able to do by virtue of his power and privilege.
That said – I don’t think that his eventual imprisonment with Silas is “payback” for his treatment of the slave girl. Rather, it’s a way this Acts story illustrates an interesting embodiment of Jesus’ prayer “that they all be one.”
For indeed here Paul has found himself literally bound – enslaved – by the power structure of Rome, shackled in a prison cell with Silas. And while they are praying and singing, the earthquake occurs and shakes the foundation of the prison so that all the cell doors open and their shackles come undone.
And then we have another subtle picture of the impact of power structures. The “Pax Romana” or Roman peace wasn’t something that that happened because all the planets were aligned and folks were in a first-century version of the Age of Aquarius. No, it was maintained at the end of a weapon. This jailer, as the fool of a potential jailbreak, would face horrific punishment from Rome. But Paul and Silas realize that he is a human being, like them, and they call out to not harm himself. They are still there.
We know how the rest of the story goes; the jailer and his family are baptized and share a meal with Paul and Silas. The end of this story reveals that Paul and Silas are actually Roman citizens, and Paul speaks truth to power by insisting on an apology from the magistrates who threw them in jail. And that apology is received, and they move on.
But what of the slave girl?
I’d like to think that at some point, she might have encountered that community of others who had also experienced a kind of ‘setting free’ once they knew themselves embraced and empowered by the love, the forgiveness, the hope that was theirs as they followed the Crucified and Risen One.
But we don’t know.
And so I look at her very brief cameo appearance here, and I believe it is paired with this gospel to remind us that we are all one. Jesus’ prayer has, in a way, been realized before he even prayed it. The interconnectedness of life on this earth means that decisions made on one side of the planet have the potential to impact life on the other side. We talk about the human family; this slave girl was as much a part of the human family as was Paul.
And so if we are all one, then perhaps the subtext of Jesus’ prayer is that we will continue to live into that state of being. That we will look for the ones who are forgotten, like this slave girl, not even worthy of so much as a footnote.
In our Acts story last week, we heard about another woman – Lydia, the seller of purple cloth. She merited a better writeup than did this nameless slave girl; before Paul and Silas headed out of town they returned to Lydia’s house. That alone – one woman with a name, the other without – says so much about who was considered in and who was out.
Is Jesus’ prayer that we will recognize these inequities, and call them out, and work to reverse and correct them? That we will become one with these folks in the suffering they experience because of that inequity?
While prayer and worship can lead to the loosening of shackles that are physically visible, what happens when we – or others, for that matter – remain bound in ways that are not readily apparent? What if the prison break story isn’t about Paul and Silas? (Although in our superhero world, we sure do like a hero.)
What if the prison break is teaching us that liberation is a communal act? Recall that everyone’s chains were broken, not a select few. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer declared: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our collective liberation requires that we first acknowledge our connectedness. In Africa, the word is ubuntu – I am because you are. I am able to walk through my grief because you are walking with me. I am honored to celebrate your accomplishments because you are a part of my community.
If freedom is the removal of a hindrance and making the path clear – then perhaps liberation is an extension of this, and is the ability to live into that freedom. The impediments of social structures that are designed to limit and take away freedoms result in a world where the capacity for justice and peace is diminished.
As a result, if Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is to be realized, then we have a part to play as well. God’s beloved community must work to make the path clear, to remove the obstacles, to remember the enslaved girl as clearly as we remember Paul and Silas. Ultimately, our liberation is connected to her freedom.
What about the role of the church in all of this? How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or – any of the innumerable things that hold us in bondage, as our confession and forgiveness reminds us. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves; it is God in Christ who frees.
The story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.
As we consider Jesus’ words, his call to unity in our gospel story this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions – in the big, headline-worthy summit meetings – but rather in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free.
Perhaps this unity is one of action and of love, lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom.
Lived out for the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved.
And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, too.
How will you write the ending of the story of the slave girl?
How will you write the ending of the story of all those in our day who are unseen, cast aside, marginalized?
Our movement into God’s future will write the ending, in all our varied ways. For that is how the world will know that God has sent Jesus, and that God has loved the whole world. By our love in Christ for one another, and for the world.