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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/12/2013

Today we reach the Seventh and final Sunday of Easter.  I have to say though, that even for those of us who appreciate and celebrate the fullness of the church year and the sometimes subtle difference in emphasis of the liturgical seasons, seven weeks is a long time to keep the resurrection glow going.  Yes, Easter is the center of the church year and yes the resurrection is the defining miracle that celebrates new life and hope for all of us; it is worthy of seven weeks, but seven weeks is still a long time to stay focused. 

Especially on this Seventh Sunday, we’re caught between celebrating the Ascension, a principle festival of the church year although it slips through the cracks for all but a few, and then there’s the celebration of Pentecost next Sunday, a day that doesn’t have nearly the bang of Christmas and Easter but is still a principle festival and something of a celebration with the red paraments and the red geraniums and at least some people who remember to wear red, all of which gives the church a festive appearance and feel.

So we have the themes of resurrection, ascension and Holy Spirit kind of circling around but the lessons for today don’t hint at these themes all that much, not as strongly as they do in years A and B of the lectionary cycle.  In fact, concerning today’s first lesson, it almost seems like those who put the lectionary together thought, “Let’s find something really strange to throw in here, something no one would expect” and they did, and strange it is.

It starts with an exorcism; now exorcism for us is mostly the stuff of horror movies, so right away the story is kind of strange.  But according to the text there was a young slave girl who had a gift of fortune telling.  Her owners or handlers realized they could use her to make money and so they did.  When she encountered Paul though, and this is good Paul now, not Paul as Saul who was persecuting the church, when she encountered Paul she sensed a spirit in him that she didn’t like so she accused him and those with him of being “slaves of the most high God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”   When you think about it, she was right; that’s exactly who they were, but this wasn’t just good Paul, this was also irritable Paul and he was irritated mostly at the fact that she wouldn’t shut up.  So calling on the name of Jesus he commanded the spirit inside her to come out, the spirit that gave her the ability to tell fortunes, and right away it did.

Now for her, this was no doubt a good thing.  By the name and power of Jesus she was healed and restored to being her true self, not just someone to be exploited by those who had power over her, so for her it’s a story of freedom and of new life and possibilities.  But therein lies the problem too; what was good news for her wasn’t good news for her owners.  She was now useless to them and they weren’t happy.  So in the second part of the story they accuse Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace and advocating strange customs.  Their concern was really about money and the loss of a revenue stream but disturbing the peace was the line they used and they got the crowds riled up to support them so to satisfy the people and to avoid further problems the authorities had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison. 

On another level though, what this shows is that acting in the name of Jesus can put you at odds with those in power.  Truthful proclamation concerning Jesus upsets the usual order of things and there always have been and always will be those who don’t want that order upset because they benefit from it.  Lest we become too self-righteous it’s best that we acknowledge that most of us at one time or another, to one degree or another all fit into the category of those who don’t want the order upset.  For most of us, the prevailing order works pretty well.

Paul and Silas were in prison in the third part of this story, but they didn’t let it faze them too much.  They prayed and sang hymns and the other prisoners paid attention…until there was an earthquake, the foundations of the prison were shaken, the doors were opened and everyone’s chains unfastened.  The jailer was ready to kill himself in fear that all the prisoners would escape and he would be blamed, but they didn’t escape.  At that point the jailer knew that this earthquake must be a sign from the god they were praying and singing hymns to. “What must I do to be saved?” he asked, and Paul answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”  With that, the jailer and his whole family were then baptized.

A strange story to be sure; a seemingly odd choice for the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  It’s kind of entertaining but it’s one of those Bible stories that is hard to connect with.  On the surface of things, casting out troublesome spirits and being jailed for disturbing the peace don’t seem to have much to do with any of us.  A miraculous earthquake which, instead of freeing a bunch of prisoners, winds up being an invitation to conversion and baptism for the jailer, well that’s just crazy.  Things like that don’t happen; it is hard to relate.

Among other things, what this is, is an example of why reading the Bible on a literal, face value level doesn’t get you very far.  On a literal level, a text like this just winds up being an outrageous story that you a) either don’t believe or b) you suspend disbelief in order to believe it.  But you could say the same thing about Easter and the Ascension and Pentecost, those themes and festivals that hover around us today.  On a literal level, none of them seem to have anything to do with any of us either; if you are able to suspend disbelief they’re just miraculous things that happened a long time ago.  They reveal God’s power, but that’s about it.  But if you poke around inside them a little bit, if you poke around inside yourself a little bit, you find that there’s more to all of these stories.

None of this has anything to do with you unless…unless there’s something in your life you need to be freed from like the slave girl; unless sometimes the powers of this world don’t work in your favor but somehow keep you trapped; unless like the jailer you’re sometimes afraid of being judged inadequate or unacceptable, unworthy.  None of this has anything to do with you or me, unless…but I think we’ve all got that unless.

Poking around a little bit, you can see that this is a story of God’s power engaging the “unlesses” of our lives, engaging those places where we’re broken, inadequate and afraid.  On the cross, Jesus entered those “unlesses,” those dark places.  He entered those places for us and transformed them with his presence.  On Easter he showed that those places don’t have the final say but give way to renewed hope and possibilities.  With the Ascension, the crucified and risen Christ returns to the Father, touching the divine with our humanity, including all its unlesses.

Seen that way, this story does have to do with us.  At the end of the story lives are changed and unsuspecting people are given a new beginning by a power that they didn’t understand.  All they knew was that the change came about through contact with people who called on the name and the power of Jesus.  That is the power that lurks beneath the surface level of stories like this that don’t seem to have much to do with us.  Looking a little bit beneath the surface though., we find that our lives are there in this story.  We’re there with the slave girl and the jailer.  That power that worked for them is there for us too.  It’s a power that still changes lives.

Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost; all of them are disclosures of this power, this inexplicable gift of grace from God.  Today’s stories about the slave girl and the jailer at first do seem like an odd choice for this final Sunday of Easter, but upon further review we find that maybe it’s not as odd as we first might think.  The story of the jailer ends with the new beginning of baptism and that provides a huge connection for us.  It’s in our own baptism that we are touched by the same power that created new beginnings for the characters in this story.  In our own baptism we are changed just like the characters in this story, if only we can see ourselves that way.  There is a connection. 

It may be that those who put the lectionary together actually did know what they were doing by making this a reading for the last Sunday of Easter because for the jailer and his family, the story ends with baptism and rejoicing, and that is really the perfect place to end the Easter season.     

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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