Psalm 97, Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-end , John 17:20-end
Thursday was Ascension Day and next Sunday is Pentecost. We are in an in-between time, a limbo time. And limbo times are not comfortable, they make us feel uneasy.
But being in limbo was how it was for the disciples. Since Jesus’ resurrection they were being told that he would be ‘going away’. And yet he had already gone away as he had died but he had come back again. It was all very confusing. They were both grieving and celebrating and they were very uncertain about the future. They had been told the Holy Spirit would come, but what did that mean? How would they recognise it? Hearing the words of the gospel today probably would not have helped as it is a very dense passage. So they were in limbo.
This is the trouble with spiritual things – they can be so unpredictable. How do we tell whether they are real or imaginary and, if real, how do we tell whether they are truly about the glory of God? It is the age-old problem of discernment. How to discern what is truly of the Holy Spirit and what is not. And this is where we have to literally thank God for the Acts of the Apostles because the book of Acts is very good at illustrating complex and abstract theology with stories. And in the reading today we have two connected stories which illustrate the difficulty of discerning whether the Holy Spirit is truly present or not.
So what are these stories? First of all Paul and his companions are in the middle of a very successful mission in Philippi - but there is a problem. It is the problem that all good leaders dread. The crowds are attracting a particularly awkward female fan. What we might call a ‘groupie’ or, even worse, a bit of a stalker. This girl has been following them around and not just following them but enthusiastically shouting their praises to all and sundry exclaiming that Paul and his friends will save anyone who listens to them.
She is, oh so, deeply embarrassing! And at first Paul and his followers bite their lips, grin awkwardly and put up with her. After all it is very difficult to preach the love and inclusiveness of God at the same time as trying to get this irritating girl to buzz off. Their patience, very nobly in my estimation, lasts several days - but she is a terrible distraction and really getting in the way. People who might wish to listen to what Paul has to say are being put off by this poor loonie!
People in those days were actually remarkably tolerant of the unhinged. Like children and court jesters, the mad were often reckoned to have insight. So the real problem is not so much that the sad girl is as mad as a hatter – but because she is parroting what Paul is saying but without any real understanding of what she is talking about – and it is this that is so damaging. The name of Jesus is in danger of being thought of as one huge joke.
And not just a joke, but an extortionate one. For this slave girl is being encouraged by her unscrupulous owners. Her ravings are a bit like the equivalent of first century busking and her minders have been making good money out of her.
And it is this association with sharp practice that really concerns Paul. So, after several days of this, Paul gets so annoyed, he snaps. He decides the only way to shut her up is to exorcise her. To cast out her demon. But his attempt to regain control of the situation backfires because the girl’s owners, furious at their potential loss of revenue, have Paul arrested as a public nuisance. And the crowds join in – so that Paul really does end up causing a disturbance of the peace, with the result that he is flogged and thrown into jail. Paul seems to end up in a lose-lose situation. He has discredited a poor girl without any good to himself or, more importantly, to God
And then begins the second story. Paul has lost the crowd and now only has a handful of prisoners to pay attention to him. But in the middle of his prayers there is an earthquake and the walls of the prison fall down about his ears loosening the bolts of the shackles that hold him. It is at this point that a lesser man than Paul would have seized the opportunity to escape exclaiming that God had performed a miracle and freed him. But – and there is a big but – the jailer would not have been excused and would have been made to forfeit his life. So Paul stays where he is out of compassion for the jailer. And, in an age where life is cheap – particularly the lives of unpopular characters like prison officers - the jailer recognises this extraordinary act of kindness by Paul and his followers. Paul, who could so easily have been his enemy, has shown amazing kindness. And, if this is the kind of love that is being preached about, he wants to share in it too. So, after a little bit more talk, the jailer takes them to find water to wash their wounds.
And then - in an extraordinarily touching act of mutual love and respect – the water that is used to wash and soothe Paul’s physical wounds is also used to baptise the jailer and his entire family.
In the story, the jailer’s life is spared by an act of totally unselfish generosity. Paul takes no thought for his own needs but puts the needs of the jailer first. And we know the jailer sees the glory of God in this act of Paul because he responds by totally opening his heart when he asks to be baptised. So the jailer’s life is saved both physically and spiritually. He will not be killed by his employers for allowing his prisoners to escape, and, he has taken on a new spiritual life with baptism. In the end the poor little mad girl is right – Paul and his companions do save lives. But they save lives not in a magical way but by acts of sacrificial love. Like the love Christ showed on the cross. In that love on the cross the divine and the human met, became one, and there was transformation. On the cross God’s Holy Spirit, God’s love was seen pouring into the world and transforming it.
In this story we see what is called a kairos moment. A kairos moment is a moment of transformation. And that is what the limbo time between Ascension and Pentecost is about. It is an inbetween time, an empty time when the past is over and the future is not yet born. And in the gap we are able to glimpse what might be possible. We get a taste of the hope of transformation that will come about when, as the Lord’s Prayer says, ‘you will be done on earth as in heaven’. Paul did that when he stayed with his jailer. And his jailer, who knew nothing about God in Christ, learnt it all in what Paul did. That was all the teaching he needed to become a follower of Christ. A kairos moment may only last a split second but the experience of it can last a lifetime.
Rev Elisabeth Morse
Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay