Author’s note: This is the text I prepared for Ascension Sunday. I departed somewhat from the text during delivery, so even though all the main points are the same.
Scripture: Acts 16:16-34
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.
We continue Paul’s story where we left off last week. He and his companions are in Macedonia, or modern-day Greece, staying at the house of Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth and the first convert to the Way of Christ on the European continent.
I’ve never been to the Mediterranean area, so I looked up pictures of the Philippi archaeological area to get a sense of what the climate may have been like. It was a strategic site on the north shore of the Aegean Sea, between Rome and the Middle East; from pictures the foliage appears to be much like the area along the Columbia between White Salmon and Goldendale or Hood River and The Dalles. I imagine a maritime climate, somewhat dry, but with the rich resources of the sea and of the historic mines in the mountains that surround the region.
From the archaeological record, there was an arch just outside of town, marking the boundary of Philippi. “Outside” the arch, you were outside Philippi, and thus could practice a religious way of life not necessarily accepted within a truly Roman sphere of influence. Recall Paul and his companions first go there, along the river outside of town, where we read in Acts, “we supposed there was a place of prayer.”
Today as Paul and his companions were going to the place of prayer along the river to teach, we read of a serving girl with the gift of divination. Such a gift allowed for substantial income to the serving girl’s owners. What strikes me in this passage is not so much that she had such a gift, which was common in those days, but the accuracy of her gift. Here she follows along behind the missionaries and proclaims, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (16:17)
What remains an interesting thing to me is, if she is so accurate in her proclamation, and Paul and his companions are earnestly wishing to spread the Gospel, why did Paul get irritated, exorcise the spirit, and cause her gift to be silenced? Wouldn’t it have been helpful to their cause if she continued to proclaim such a message?
Digging deeper into the Greek, the verb tense indicated that she kept on following and kept on shouting – and this went on for many weeks. Now we begin to see how irritating, perhaps, Paul became. However, more than that, there are some subtle cues that such a gift is NOT of God, no matter how accurate it may be-and that causes some uncomfortable theological challenges.
One commentary points out the Greek Luke uses here is actually better translated as “a python spirit” rather than a “gift of divination.” This, it claims, is a reference to Apollo, the god of prophecy, called by the Greeks Pythian Apollo because he was supposed to have killed the snake that guarded the Delphic Oracle.
I had never heard of that before so I did a little research and I found reference to a head priestess of the sanctuary of Delphi who was called The Pythia, and offered oracles of wisdom to those who came seeking. Such oracles would have been understood as prophesies coming from the Greek god Apollo through his chosen mouthpiece.
There is something else going on here. Commentator David Forney writes,
“Day after day, the spirit wails this truth (for Paul is a slave of the Most High God) until Paul, in annoyance, exorcises the spirit. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her,” he says (v. 18), and it is done. Paul’s motivation is to alleviate himself of this aggravating tag-a-long; God’s yearning, though, is to bring wholeness to the slave so tormented (my emphasis).
While the text does not provide us an account of the slave girl’s life after that, we do know she was no longer exploited as property to satisfy the greed of her owners. By the power of Jesus Christ, her torment was turned to health, her spiritual slavery to freedom“ (again my emphasis).
We must quickly appropriate a message from that, however, because this incident is actually an introduction to a miracle story illustrating the typical missionary activity we have seen from Acts chapters 3-5.
The pattern is this: Paul and his companions teach this new way of Jesus, are arrested, flogged and imprisoned, which sets the stage for a miraculous setting free, followed by the Gospel message being proclaimed and a person and their household are baptized and saved. The Jailer, like Lydia before him, invites the missionaries into his household d and he serves them with divine hospitality as an immediate response to his conversion and his salvation.
What can we learn from this story? How does it impact our life of faith today? We, who are God-worshipers already, what response to our salvation in Jesus Christ do we enact? These questions emerge to engage us and inform our mission as a worshiping community.
I suspect answers lie in the scripture stories themselves. In the sake of the European Gentile Lydia, she and all her household are saved. For the sake of the unnamed serving girl with the python spirit, she is freed from the bonding spirit that possess her and drives her to speak prophesy. The Roman jailer “wakes up” and finding everyone there, he and his household are baptized and saved.
All of these stories and more point to one grand mission, of which Jesus and Paul and you and I are all a part. Jesus prays, in the Gospel of John, that all may be one; it is God’s universal love that is reaching out to all peoples, all Creation, and we are instruments of God’s loving compassion, seeking salvation for all.
Let us pray…
 New Int. Biblical Commentary; New International Biblical Commentary (NIBC), New Testament Series, vols. 1-18. © 1988-1999 Hendrickson Publishers. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.5
 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.
 Hermeneia NT (20 vols.) Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (New Testament) (Hermeneia NT-20). See copyright information at the beginning of the respective books. Published by Augsburg Fortress. Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hypertexted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 1.4