Sermon: Disturbing Our City

Paul and Silas disturbed the city of Philippi when the power of the gospel interfered with business.  Shouldn’t our gospel disturb the city today?

Sermon: Disturbing Our City — Acts 16:16-34 NRSV

16:16 One 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.

16:17 While 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.”

16:18 She 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.

16:19 But 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.

16:20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews

16:21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

16:22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

16:23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.

16:24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

16:26 Suddenly 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.

16:27 When 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.

16:28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

16:29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.

16:30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

16:31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

16:32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.

16:33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.

16:34 He 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.

The Story From A Familiar Angle

Here’s a familiar story from the book of Acts.  Paul and Silas were in Philippi, and had been there for some time.  They are going to the place of prayer one day, and are again followed by a slave girl, who apparently has a spirit of divination.  She had been following Paul and Silas around Philippi for several days, proclaiming —

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

Now as much as Paul and Silas needed some help with advertising, this was not what they had in mind.  Paul became tired of the girl’s incessant outbursts and ordered the spirit to come out of the girl.  Luke’s account said the spirit came out that very hour — which is a biblical way of saying “immediately.”

Now all of that would have been fine, except that this slave-girl was being used by some unscrupulous business men to make money.  We don’t know exactly how it worked, but the scheme must have involved the slave girl telling fortunes, or offering some profound insight or advice to their customers, who in turn paid for the special revelation.

Well, when her owners realized that “their hope of making money was gone,”  they had Paul and Silas arrested, saying, “These men are disturbing our city…”

Usually in this story, we focus on what happens next because its a pretty good story.  Paul and Silas are arrested, placed in prison, and shackled to the cells.  About midnight an earthquake shakes open the jail’s doors, including all the cell, and breaks the chains that bind them.

The jailer, assuming that all the prisoners have escaped, is about to take his own life because keeping prisoners in prison is his job.  But Paul calls our for him not to harm himself, and says, “We’re all here.”

The jailer grabs a light, rushes into their cell, and finds that Paul is telling the truth.  Breathlessly, the jailer asks, “Sir, what must I do to be saved?”  I believe the jailer understands something divine has taken place, and he wants to know how he can be saved either from the wrath of the emperor when the news gets out that the jail is useless, or from this divine presence that has opened the doors and broken the chains.

Either way, the jailer knows he’s in big trouble, and wants to know how he can be saved in this situation.  Paul gives him an answer he doesn’t expect — “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your household.”

The jailer and his family do believe and they are baptized, and tend to Paul and Silas’ injuries.  This is really one of the great stories of the book of Acts.

And we’ve looked at this story before.  As a matter of fact, this is the text I preached on the Sunday you voted to call us here to Chatham.  You may not remember that, but I do.  So, we have looked at the story with a focus on the Philippian jailer’s conversion.

But today, I want us to look at the first part of the story.  The part where the citizens of Philippi bring Paul and Silas to the magistrate with the complaint, “These men are disturbing our city.”

When The Gospel Disturbs a City

Here is a great example of the power of the gospel disturbing a city.  When Paul cast the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, and her handlers saw that their hope of making money was gone, they were furious.  Who were these Jews who dared to interfere with one of the primary means of making money in the city of Philippi?

Notice that this is not a dispute over doctrine.  There is no theological discussion here.  This is a simple case of economics.  The application of the gospel — casting out the evil spirit — has had economic consequences.

This slave-girl had been following Paul and Silas around for days.  It is obvious that Paul did not cast the spirit out the first time the slave-girl met them, and called out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

Nor did he cast the spirit out of her the second day, or maybe even the third.  But Luke says Paul was “very annoyed” — I think he was just plain tired of the hassle — and he turned and commanded the spirit to come out of the girl.  Without giving a moment’s thought to what her owners might say.

And what they said was, “You’ve just taken away our livelihood.  You’re interfering with our business.  We paid good money for this girl, we paid top dollar for her, primarily because she could do this trick of telling people things they want to know about the future.  Now you’ve ruined our business!”

Or words to that effect.  The city of Philippi was disturbed that day because these two Jews, these two followers of Jesus, “are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

Which was a bald-faced lie, but sounded good in court.  “They’re trying to ruin our traditions” is a good way to put this.  People don’t like to have their traditions trampled on.  The best way to get folks really riled up is to accuse someone of trying to dismantle or change a meaningful tradition.  But there it was, the excuse for arresting, beating, and jailing Paul and Silas.

The gospel disturbed the city because it threatened the way of life in Philippi.

A History of Gospel Disturbances

But the nature of the gospel is to disturb the status quo, to challenge the traditions, to call our mindless practices into question.  And if Christians do this, it’s only because they’re following the lead of their Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jesus disturbed the religious leaders of his day by challenging their traditions.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Or to put it another way, “Tradition says it’s this way, but I’m telling you it really should be just the opposite.”

When followers of Jesus challenge the incumbent traditions, there is always trouble.  Of course, that begins with Jesus, as I just said.  But it continued with the apostles themselves.  God gave Peter the vision that he could eat anything, which meant that the story of Jesus wasn’t meant just for the Jews who were ceremonially clean, but it was meant for the Gentiles, too, who didn’t even observe the Jewish dietary laws.  Peter challenged the tradition when he befriended Cornelius and led him to faith in Christ.

But, historically, Christians have often challenged tradition with the gospel message.  From the time of Nero during Paul’s lifetime, until the rule Constantine almost 250 years later, Christians lived their lives in contrast to the Roman empire.  They refused to bow down to the emperor, and they refused to worship the emperor, and for that they were persecuted and killed.  The book of Revelation is about that persecution of the saints of God by the great harlot, Rome.

But even after the Roman empire and the church became entwined with each other, there were still followers of Jesus who challenged the status quo.  And many paid with their lives for doing so.

By the time the Church of England breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church, and composes its 39 Articles, the Anglican statements not directed at the Roman Catholic Church are directed in opposition to the Anabaptists who wanted to be free from the institution of the state church to worship God as they saw fit.

But, the political scene is not the only tradition that followers of Jesus have challenged, and by doing so, created disturbances.  In the great Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century, the revival interfered with the vast coal mining operations.  The burrows that were used to haul ore out of the coal mines were so accustomed to the miners swearing at them, that when the Welsh miners got saved and quit swearing, the  burrows quit working until the miners could teach them new commands that didn’t include cursing.

When The Gospel Fails To Disturb The City, Something is Wrong

But, there are instances when the gospel, or at least a version of it, has failed to disturb the city and society at large.  When that happens, when society as a whole is confirmed in its traditions by the gospel, something is usually wrong.

Mark Noll, the preeminent historian of evangelicals who teaches at Notre Dame, gave a series of lectures titled, “The Civil War As Theological Crisis.”  Those lectures were later bound together in a book which I just finished reading.

Noll points out that in the decades when slavery was allowed in the United States, that pulpits in both the South and the North justified the “peculiar institution” of slavery from the Bible.

Preachers both North and South, and at least one Jewish rabbi, preached that the Bible contained instances of slave ownership, that the Bible did not forbid the practice of slavery, and that Paul had admonished slaves to be obedient to their masters.  Of course, the entire economy of the South was dependent upon free labor to grow both cotton and tobacco.  And the textile mills in the North needed the cotton produced in the South to make fabric and garments.  It was an economic marriage, which rested on the institution of slavery.

When abolitionists countered those passages with their own passages about loving one’s neighbor, and treating others as you want to be treated, and so on, the preachers came at the problem a different way.  Africans, and other primitive people, weren’t fully human, they argued.  These savages were ruled by their emotions, not their intellect, and so were inferior to the white Europeans who had conquered the New World, and were making it work for them.  Inferior races deserved, no, must be subservient to their superiors.

Whites in the North and the South preached and believed a gospel that reinforced, rather then challenged, their way of life.  Why?  Because money and tradition were involved.

Listen to what Mark Noll says, “If no higher religious authority existed than the private interpretation of Scripture, then a major problem existed whenever there arose a deadlock that was caused by conflicting interpretations of the Bible.”

In other words, interpreting the Bible to fit my life, rather than adjusting my life to fit the Bible is a problem because then the Bible loses all its impact on society.

That’s why the Gospel disturbs cities, and towns, and governments, and businesses, and universities, and yes, even churches.  Because the inherent nature of the gospel message is that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.  And “abundant life” is not like we’re living it now, or there would have been no reason for Jesus to come.

Does Our Gospel Disturb Our City?

Okay, here’s where I’m going with this.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Does our gospel disturb our city?”  If the answer is No, then there are one of two answers.

1.  Either everyone is living the values of the Kingdom of God, or

2. Our gospel has been subverted to support our lifestyle.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we’ve got to cause a ruckus in front of the courthouse.  But if we as Christians are not critiquing our culture, even our local culture here in Chatham, Pittsylvania County, and Danville, then something is wrong with our gospel.

Here’s an example:  In looking at some county statistics the other day, I noticed that Pittsylvania County has a higher number of fatal traffic accidents than the state average. (Scroll down the page of the statistics until you come to the graphs on fatal accidents.)  Some years the number of fatalities in Pittsylvania County is 4 times the state average.  Why is that?  Are those accidents the result of poor roads, lack of driver education, drug and alcohol abuse, or a failure to adequately train drivers?

One clue lies in the number of drunk drivers involved in fatal car accidents. In 2006, the last year for which data was posted, Pittsylvania County had 4 times as many drunk drivers involved in fatalities as the county average statewide.

It seems to me that a Christian ethic that says we should love our neighbors as ourselves calls on us to determine what factors lie behind those numbers, and seek to make our community a better place.  Which may mean challenging someone to do something about improved road safety, alcohol and drug abuse intervention, or whatever the cause may be.

That’s what the Gospel does.  The gospel says, We are God’s creation, placed in our communities to live kingdom values.  And if, while we are living our lives of relative privilege, there are others whose lives are endangered because they are poor, undereducated, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, we need to challenge our community to live up to the command of Christ to love one another.  Challenging those areas in which our community needs to do better, to improve for the health and safety of its citizens, is one way in which we care for our community’s soul, as well as the individual souls within our community.

The power of the gospel, both for individuals and for communities, is dynamic.  God can change things.  God wants to change things.  God tells us there is the possibility of changing things.  Which is why Jesus taught us to pray to our Heavenly Father, “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  If we pray it, we ought to practice it; and if we practice it, the gospel will disturb our city.

The Gospel disturbed Philippi because it challenged the basis on which they lived their lives.  The Gospel challenged the very gods of Philippi, and silenced them in a display of the power of the true God.  The gospel is not good news if we bend it to reinforce our own way of life, our own prejudices, for our own benefit.  The Gospel is only the gospel when we free it to critique modern culture, including ours, and disturb our city.