Acts 16:16-34++Psalm 97++Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21++John 17:20-26
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. (John 17:20-21)
This past Thursday, the Church celebrated one of the seven major feast days in the liturgical calendar, the Ascension of Christ into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God. It is an event that we remember every time we say the creeds and is central to our beliefs about how the Church came to be. Had Jesus not returned whence he came, there would have been no necessity for the Church, for any of us to do anything. Nor would there have been the necessity for the Church to move beyond Jerusalem. In Luke’s account in the first chapter of Acts, these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost were spent praying and praising God in the Jerusalem temple, but once that Holy Spirit got ahold of everyone, all heck broke loose, and the disciples were scattered throughout Palestine, the Roman Empire, and beyond.
Ascension is then, in a way, a story of liberation. The risen Christ is liberated from earth which then frees the promised Holy Spirit to do her work. The disciples are freed from the command to stay in the city, and the gospel is freed to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. But that’s not the only liberation story.
Paul and Silas and Timothy are still in Philippi where they met Lydia in last week’s reading, and they are being hounded by a girl with a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16). We don’t really know what that means. She was probably a fortune-teller, and she made a lot of money for the men who enslaved her. We’re also not sure why Paul got so annoyed with her. Maybe because she has called him a slave of the Most High God, somehow equating their status as enslaved persons. Whatever it is, he finally had heard enough and cast out the spirit within her. So she is freed from whatever possessed her. Presumably the ones who claimed ownership of her no longer needed her, so she was likely freed (although how she was going to survive is not clear). Paul and Silas are thrown in jail where they are freed by a violent earthquake, but rather than running for the hills, they know that they won’t be free until everyone is free, including the jailer.
Yes, there is a whole lot of liberating going on in our readings this morning. And for all of that, the most significant line in this entire passage from Acts is this: “these men are disturbing our city” (16:20). Paul and Silas’s accusers tell the magistrates that the men are causing a commotion. And the commotion they caused was in pursuit of freedom. Freedom for an enslaved girl. Freedom for those who gathered around to hear them tell the Good News. Freedom for their fellow-prisoners. And even freedom for the one guarding the jail.
“These men are disturbing our city…”
What a compliment that is. Christians have been disturbing the status quo from the very beginning, and when we haven’t, when we have tied our horse to empire, we have failed to be true to God’s claim on us. Empire is never about justice for all. It is never about caring for the weak and the sick. Empire is about taking whatever the might of armies can take and building walls around it. And that is not who Jesus has called us to be. Jesus has called us to be disturbers of the city, to challenge the status quo, to confront those who profit off of young girls, to provide refuge to those who flee their homes seeking asylum.
When Jesus is praying his final prayer before his arrest, gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, he asks God that we might be one as they are one. Jesus intercedes for us and asks “on behalf of those who will believe in” him “through their word.” That’s us. We believe because they told the story. They went outside the city and spread Good News, liberating people along the way from the shackles of fear, standing up to empire, and proclaiming a message of love and hope to the world.
After Jesus interceded on our behalf, he went out and showed what kind of sacrifice love makes on our behalf. He gave his very life. Many of those surrounding him also died as martyrs. The disturbers of the city died as martyrs. When we follow in their footsteps, it is not safety that we are promised. It is abundant life. That applies to each of us, and it applies to us as a congregation. As we hold our annual parish meeting, I hope that we will ask ourselves how well we are living out our role as disturbers of the city, speaking up for the voiceless, standing in solidarity with the oppressed, speaking truth to power. We do not exist only to come here each week for a time of worship and music and fellowship. Worship is central to what we’re about, but part of coming here to be nourished in Word and Sacrament is so that we can then be strengthened to go out into this world as bearers of hope and love. We are called to bigger and far riskier things than to content ourselves within these four walls.
There is a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake, the 16th-century British sea captain. On a day of liberation like today, it is a good thing to pray that we might be so disturbed ourselves that we can then become disturbers of the city:
us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
 https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/prayerplainandsimple/2014/08/the-prayer-of-sir-francis-drake.html (NB: I note the irony that this poetic prayer was written by a slaver and master of empire in this sermon that rails against such things.)