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The Case against Civil Religion

Easter 6, Common Lectionary Year C

Acts 16:16-39

©2019 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture audio file
Sermon audio file

We will not turn the world aright
by indulging in the same hatred we decry.

There’s a saying,
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
I am a fool to take on this text, described in one commentary as “nasty”,
and by another as
“the most contentious and confrontational scene” [1] in the book of Acts.
When the children are present,
it’s good and well that we highlight the comic book style confrontation of superheroes against supervillains, cosmic disruptions and the clash of titans in this text;
it is a great faith adventure story!
But just like the Marvel superhero movies that fill our theatres these days,
Acts is a commentary, a dark commentary
on a culture in the throes of deep discord,
where the fate and future of culture and civilization seemed to hang in the balance,
and where faith and religion were being used both sides of the cultural divide,
to good or ill effect. If Acts was for then, it is most surely a text for our times too, and for the same reasons.

But it’s not immediately apparent,
so for a moment let’s go beneath the dramatics and pyrotechnics
to the context.
As I said in the introduction to the reading of Scripture,
Philippi, founded by Rome’s first divine emperor, Augustus[2],
was a deep pocket of Rome in the Hellenic world.
Like Quebec, it saw itself as the protectorate
of a unique culture within a larger dominant one.
Archeological remains from the colony
privilege Latin and all things Roman over Greek and the Hellenic culture that surrounded it.
Philippi’s gods were the Roman Pantheon,
and Apollo, the slayer of Python and inheritor of
Python’s ability to tell the truth,
was its favourite deity [3]. Its patron saint if you will.

This is significant, I promise you!
Because the slave girl who makes her nameless,
brief appearance at the beginning of this story,
has what Luke calls a pneuma pythona (a pythonic spirit),
one capable of divining the truth.
Her job, then, this slave girl,
was to be the mouthpiece for the city’s civil religion.
Laws were made and unmade on the strength of her ‘truth-telling.’

Cultural and cultic and religious codes of Roman Philippi
were bolstered by her pronouncements.
No wonder she made a lot of money for her owners!

Trouble was, when Paul and Silas came to town,
her truth telling spirit started to rock the civic boat.
“Hey, these men are douloi/slaves/servants of
another god, not just any god,
but the “Most High God, who,” she kept saying
“has the way of salvation.”

Now to me or you, or to Paul,
that was the God’s honest truth!
So, I don’t frankly know why Paul gets annoyed with her,
except perhaps he hates to be upstaged by a girl or a slave….
Anyway, by calling upon the power of the name
of Jesus Christ to cast out her pythonic spirit,
Paul renders her useless to her owners,
(and no doubt exceedingly vulnerable,
which annoyingly, Luke doesn’t seem to notice!)
and in so doing, Paul threatens a state- sanctioned religion,
and a religiously sanctioned state structure.

This is nothing less than a clash of Gods!
The gods of Rome or the God of Jesus Christ?
The stakes can’t be higher, then or now.

The response of the girl’s owners, and of the state
is typical of all privileged empires when they are threatened
by the self-confidence of the “other.”
• Paul and Silas are first maligned nastily as “Jews” – foreigners who can’t be trusted because of their religious allegiance.
• They are arrested as disturbers of the so-called peace, the “Pax Romana” and as inciters of un-Roman behaviour. Disturbers of custom, of the “way we do things around here,”
• They are arrested for challenging privilege ….
• With appeals to national pride, the crowd and the magistracy are egged on to overreactive aggression, with public shaming, flogging and torture, and incarceration without due process, and with an overreaching subversion of the justice rightly owed to Roman citizens.
“State sanctioned violence has always been a sure sign of a culture’s moral bankruptcy.” [4]

As the inner isolation cell clangs shut, the Philippians think it’s all over.
But, remember, Luke is writing the great cosmic drama, asking the ultimate question:
Whose world is this? Who calls the shots?
Who offers the way of salvation for the people?
Who will make the nation great (again?)
Who is Lord of earth, God or Caesar?

After a night of songs of resistance,
after the silenced sing,
after prayerful action at the state legislature,
after clergy in collars are bound in handcuffs,
Luke calls down a divine earthquake
that breaks chains and doors, of ….
the iconic structure of state control, a prison!
“Civil religion is no match for the most High God of Heaven and Earth!” declares the text.

And we….. we want to shout our Hallelujahs
when Paul and Silas sock it to the man!
We are cheering him on when Paul
insists on a tit-for-tat retaliating humiliation of
those who had wrongly imprisoned them the night before.

We so want to be there when those who are using
a twisted form of civil religion to legitimize
their terrifying, legislative control over women’s bodies,
black bodies, brown bodies,
sick bodies, aging bodies,
poor bodies, queer bodies,
homeless bodies, foreign bodies,
are finally called up to answer for their perverted,
merciless so-called justice… don’t we?

Except….
We will not turn the world aright
by indulging in the same hatred we decry.

There’s a warning in this text,
a warning exposed dramatically in Paul’s oh-so human,
privileged insistence on retributive justice.
Therein lies the Spirit’s lively warning to us
not to become so passionately convinced
that our moral imagination is equal to God’s Dream,
to Christ’s Gospel of kindness and compassionate justice,
such that, ironically, we start instituting our own ideological purity tests,
and become the very moral scolds that we despise!
Acts 16 reminds us how easily we can stray
from the humble walk of the Gospel,
seduced by use of civil power or righteous intimidation.

So, if not civil, coopted religion as the way through our cultural malaise, what?
Where is Gospel in this for us?
It’s easy to miss, it is after all, so typical of God’s good Dream,
hidden in the rubble, and in the tiny seemingly insignificant actions of
humility, care, hospitality and love.

The Gospel is where Paul and Silas sit
among the rubble of a shaken jail, free to leave,
but not before unlocking the bound heart of their jailer,
who jettisons his paymasters
when the free gift of new life is offered to him and his household
in water, wine, and bread.

The Gospel in this text,
and in our lives as a community of friends of Jesus Christ,
called to be his body in the world,
happens not by trying to outmaneuver,
or overpower Caesars and their false gods,
but by out-loving the “enemies” of God.
By outdoing the sham civilities of the world
with tiny, repeated acts of generosity, compassion,
care, lovingkindness and mercy to all.

I like to think that Paul, in the end, gets it.
Writing himself, later in his life,
from another jail cell, he says,
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals or angels,
if I have prophetic powers, if my faith is great enough to move mountains,
but I do not have love, then, I am nothing, I gain nothing!.
..Faith, hope, love abide,
but the greatest of these is love.”

[1] Skinner, Intrusive God, 117.
[2] A previous settlement, conquered by Philip of Macedon was renamed Philippi. It was of crucial military importance during the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavian was victorious, and settled veteran soldiers in the colony to maintain control of the region. When he was given the title Augustus in 27BC, he renamed the colony Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis. (See Bakirtzis, Koester (eds), Philippi at the Time of Paul, (Wipf &Stock, Harrisburg, 1998)).

[3] For a straightforward version, see https://www.greeklegendsandmyths.com/python.html

[4] Skinner, Festival of Homiletics. 2019

[i] This sermon is inspired by Matthew L. Skinner, author of Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel, and preacher of a sermon entitled Don’t Give me that Old Time Civil Religion, delivered at this year’s Festival of Homiletics.


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