Wednesday, June 5, 2019

For Love Of The Status Quo

Have you ever heard the story about the people who used religion as a poorly veiled excuse for their campaign against those who threatened their power, wealth, and security? Yeah, who hasn't?

In Acts 16, we read a remarkable story about power. A slave-girl, kept by her owners because she has the unholy gift of divination--the ability to communicate with spirits and tell fortunes--has the power to recognize Paul and his companions for who they really are, servants of the Most High God. The identification "Most High God" is the Bible's way of letting us know that someone outside the spiritual family of Israel is talking about Israel's God. How remarkable that this slave-girl, whose spiritual gift is itself prohibited as fundamentally contrary to the ways of God's people, is able to use that gift to see something true about God and God's servants!

As if compelled by the greater power of the Holy Spirit that fills Paul and his companions, the slave-girl follows them around for days, calling out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!" The slave-girl, slave of an unholy spirit, proclaimed the truth about those who were slaves of God's Holy Spirit. But Paul was annoyed. Wouldn't you be annoyed if someone followed you around for days, yelling about who you were and what you did? So Paul, spun around and snapped at the girl's spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!" And the spirit, overpowered by the Spirit within Paul, left her at that hour. Did anyone doubt who was really in control?

But the story doesn't end there. As soon as the owners of the slave-girl realized that they had lost their hope of making money, they stirred up trouble among the magistrates: "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The accusation had all the right components: an appeal to ethnic distinctions, the presumed violation of beloved customs, a reminder of the crowd's national identity and obligations, and a nondescript reference to the outsiders' trouble-making. The crowd didn't need to hear the details. They didn't need to know the truth. Having been whipped up by the disgruntled slave-girl owners, the mob joined in attacking them, stripping off their clothes, beating them with rods, throwing them in prison, and locking their feet in stocks.

The story of Acts is the story of how God's Holy Spirit enables the apostles to carry the name of Jesus to the ends of the world. Faced with threat of persecution, imprisonment, and death, the apostles succeed in spreading the good news of salvation because the Holy Spirit is with them. That's why the apostles' imprisonment isn't the end of the story either. Falsely accused, imprisoned because of their unwavering faith in the One whose Spirit is more powerful than the spirit of divination, the spirit of wealth-gaining, that motivated the angry mob, the Holy Spirit comes to the apostles by way of an earthquake, opening the gates of the prison, and breaking loose the stocks. God came to set these slaves of the Holy Spirit free from the chains of the world's empire. And, once set free, the apostles did not run out but remained and used God's dramatic intervention to share the promise of salvation with the jailer.

The apostles' bloodless victory over their opponents is a dramatic reminder of God's promised victory over the forces of selfishness, greed, and oppression that plague God's people, but for many that promised victory is sometimes further away that we would hope. Have you ever heard the story about the people who used religion as an excuse to attack the ones who would take away their wealth, their traditions, their power, their status quo? When has our own religion been the fuel to whip up an angry crowd into a murderous rage? The Crusades? The Inquisition? The fight for slavery? The fight for segregation? The lynch mobs that beat and hung and burned innocent black men and women and children in the public square or from whatever tree was convenient? What about modern inquisitions? The Crusades are our past, but what about the evil of Islamaphobia that is alive and well? We don't hang people for threatening our way of life anymore, but we keep them locked away in a cycle of incarceration or trapped at the border or locked in cages that leaves them as good as dead. We use religion to stigmatize abortion to the point where, instead of discussing the moral quandary or the public health issue, we whip up angry mobs who enact draconian laws so that individuals can maintain their position in the state legislature all in the name of Jesus.

In its infancy, the way of Jesus was a minority movement that sought to find a hold in the face of great oppression. The Acts of the Apostles gives hope to those who would carry the good news of Jesus into the lion's den. There are still those among us who risk everything they have for the sake of following Jesus. But most of us are citizens of the Empire who are trying to find our way into the kingdom of God. We're the children of Constantine as much as children of Abraham. Paul and his companions could never have dreamed of a day when those who used religion as an excuse to persecute others would be using Jesus' name for their cause. How will we become slaves of the Most High God, true followers of Jesus, when we're the ones who depend on the status quo?

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