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First Impressions: Acts 16:16-34

May 11, 2010

I have been preaching from Acts since the Third Sunday of Easter, and I’ll continue through Pentecost.  This week, we get the second half of Paul’s and Silas’ trip to Philippi (Acts 16:16-34), which follows immediately after last week’s text.  The most evident connection between the two stories is that both scripture lessons culminate with the conversion and baptism of an entire household.  Please note that both baptisms occur after only a few hours of teaching rather than after endless months or years of catechism.  Paul was ready to baptize immediately.  What factors have caused us to institutionalize the power out of this moment of decision?

16:16-18 There is no sense in this paragraph that Paul exorcised the spirit out of compassion for the girl.  Paul seemed merely annoyed.  Nevertheless, the girl and the exorcism prove pivotal for the following events.

M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock suggest that Luke is intentionally contrasting the Roman Emperor with Jesus in this encounter.  They write that for the girl, the “Most High God” is Zeus, and that the Emperor provides “salvation” in the form of stability, peace and prosperity of the Empire.  For Paul, the Most High God is Yahweh, who shares salvation with the entire world through Jesus Christ (The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 424-5.).

16:19-24 Boring’s and Craddock’s contrast between Rome and Christ as a description of Luke’s intention gives these verses added weight.  It is not only the individual owners of the slave-girl who are upset, but Paul and Silas are bringing a competing claim of “lordship” to this Roman colony.  Such claims over and against the status quo are rarely well accepted, and so the people of Philippi join in the condemnation of the evangelists.

A sermon could explore the competing claims in our lives.  In our complex society, there are rarely only two claimants to our devotions.    We have—among others—family, state, social standing, work and leisure activity to pull us this way and that.  By this, I do not mean that the preacher rails against kids’ soccer games that interfere with Sunday worship.  The issue is deeper than that.  Where do we truly look for our salvation and for wholeness in life?  In fact, what does salvation really mean?  How do we define it?  Who or what is Lord?

16:25-28 The preacher could discuss the reaction of Paul and Silas to their imprisonment.  There is a sense of calm and confidence to their behavior that speaks to a trust in God despite the circumstances.  That peace seemed to rub off on the other prisoners since none of them took the opportunity to escape once the doors were shaken open.  That could also be contrasted with the panic of the guard who was ready to kill himself the moment he believed the prisoners had run away.  Most of us will experience traumatic difficulty in our lives.  How do we want to react?  We must be prepared to behave as we believe we should.  How do we prepare?

16:29-34 The jailer could have closed the doors on the prisoners, relieved at his good fortune.  Instead, he aided in the “escape” by bringing Paul and Silas to his home.  Like Lydia the week before, he shared hospitality with them before he and his household were baptized.  Lydia and the jailer believed, but their entire households were baptized.  Certainly, this represents a practice of a former age, but it also speaks to the nature of faith, that is not simply personal, but has an effect on others.  Would anyone be tempted to submit to the waters of baptism because of my belief?  What is my life saying about my trust in God?

I am tempted to complete the story by including verses 35-40, which are not part of the Lectionary.  In them, we learn the final disposition of Paul and Silas after their arrest, how the jailer finally got off the hook, and how the evangelists leave Lydia and the others.

Are you preaching this text?  What themes are you considering?

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