June 23, 2024. Sermon Title: Joy in the Midst of Suffering

First Mennonite Church

June 23, 2024

Joy In the Midst of Suffering

Text: Acts 16:9-34

Here is, once again, a reminder about the purpose of Acts of the Apostles: it is Luke’s account of the continuation of Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel but through the apostles and the church. In Acts 16, there are three different cases where people were reached with the gospel.

In the city of Philippi, it seems Paul could not find a Jewish synagogue, therefore he had to go outside the city to find a “place of prayer” by the river. It seems that the practice of establishing a place for prayers by the river was a common thing for Jews who did not have a formal place of worship while in the diaspora. The practice seems to go centuries back, as when Israel was led into captivity in Babylon, according to Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (1-3).

So, Paul goes by the river and finds a group of women with whom he shares the gospel. Luke describes how the conversion of one of the women, Lydia, took place. “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” As Paul would later say, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17). (We will see a bit more on this at the end.)

Lydia receives the message and asks Paul to baptize her and her household. As evidence of her true conversion, she persuades Paul and his missionary team to stay at her house, which Paul does.

So, during those days that Paul is being hosted by Lydia, he continues to go to the river to speak the good news to those who might be there. But there was a problem. A slave girl/young woman who by the power of an evil spirit  predicts the future follows Paul and his companions shouting, ““These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you a way to be saved.” We wonder why it took Paul several days before he did something about the problem. But Luke states that the screaming behind Paul and his companions went for “many days.” One day, Paul could not hold his frustration anymore. He was just tired of this woman shouting behind him every day that he turned around and shut down the spirit of divination in the woman. “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to come out of her!” [and] At that moment the spirit left her. What he possibly did not know was that this woman was the source of income for her master. Her ability to predict the future was gone once liberated from the spirit.

This incident has many ramifications which we often do not pause to ponder on them. Luke says that this woman was a slave whose masters had her as a source of income. Did her parents sell her to this man? What happened to her once she was of no financial gain to her master? Did she become a follower of Christ? There are many more questions this incident triggers for which there are no answers.

The act of God’s power to free the woman from spiritual oppression was not received with awe, thanksgiving, or faith in God. Instead, it only aroused cultural resentment (bigotry if you will) and anger from the locals. When the owners of this woman realized that Paul’s action of casting out the spirit from her meant financial loss, they took matters into their own hands. They dragged Paul and Silas into the public square so that they could face the authorities. They accused Paul of being a danger to their culture, religion, and financial stability, all that because he was a Jew whose goal was to “throw our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

Thus, without due process, Paul and Silas were stripped of their clothes and beaten with rods. The magistrates then ordered they be thrown into a maximum-security prison. There with wounds open and bleeding in the humid dark dungeon, with their feet in the stock and hands chained to the wall, Paul and Silas sang praises to God. Instead of boiling resentment, yelling in protest, or doubting the wisdom of liberating the slave woman from the evil spirit, they glorified God for giving them the privilege of suffering for the Lord. Luke says they sang praises to the Lord, while the other prisoners listened.

What follows is quite different from the way God had freed his servants from prison. Early on, Luke had reported of the release of Peter twice by God’s angels coming to the rescue (Acts 5; 12). This time, while Paul and Silas were singing at midnight, a powerful earthquake took place, shaking more than just the ground but also the very foundations of the world’s powers. Amazingly, the earthquake did not trap or crush the prisoners under rubble but freed them from their chains and the stock. And yes, although when freed from their bounds, Paul and Silas did not walk away or escape. They remained inside because the jailer needed to be freed from his own spiritual prison. When the jailor found that the prison doors were flung open, his thought was to end his life by suicide, which according to Roman honor was the cost for failure of duty. But Paul stopped him from doing so. “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here,” Paul cried out. Although it is not clear how Paul knew the jailor was about to kill himself, Paul’s words were not only reassuring but with great authority. Once the light was brought, the jailor threw himself at Paul’s and Silas’ feet in acknowledgment that they represented a higher power. Whether the jailor had known other disciples of Paul, like Lydia, or about Paul’s work of exorcism, one thing was clear, he knew that Paul preached the message of salvation. “What must I do to be saved,” was his desperate plea. His sincere query and subsequent receipt of salvation were demonstrated through the jailor’s immediate disposition to help Paul and Silas. He dressed their wounds and readily hosted them.

Again, what are some thoughts we can glean from this passage? Let us consider three.

  1. Luke says, “The Lord opened the heart of Lydia as she listened attentively and then she accepted Paul’s message.”  Three things were happening simultaneously here. Paul was speaking the word of the Lord. Lydia was listening attentively and the Lord’s Spirit was also working in Lydia’s heart. Before Paul says that faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of God in his letter to the Romans, he asks the question: how will they hear if there is no one to speak to them? If we want others to come to faith, we need to share the word of God with them. And even so, we must remember that conversion is the work of God’s Spirit, touching and opening the hearts of the hearers. That part, we should leave to the Lord to do. Our part is to speak the word.
  2. When Paul liberated the woman from the spirit of divination, the woman’s masters were not happy. They immediately raised the issue of race, cultural prejudices, and economic loss against Paul and Silas. It seems clear that there was not a large Jewish community in Philippi. Remember there was no synagogue. The problem of cultural prejudice against minority groups happens everywhere. These minority groups are always the victims of suspicion and injustice. They are the ones often blamed for every social problem. It happened then and it continues to happen today. So for us, let us beware not to fall into the trend of the larger society regarding minority groups that might not share cultural things in common or whose cultural practices or life choices are different from ours. Cultural prejudices can be overcome by getting to know the people who are within those groups.
  3. Paul and Silas were singing praises to God not in the best of circumstances, to put it mildly. The effectiveness of Paul’s ministry to the other prisoners and the jailor was not based on his success story. It was his joy and peace in praising God while suffering injustice, abuse, and humiliation for the sake of the Lord. Paul, just as Peter, considered suffering for the sake of Christ, a privilege. They truly identified themselves with their Lord who also suffered abuse at the hands of sinners. We Christians, today, seem unwilling to suffer inconveniences because of our faith. We want to publicize and divulge what happened to us to arouse boycott or ill-will against anyone who had inconvenienced us, instead of praising God within the confines of our limitations. That attitude of inflicting pain against our transgressors not only hinders our goal of inviting others to faith but also gives fuel to those who are against the good news.

Let us make Paul’s request to the Ephesians our mutual request, where he says, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” Amen!

Pastor Romero