If you were to stand in Red Square and hold up a piece of white paper it would not be long before the Russian Police or the FSB turned up to drag you off the streets, throw you in the back of a wagon and get rid of you. If you were lucky you might be released. Many are not lucky. You will know that those who oppose President Putin’s ‘special operation’ in Ukraine face the prospect of 15 years in gaol for doing so publicly. Alexander Navalny, Mr Putin’s nemesis, has faced repeated attempts on his life and is currently in gaol – he, you remember, was the opposition leader who was poisoned but who then chose to return to Russia even though he knew the state would carry on attempting to silence him. Wherever you go in the world unpopular messages face violent responses. Who would dare cross the state in China or Hong Kong, in Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Iran?
And so it comes as no surprise in today’s reading that when Paul and Silas challenge the status quo, the accepted norms of Roman society, the Law swings against them. They are maltreated; stripped and beaten – publicly shamed – and thrown into gaol. Our lectionary concentrates on the ensuing earthquake and the conversion of their gaoler and his household. The climax of the story however, comes in the 5 verses that follow. Paul and Silas will go on to be publicly vindicated and the town magistrates shamed for attacking them. Their ordeal echoes that of their crucified Lord.
As the Holy Spirit continues to drive the gospel message out from Jerusalem our New Testament reading finds us in a new place. Paul and his companions have, till now, been preaching and teaching in Asia Minor. But here, in Philippi, they are in Greece. Paul and his companions have met with opposition to their ministry – but so far, that opposition has come from Jewish opponents who seem to have followed their missionary journey and caused trouble for them in the synagogues where they have sought to teach. In Philippi however something new happens. The opposition they meet is not from within Judaism but from the agents of the Roman Empire. Paul’s run in with the ‘owners’ (yes, we’re in a world where slavery was the norm) ..the owners of this psychic slave girl is the first time the claims of the gospel rub up against the Empire. He, Paul, possibly for all the wrong reasons (annoyance more than anything) has undermined the economic worth of this slave girl…and he can’t be allowed to rock the boat in this way.
I find it interesting that this account began with St Luke introducing himself to the story. Last week we saw that his ‘Book of Acts’ shifted from being told in the third person (‘he/they ‘did this) and started to be written in the first-person plural: ‘we set sail from Troas…and arrived in Philippi’. And yet Luke isn’t thrown into gaol….why not, where is he? We’ll never know. Perhaps Paul and Silas were in the city alone…and were then lifted off the streets. Imagine that. It will have happened to many since. Friends, family, not knowing where their loved ones are…and then finding that they are in custody. Or perhaps, when the knock on the door came to arrest the Christians the magistrates decided to ‘make do’ with taking the ring leaders but left Luke behind. Or maybe Luke simply laid low, kept his head down, avoided suspicion. There are Christians across the world who must make decisions about what to do in the face of persecution daily – how far above the parapet they can stick their heads.
And what was the problem with healing the slave girl anyhow? Money: the love of which is the root of all evil, loss of income – no-one is going to take that lying down. But the accusation levelled against Paul and Silas is political, not economic. ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews, and they are advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to adopt or observe’. The economic argument could easily be dismissed, springing from such self-evident self-interest. But the political accusation? That was different.
Bishop Tom Wright has written extensively about the nature of religion in the Roman Empire. The Romans could accommodate most of the weird and wonderful cults that existed in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century. The further east you went from Rome the stranger these cults became in their eyes. The gods of Egypt were particularly odd and if you headed into regions of the world conquered by Alexander the Great cults became even more esoteric. The key thing for Rome however was that all religion could be tolerated provided the Emperor’s cult was observed: and as most people had no problem with the idea of their being ‘many gods’ and regarded religious practice as something akin to civic duty rather than ‘personal faith’ all was well provided you didn’t rock the boat.
The Jews however were a different kettle of fish. Their strict (violently strict) belief in there being only one God caused Rome such problems down the years that, of all the empire’s peoples, they were allowed to be an exception to the rule. The Jews would be kept under a particularly watchful eye by Roman Governors but they would not be expected to yield to the Imperial cult. Peace in Israel was preferable to ongoing insurrection – at least it was until AD67 when the Jewish rebellion against Rome brought about the destruction of the temple.
So back to the accusations levelled against Paul and Silas: ‘they are Jews’ say their accusers…but they are a different sort of Jew. Distinctions are being made here: there is something different about them and the Philippian authorities have noticed it. They are advocating unlawful, un-Roman customs.
The way Luke writes his account is very much geared towards making the case for the Christian faith in Rome. This is the place where his Acts of the Apostles will eventually end: Paul about to bring the gospel to the heart of the Empire. Luke ends this chapter with the missionaries being set free and treated with respect: he wants his readers to see that they are declared innocent by Roman magistrates. He wants citizens of the empire who read his work to believe that the new faith can live harmoniously within the empire. But he is wrong isn’t he? Christianity and Empire can’t live together: Mr Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church have yet to learn this in the same way that National Socialism and the German Lutheran church needed to part ways. Christians cannot serve two masters.
These Philippian magistrates have unwittingly realised the danger that Christian faith poses to authoritarian power. For how can a faith that declares ‘Jesus is Lord’ be consonant with an Empire that believes Caesar is god? Quite simply, it can’t. One or the other must come out on top.
Those folk who hold up a sheet of white paper in Red Square? Their actions seem harmless enough but they are actually a threat to a leader who demands unquestioning allegiance from his people. Opposition cannot be tolerated. There is no discussion. There is no alternative way of being. An alternative suggests that the current situation is wrong…and that cannot be. Any sign of thinking differently must be snuffed out and removed. Paul and Silas have been declaring the gospel and proclaiming a new King and kingdom – of course they are a threat.
People of faith have greater allegiances than to the state. This tradition stretches back 3000 years and more to the midwives in the book of Exodus who refused Pharoah’s command to commit infanticide against the Hebrew’s children. We always answer to a different Lord. We live in a different kingdom that operates under different rules. And when the chips are down? Well …what? Knuckle under, or civil disobedience? Not so easy in 21st century Britain…but just imagine the hardships of fellow Christians living under strict Islamic rules…or in Myanmar…or facing Hindu nationalist fervour in India. Paul and Silas suffered but lived….this time. Not all do. But there is more than one earthquake in this passage: as the years pass, the gospel will shake the Empire to its core… it always has and always will.
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