We have all been watching as the death toll rises in Nepal. We have been both appalled and humbled to see film of ancient Temples crumbling, while people huddle in the courtyard. We have seen the photos of children mounded up like puppies, sleeping on pillows and each other in the streets, while their building stands behind them, whole and secure, but the fear inside the children is too great to go there for sleep. We have cried to see a living baby pulled from rubble.
When the earth shakes like this, it is a reminder that we live on a young planet, still shifting and moving. We use the phrase, “solid as a rock,” or “getting back to terra firma” (solid earth) after landing in a port from sea or air. But the earth is not so fixed and solid.
We sometimes also use the term, “earthquake” for the radical shifts in our thinking or our world, when what we have always known or taken for granted, turns out not to be so. The Reformation was a time like this, as was the fall of the Roman Empire, or the Babylonian Exile, or the World Wars of the past century. And the list could go on.
The earthquake in the Philippian jail, got me thinking about the literal and metaphorical uses of the term “earthquake.” This earthquake was part of an uprising which was shaking the terra firma of the Roman Empire, and of the Jewish culture, out of which Christianity would be born in a few generations. The uprising was still very much a Jewish phenomenon at this point. Paul and his friends are clearly marked as Jews. This Philippian earthquake predates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by around 20 years and official Roman persecution of Christians by about 13 years. The earthquake in the Philippian jail was one little tremor signaling that an earthquake of epic proportions was coming, one which would change the world’s kingdoms and cultures.
It was about AD 51. People who had become disciples of Jesus in the early days of the Spirit of Pentecost, were going back to their homes all over the empire. And they still wanted to be disciples of the Way. They kept in touch with the movement through letters.
They called out for help from the apostles, as they ran into conflict in their home synagogues. “Come and help us explain this movement,” they would say. And soon, the apostles took to the land and sea highways to teach and help people gather into the little ecclesias we talked about last week – little communities called together to discern the way forward for the Jesus Way in their contexts. Tradition says that the disciples traveled all over the empire – Thomas likely went as far as India, Peter to Rome, Paul possibly as far as Spain, Andrew to Ukraine and Russia, Phillip to Northern Africa, Matthew to Persia and Ethiopia. There is even some evidence that Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Joseph and others, made it as far as the British Isles.
Paul was certainly not the only missionary! We just know most about his story because Luke wrote it down, and Paul wrote a lot of letters, since he had so much trouble with his little ecclesias.
Paul’s first ecclesia in Europe was in the Roman city of Philippi. The people there were loyal Romans – at least, those who were citizens. The slaves there, just like everywhere in the empire, were not so happy with the Pax Romana. They did most of the work and enjoyed the least of the pax. The same could be observed about women. So it is not surprising that some of the first followers were slaves and women.
If women and slaves had a hard lot, the young female slave the group of disciples met in Philippi had a double curse. She made a lot of money for her owners by going into a trance and telling fortunes. Whenever Paul and his friends walked by her stall, she would start shouting about them: “These people are slaves of the Highest God of All. They proclaim to you the way of liberation!” Slave owners don’t like it when slaves shout about liberation. That could de-stabilize their whole society. Imagine if the same thing had happened in our pre-civil war south! The idea of slaves being liberated brought our whole nation to war. It was a big deal for her to shout about this!
And shout, she did – for many days! Finally, even Paul got annoyed with it. Maybe he sensed that she, too, wanted to become a follower of the Way, but she was trapped by her slavery and by the spirit which lived in her. All people have the right to dignity – male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free – and that included this slave girl. So Paul called out that spirit and she was immediately liberated from her “gift” of fortune telling. But she no longer had value for her owners. And they were furious. This little group could be written off as long as they were just crazy preachers. But when their “Way” began to upend the local economy, that could not be tolerated. Everywhere the Way of Jesus went, it toppled old ideas of power, money and control. That was the purpose of the ecclesias – to discern how to support each other in living outside the power system.
This little prayer group had now become a threat. They grabbed Paul and Silas, the instigators, and dragged them into the central market place. They created an uproar there by accusing them of being Jewish revolutionaries, advocating a lifestyle good Romans could never accept. It was well known that the Jews were considered the most resistant culture in the empire to Roman domination. And their central story was about liberation from slavery – of their whole people! Of course they were a threat! The city officials had Paul & Silas beaten severely and thrown into prison.
But that did not shut them up. They continued to sing, maybe something like: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee!” Can you hear those majestic strains echoing off the prison walls? Some of those stone-walled rooms have great acoustics, and they may have really gotten into it – carried away by the awe of it. I can imagine other prisoners humming along, or joining their voices as they were able. Echoing Psalm 137, they were not afraid to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
Now here is the strange thing. Around midnight, there was an earthquake. Earthquakes were not that uncommon in Philippi, so the fact of an earthquake was something they had learned to live with. But this earthquake was nothing like the one in Nepal. The buildings did not crumble. No one was injured. It simply shook things up enough to open the jail doors and unlock the chains holding the prisoners. What kind of earthquake would do that?! It was an earthquake of liberation, not of destruction. All these years I have read this story and this little observation never entered my mind. This was a mini Exodus. It was God acting in liberation, just as the slave girl had proclaimed.
The only close call to physical harm was the jailer. As a Roman soldier, he knew that if the prisoners escaped on his watch, his life would be forfeit. He was about to kill himself when Paul yelled, “Don’t do it, man! We are all here!” This made no sense at all. If these were Jewish revolutionaries, on a mission to release Roman slaves – well, if this is who they were, then why were they still here?! Something was wrong with this picture.
This was an earthquake of epic proportions — for the jailer! His whole world view, his entire life as a jailer just came into question. Prisoners DO NOT behave this way. Moments ago, he was about to take his own life because he thought the prisoners had escaped, now he escorts these same prisoners to freedom – he himself becomes the liberator! The fact that the prisoners saved his life is absolutely upside down! Prisoners guard the jailer; the jailer liberates the prisoners! An amazing appearance of Jesus’ upside down kingdom!
“Gentlemen, what must I do to experience the liberation you have?”
The word used here is the Greek word, sodzo, which is usually translated, “salvation.” I have intentionally not used that translation today. Sodzo is a word, like shalom in Hebrew, which means much more that we have come to associate with it. In my life in the church, I had come to understand “salvation” as the moment in time that one makes the decision to become “Christian,” and receive an eternal reward of life in heaven when we die. While this sense can be an aspect of the word, it is not its core. The Greek word, sodzo, means “to protect, preserve, heal, deliver, become whole, or, to keep safe.” It is primarily used in the present tense, to describe our being presently preserved, kept safe from harm, liberated from oppression (whether internal fears or external chains), and made whole.
I don’t think we have even begun to plumb the depths of what this means in a society like ours, where the distance between the privileged and common continues to widen. The way of the Lord Jesus, indeed does disturb our economy – and it creates a whole new economy of generosity. The system of inequality must be undone, because we are all equally respected and loved by the living God. The owners of the slave girl were not wrong. This Way Paul and Silas were teaching changes everything. They were correct in perceiving it as an earthquake. They had two choices. Fight it – which is what they chose; or join the uprising, which is what the jailer chose. The question is what will we choose?
In that earthquake moment, the jailer was transformed – from an oppressor to a gracious host! It is surprisingly common in the Biblical story – Old Testament and New – that when a person is enlightened, released, healed, whatever their story – they express it through the biblical value of hospitality. Zacchaeus invited everyone over for dinner, Abraham prepared the best meal for the angels of God, Joseph prepared a banquet for his brothers. So it was for the jailer. As soon as he put his confidence in the love of God, he opened his home. He treated the prisoners’ wounds, and gave them food. His whole household was embraced in the change. The whole household was liberated from their old fears. They began to live in loving fellowship around the table. If the jailer had slaves, they were at the table too. The women did not eat in a separate room this night. The whole household was liberated! It changed the way they did everything.
Because the Lord Jesus’ Way is open to everyone, from the bottom up. It is nothing like the way of the Lord Caesar, who depended on the power of privilege and the sword to hold control. The way of the Lord Jesus is not about control anyway. It is about love. About welcoming, open-armed hospitality! Everyone is embraced and loved. And that changes everything.
The receiving of healing, liberation and grace was sealed in a meal that night in Philippi. And so it is for us. The liberation we have received from the Lord Jesus, calls us to the table, to eat together, to be Jesus’ people together. Being knit together into one around a meal is the first step on the Jesus Way. It is the central truth.
When we eat this meal together, the Spirit of Jesus is strong among us. We become alive again. We are made whole, made one. And this is the first action of liberation, putting us all on the same footing, needing the well-being of the other in order for us to thrive. We become liberated from our selves and selfishness, and become the Body of Christ, for love.
Now, gather around the table and be fed by Christ’s abundant, embracing hospitality.
For more reading, see We Make the Road by Walking, by Brian McLaren, chapter 37.