What happened in Philippi?
Chapter 16 of the book of Acts tells of the time that Paul and Silas spent in the city of Philippi. The city had been invaded by Philip I of Macedon, some centuries before in the year 356BCE.
It was a strategic invasion: the city was near to a gold mine and was on the main trade route from Israel and Babylon to Rome and points west. Once his troops had conquered the city, then known as Crenides, Philip renamed the city after himself, as you do when you are a triumphantly victorious invading king. So we know the city as Philippi.
You might have heard of what happened to Paul, when he first visited the city of Philippi. There are three different things that happened, that we have recorded in Acts 16.
First there is an account of meeting Lydia, a well to do business woman, who was gathered with other women to worship by the water; we hear of the offering of the message of salvation, then there are new followers of Jesus, and finally a household is baptised. The story of Lydia is well-known, and it appeared on the lectionary last week.
Then, there is the story we are offered in this week’s lectionary; a story filled with dramatic events: how Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, how there was an earthquake, then a threatened suicide, a gaoler converted, and finally another household baptised. Another striking tale, filled with dramatic elements!
But what about this: in between these two stories, we meet a demon-possessed slavegirl. She is the reason that Paul and Silas are arrested and imprisoned. In this scene, there are similarly dramatic happenings: the woman is converted, the apostles are arrested, they are stripped and beaten, and thrown into prison … and then, this accusation: These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe (Acts 16:20-21).
Pause for a moment, right here.
Would we be happy if this were to be said about us? To paraphrase only slightly: These people are disturbing our city; they are Christians and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Australians to adopt or observe.
Luke reports this scene with apparent approval. After all, by being thrown into prison, Paul and Silas were able to encounter a non-believer, their gaoler, and lead him and others there to faith in Jesus.
This is not the first time, and it will not be the last, that the early followers of Jesus were separated out, brought before the authorities, and charged with disturbing, destabilising, even seditious activity. As well as Paul and Silas, in this scene in Philippi, there are times when Paul and others are accused of illicit activity or thrown into prison: in Thessalonica, and in Beroea, and in Corinth, and in Ephesus. Paul was a serial offender!
And before them, others were imprisoned or threatened and punished: Stephen, stoned to death in Jerusalem; and before him, Peter and John, brought before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem; and, of course, before them all, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, crucified under Roman law as a common criminal, perceived by the Governor Pilate as a rebellious irritant, understood by the Jewish priestly leaders to have messianic pretensions, put to death on a cross as an outcast, perhaps even perceived by the Romans as a dangerous guerilla terrorist.
These are the heroes of our faith. These are the role models who grace the pages of the account that Luke has provided us, of the growth and spread of the movement of followers of Jesus, known first as, The Way.
These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe. These people are disturbing our city; they are Christians and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Australians to adopt or observe.
Customs that are not lawful. Believers acting differently. Followers of the risen Jesus, living out the life of resurrection, refusing to be bound by tradition, custom, and regular practice; always stretching the friendships, pushing the boundaries, edging out amongst the outcasts and taking on the role of irritant, agitator, prophetic disturber, as we speak and live the good news of Jesus.
How do we receive these stories and follow in this way, today, in our modern world?
Last time that I shared in worship with you, two weeks ago, we had a service to remember; a time to celebrate and a time to lament, a time to let go and a time to take hold. And I have spoken with a number of people since that day, exploring what effect that time of worship has had on us within this community.
Some have expressed appreciation, and indicated that is has been helpful in the process of moving on. Some have described how apprehensive they were, or how challenging the occasion was. I appreciate the ongoing reflection that I have encountered and the ongoing commitment to this congregation which that reflects.
As I said towards the end of that service, we need to put behind us what has happened in recent years, and to leave behind the sense of upheaval and disturbed relationships; as we have lamented these things, so now we need to take hold of our future and walk together along that pathway, with courage and grace—and persistence. As we move on ahead as a community of faith, we keep our focus on the way that Jesus sets before us.
So the stories we hear in our reading from Acts provide us with a clarion call for that journey. As the people of God, as followers of Jesus, we need to find ways by which we show, in our loves, and tell, in our words, of the God whom we know, the one whom we follow, the path that we are treading.
And the passage offers a provocative challenge: These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe. These people are disturbing our city; they are Christians and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Australians to adopt or observe.
Perhaps the image of doing things that are unlawful is challenging, even threatening. We typically think of exercising our faith within the law, in ways that are responsible a s fitting within the expectations of society.
We typically think that being good disciples means being good citizens. After all, as Australians, we surely need to keep the laws of Australia? Acting in ways that are unlawful is not generally on our radar. Stepping outside the comfort zone of the generally-accepted customs and norms of our society, is a risky business.
Nearly two years ago, in company with a small group of Christians who all held concerns about some of the actions being taken in the name of our federal government, I took part in a visit to the office of a Federal MP in Perth.
We had gone to the office to seek a meeting with the MP to express our concerns about the length of time, and the conditions under which, men were being held on Manus Island and Nauru. These were men who had, in good conscience, fled from their homelands. They were seeking the safety of refuge in a welcoming country. They thought that Australia might be such a country. But we detained them, before they reached our shores, and had, at that stage, been holding them in offshore detention for over four years.
The visit to the MP took place under the auspices of the movement known as Love Makes A Way. This is a movement dedicated to non-violence, which seeks to engage in conversations with decision-makers about the critical matter of our national policy regarding refugees and asylum seekers. The conversation that we had hoped to have with the MP did not eventuate, as he left the building by the back door when he learned that we were in the front of the office.
As a result, I, along with four other people sitting in that office, were arrested and charged. At a later date, when we appeared in court, and spoke to the charges, we were each given what is called a “spent sentence”, meaning that if we behaved for six months, there would be nothing on our record to indicate this charge and arrest. So we came out of that courtroom quite relieved!
I should note that the Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice that all pastors and ministers in the Uniting Church agreed to adhere to, includes a clause that specifies that, whilst ministers and pastors should normally not break the law, in instances where the law is believed to be unjust, civil disobedience is permitted. And the Uniting Church has, for two long decades, made decisions, issued statements, and lobbied politicians, with regard to the laws relating to refugees and asylum seekers. Our belief is that they are unjust; that, as a Christian society, we should welcome the stranger, give shelter to the homeless, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty.
So in that one instance, I was part of a group that deliberately broke the law, in order to make a statement about a higher principle.
Stepping outside the law, risking arrest, disobeying the rules of our society, is a daunting thing. Mind you, many of us step outside the law when we run a red light or drive over the speed limit … these are actions that we just turn a blind eye to, in most instances. But more serious flouting of the law is not generally regarded in such a benign way. It is a serious thing.
I am not advocating that we should now all seek to be arrested in relation to our refugee policies; or our environmental policies; or other policies. But I am advocating that we think, seriously, about how it is that we are to act, in ways that show who we are: we are people who follow Jesus, we are people of the Risen Lord, we are living the resurrection life, day by day, in all that we do.
The reading from Acts reminds us that, as followers of Jesus, we are surely called to stand out against the tide, to stand fast in support of our brothers and sisters who are in need, to advocate for policies that will bring real improvements in the lives of those who seek welcome and shelter, those who need food and drink to sustain life. My sense is that, whilst there are many people our society who are working to support this, there is still resistance to adopting policies which would really enact this.
Now, national policy is one thing. Who we are, as the people of God in this place, is something else. And who we are, as followers of Jesus, living the Jesus life, as people of the resurrection, is the matter that stands before us, at this point in our history.
Who we are, and what we value, will be seen in how we relate to one another, how we care for people in need, how we reach out to those in difficult or desperate situations, how we show our faith in practical ways,
So let me offer these questions, which relate to the way that we are to be community, together, as the Queanbeyan Uniting Church.
How are we distinctive from the people around us? How do we show, in our words and by our actions, that we are different? that we follow the way of Jesus? that we seek to be, not so much exemplary citizens, as faithful followers, devoted disciples, committed Christians? That we are living the Jesus life, as resurrection people?
Why should we be doing as a community, that will mark us as different? what are the distinctive features of this community of faith? How do we stand out? In what ways do we invite and inspire people to learn more of God, because of the way we live out our faith?
This month we have scheduled a workshop for all people in this congregation to take part, to help us all to focus on the values we hold dear, the commitments we make with one another, as the Queanbeyan Uniting Church. The workshop is called core values, key commitments. I hope that we will move further along the way of this Intentional Interim period, closer to being able to clarify our values and formalise our missional strategy for the next period of time.
It will be a time when we can talk together, explore options, dream dreams, catch visions, and start to make plans together. The invitation is to everyone to participate, to contribute.
The workshop will be held after worship on 23 June, which is the Sunday when we celebrate the Uniting Church. I invite you to mark out that time in your diaries, and to come with a willingness to participate in the process of sharing together and exploring together.
And through this process, may we hear the challenge of the Gospel, and respond with joy.