Practicing unity

8 May 2016
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Easter 7C (RCL)
Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

The reading from Acts presents a wonderful set of allusions to other scriptural stories and a set of contrasts between Roman religion and the religion Paul is teaching. The Revelation passage invites all to come and share in the vision of the goal of history. And John presents us with an insight into participation in the divine life.

This reading from Acts continues the section begun last week, with Paul’s dream of a man from Macedonia calling for help. Upon arrival in Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia, Paul and his companions meet some women outside the city at a place of prayer. This implies that there was no synagogue inside of Philippi, either because there wasn’t a minyan, or because as a Roman colony, Philippi wouldn’t allow a synagogue. Lydia, a woman with a Greek name, accepts the message and welcomes Paul and his companions into her house.

The story continues with Paul going to a place of prayer in Philippi (a pagan place of prayer), and a slave girl following. The slave girl has a pyhtian spirit, the same kind of spirit as possessed the oracle at Delphi. In its heyday, the city of Delphi had flourished and grew rich because of the gifts required to consult the oracle. Luke is clearly setting the contrast between classical religion and the Christianity taught by Paul. The Roman religion concerned predicting and manipulating the future to one’s own advantage. Those would could help others do that profited considerably. But it also involved the objectification and exploitation of bodies: the slave-girl was possessed by a spirit for profit.

She follows Paul and his companions saying that these men are slaves of the Most High God (Zeus). The man with the legion of demons has said of Jesus that he was the son of the Most High God. When Paul cast out the demon, the girl’s owners drag Paul and his companions to the market-place, where things are bought and sold. They are beaten publicly (when Paul discloses his Roman citizenship, this means that their crime rises to the level of capital — his “judges” could have been executed for beating him publicly without proper trial — this will be important in the jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”).

Paul and his companions are now put in the position of the slave girl — bodies controlled by others. They respond by singing hymns and praying, presumably giving thanks to God for the opportunity to suffer for Christ. An earthquake ensues. Poseiden was considered the “earth-shaker” and had a connection to the oracle at Delphi. The Roman pantheon is now working in the service of Paul, who has embarrassed a pythian oracle. The jailer, assuming that the prisoners have escaped, and knowing that his own pantheon is working for them, believes he must kill himself. Instead Paul assures him that all the prisoners are present.

The jailer asks what he must do to be saved. In gratitude, he washes the prisoners wounds, just as the Samaritan had washed the wounds of the man at the side of the road. Luke again shows us that often the foreigner is more a neighbor to us than we are to the foreigner. The jailer is baptized, along with his household, and Paul celebrates a eucharist and all eat together. This meal crossed all kinds of boundaries: Jew and Gentile, persecutor and persecuted.

The passage from John makes it clear that this kind of unity is not just for our sakes but for the sake of the world. The kind of unity we have in Christ draws us in to the divine life, and the divine life is present in us. This is one of those passages which is so hard to follow — the wonderful confusion of who is in whom is exactly the point. Boundaries are blurred. And the purpose of this blurring of boundaries is so that the world may know that God has sent Christ. The divine life comes into the world by way of the Father’s presence in Jesus and the Jesus’ presence in those he loves. If that unity we have in God breaks down, the world is bereft of the knowledge of God.

Things are looking a little bleak right now.

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