Acts 16:16-34 John 17:20-26
Luke tells us that Paul and Silas were on their way to worship in Philippi when they ran into a young girl, a slave, who made a fortune for her owners by telling other people’s fortunes. As the apostles passed before her, the spirit of divination within the girl registered something of who they were – ‘slaves of the Most High God’ who had ‘a way of salvation’ to proclaim. Over the next couple of days, the spirit apparently compelled the girl to loudly announce what she had learned to anyone who would listen. Paul, having listened to the girl for several days becomes very annoyed. He finally orders this truth-telling spirit to be gone in the name of Jesus. Sure enough, it goes.
Why did Paul cast this spirit out? It was telling the truth. Paul and Silas were ‘slaves of the Most High God’, and they were proclaiming a ‘way of salvation’. So what’s the problem? Wasn’t everyone on the same side here? Paul appears not only to miss a golden opportunity to footnote his own authority with an pagan authority already recognised amongst his hearers, but he also prevents that authority from speaking its truth altogether. One could quite reasonably conclude that Paul has not been very bright at this point! Especially when we note that the immediate result is that he and Silas end up in prison!
We shall find some hints toward an answer by turning to John’s gospel. This passage is part of a prayer Jesus is said to have prayed at the Last Supper. Amongst the many remarkable features of the prayer is the close association it makes between right belief, or ‘truth’, and right behaviour, or ‘sanctity’. What counts as truth for the Christian, according to John, is conformity with the love of God as it is revealed in the relationship between Christ and his Father. The truthful life is a capacity for relationship, for loving, which has its origins not in our own, merely human, understanding or experience, but rather in the loving relationship between the Father and the Son. John teaches that truth is not an objective ‘something’ we invent or discover out of our own resources, but a quality of relating that is given by God, given insofar as we allow ourselves to be absorbed and included within the covenantal dance that is the triune God.
Now, what that means for the problem at hand is this; that the truth ain’t always the truth, even when that ‘truth’ appears at first glance to undergird or support our deepest beliefs. Christian truth consists in the bringing together or reconciliation of all reality within the integrating love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. If we look at truth from that point of view, then falsity is anything that pulls things apart, that divides us into warring factions, any ‘truth’ which actually carves a fissure through the middle of all those things that God intended for each other: things like belief and holiness, theology and politics, prayer and economics.
Christian truth is about inviting everyone to the table, and recognising that which is God in them. False truth sees the other as the enemy. Christian truth is on about reconciliation and relationship, precisely because we are created different but equal. False truth is uttered by lips unwilling, or unable, to transcend the barriers that divide us. Christian truth presents a God who would love the world in and through all that is human and material and ordinary, a God who therefore desires to transform the world’s lust for ‘more’ into a holy desire to lay down what we possess for the sake of the other. False truth, by contrast, is trying to acquire what the other has for itself. It is a hoarder who is forever exacting a price from all who would sit at its feet to learn.
This, I contend, is the reason why Paul, like Jesus before him, refused the evangelism of the demon, even when it apparently spoke the truth. The spirit who animated the slave-girl proclaimed a belief in the Most High God. Yet it also exploited and enslaved the girl for the sake of capitalism, to make a great deal of money for her owners. This, as Paul and Silas were wise enough to see, made a nonsense of its claim to the truth. For the God of Jesus is love. The God of Jesus is not one to use or manipulate another for the sake of personal gain. There was a fatal gap, therefore, between the truth as it was told and the truth as it was lived.
I put it to you that Paul and Silas were thrown into prison ultimately because they privileged the God of love and liberation over the economic realities of dog-eat-dog capitalism, because they refused the right of that ‘reality’ to colonise the truth of love with its divide-and-conquer business plan. This is exactly what Paul did when he cast out that demon – liberation from the exploitative certainties of capitalism, and the gods invoked to support it, in order to create the possibility of faith in a God who loves, and nurtures, and welcomes all people.
Here there is an immediate response – Paul seizes the opportunity to lead the jailer and his family to become a believer in God and faith in Christ.
Rev Vikki Waller, 2nd June 2019
(with acknowledgement of Nathan Nettleton’s reflection)
Acts 16:16-34 John 17:20-26