s166a01 Somerton Park 27/5/01 Easter 7 Sunday after the Ascension
"a slave girl who ... brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune telling ..." Acts 16.16
The incidents described in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning are typical of real life. They bring to our attention issues of slavery, freedom and profit. This girl, who obviously had some form of talent (even if it were only in deception of the gullible) was enslaved by others. And it is not unknown today that people with gifts are used by others for profit. Singers and actors can often be enslaved by their talents, used by others and essentially unable to live a "normal" life, whatever a "normal" life actually is. I recently heard the Rev'd Dr Phillip Tolliday talk to a Mothers' Union Deanery Festival about the seductiveness of abuse. He spoke of how "ordinary" people crave to be extra-ordinary, and how those who are extra-ordinary crave to be ordinary and anonymous. We are indeed perverse creatures :-)
But whatever gift this girl had, she was able to perceive that Paul and his companions were different. She proclaimed Paul and his companions "slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation". What a wonderful evangelist she made!
Here we have another variation on the more well-known contrasting statements by Jesus: "Jesus said to him, "Do not stop (the strange exorcist); for whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:50). and: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Luke 11:23).
Paul was annoyed by this slave girl and her proclamation, and I wonder why? I suspect that Paul recognises the compulsion under which the girl was speaking. She was slave, not just to her human masters, but a slave also of the spirit. Paul knew that this spirit of compulsion was nothing like the freedom of life God wants for us all. He reacts, I suspect to being described as a SLAVE. He knows that he is a free person, choosing to do as he did out of love. No one benefits from Paul's service, even God. His slavery to God, and this girl's slavery to this spirit were totally different.
I think that it is instructive that the girl is not recruited into Paul's entourage. She needed to be set free, to not just change one set of masters for another set, even if Paul and the others were much more likely to treat her respectfully and not profit from her vocal proclamation. She is allowed to go unhindered - to experience - probably for the first time in her life - real freedom.
In a ironic twist of fate, it was not others who listened to her proclamation about Paul and his companions who were freed of their slavery but she herself. It was she who was able to be freed both of her gift and hence of her use to her masters. And I guess it is instructive that the proclamation when directed exclusively towards others and not to oneself is likely to be misdirected.
The owners of the girl, hardly surprisingly, are annoyed that their power over the girl is no longer profitable for them. Again, hardly surprisingly, they transfer their malevolent attention to Paul and his companions, dragging them before the authorities and getting them enslaved in prison. True bullies these.
In prison, we have the gaoler, a man who makes his money in the socially acceptable task of incarcerating the less socially acceptable. But after the earthquake, he is freed, along with all his household as well as Paul.
God is not in the business of enslaving others, of one person exercising power over others. For the Most High God doesn't need to do this. God is the Lord of the whole creation.
Salvation is then something which intrinsically frees us from domination, from people who profit from us.
Despite the words of St Paul in 1 Cor 12.3, 3 "No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit." not everyone who says "Jesus is Lord" is free. They can be enslaved by spirits other than God's Holy Spirit, and despite the orthodoxy of their proclamation, for them the service of God is not "perfect freedom" but just another form of restraint. And one of the first signs that this might be true is where the person feels under a sense of compulsion, where they are not able to question, where they are not allowed to use their God-given reason - where there is actually no question that someone could actually say: "No!".
So again the Cross is not the ultimate carrot / stick to get others to say and do the right thing. If God wanted suitably compliant automatons, God could have quite easily made us all like that from the beginning.
And I wonder at the slave girl's ability to walk away, to begin to live her life truly freely, for slavery can be comfortable. The liberation of women from traditional roles has for some brought confusion and fear of the expectations of more liberated sisters beyond the capacity of everyone to realise.
And indeed myself also. I guess I am a slave to tradition and expectations as much as anyone else. It is not that I have fantasies to commit bizarre crimes, but I hope that I am accepting of others who differ from me.
What has all this to do with the Sunday after the Ascension? I don't suppose I am really qualified to answer that with any surety! The framers of the Revised Common Lectionary are as inscrutable as God :-)
However ... Jesus is ascended to the Father, that is what we remembered last Thursday. We are alone. Jesus is not with us, directing us in the way we should go, forever holding our hand qas we travel through life. We are free. And the Spirit which was outpoured on the apostles, which we remember next week, retains that freedom. We are not compelled or constrained to do anything by the Holy Spirit of God.
We are, as we will find, gently brought to understand and brought to others by the leading of the Spirit.
Or the Spirit constrains us not to exercise our freedom by enslaving others, but on the contrary to exercise our freedom to allow others to exercise their freedom as well as us.
For being truly free is something which will impress itself on others without force. It is something that cannot be hidden.
Again, I am reminded of that lovely description of the Narnians in Calormen, in C. S. Lewis's "A Horse and his Boy" (p52): " .. Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked free with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn't give a fig for anyone who wasn't. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life." I found it interesting and encouraging that in Bali, Catherine and I were immediately recognised as Australians by our appearance and happy demeanour - even before we opened our mouths :-) I thoroughly agree that we're a "weird mob", but there could be a lot worse things for which to be noted.
We do not look to others to become Christians, to become "bums on pews", for our own benefit or magnification, or the benefit or magnification of the Church. We are not looking to direct people in how they should appropriately live their lives, telling them what they should or should not do. We want to encourage people to come here because they are ordinary sinners just like us, to be welcomed by God as they are, not as we think that they ought to be, to hear the word and be nourished by the sacrament, and to use their brains to accept what is helpful to them at the time and to quietly put aside what might not be helpful ... We want people to be here because they have found something of the liberation of the Spirit for themselves and wish to celebrate and share this with others.
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