A sermon on Acts 16.16-34 & John 17.20-26 by Garry Deverell
It’s funny what can happen to you on your way to worship. 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, we are told, 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 follow the men around, loudly announcing what she had learned to anyone who would listen. Pretty weird, hey? A demon, a spirit of divination, doing the work of evangelism! You may be surprised by Paul’s response, then. Luke tells us that Paul, having listened to the girl for several days already, becomes very much annoyed. Finally he turns on the girl and orders this truth-telling spirit to be gone in the name of Jesus. Sure enough, it skedaddles (or ‘disappears’, for those of you who speak English).
Now, this is all very perplexing. Why did Paul cast this spirit out? It was telling the truth, wasn’t it? Paul and Silas were ‘slaves of the Most High God’, and they were proclaiming a ‘way of salvation’, were they not? 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 also to prevent that authority from speaking its truth altogether. One could quite reasonably conclude that Paul has not been a very bright boy at this point! Especially when one notes that the immediate result is that he and Silas end up in prison!
This story reminds me of several others, notably in the gospel of Mark. There’s the one where a demoniac named ‘Legion’ calls Jesus by his true name and identity—‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God not to torment me.’ (5.7). In this story, as with the one we read from Acts, it appears that the demons not only know who the good guys are, they were also quite keen to let everyone else know who they are, in what could easily be seen as a truly evangelistic manner! Yet, as for Luke in Acts, Mark is adamant that the good guys were none too impressed by such fervent preaching. Whenever the demons started to cry out like that, Jesus would tell them to be silent, to bite their tongues, for he did not want them broadcasting his messianic identity abroad (1.34). Again we must ask where the problem lies. What is wrong with footnoting a pagan authority if he or she is telling the truth? Isn’t the truth the truth, no matter who tells it?
I suspect we shall find some hints toward an answer by turning to another of today’s lectionary readings, the one from John chapter 17. This fascinating passage is part of a prayer Jesus is said to have prayed at the Last Supper. It is a prayer for his disciples, and for those who will come to believe in him because of their testimony. Amongst the many remarkable features of the prayer is the close association it makes between right belief, or ‘truth’, and right behaviour, or ‘sanctity’. Truth is understood solely as the word spoken by the Father (the Word who is Christ), and sanctity as the conformity of one’s life to this truth by an immersion in the uniquely loving relationship Christ has with his Father in the Spirit. 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 not, therefore, a matter of merely intellectual understanding or cognition. It 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 if that ‘truth’ appears, at first glance, to undergird or support our deepest beliefs or convictions. Christian truth, as we have seen, 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 always trying to acquire what the other has for itself. It is a hoarder who is secretive and calculating, 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 apparently proclaimed a belief in the Most High God. Yet it also exploited and enslaved the girl for the sake of capitalism, for the sake of making 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. The demonic is precisely that which sounds true, and yet denies that truth any real effect or reality in our lives. 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.
In that light, one is perhaps invited to ask a few questions about what passes for the truth in contemporary church culture. Out there in the church ‘market’ are groups that appear to be both successful and truthful. Their words (or some of them) say that Jesus is Lord, that there is nothing more important that the love of Christ. Yet the celebrity gloss and corporate slickness of their worship centres, their websites, their photo-shoots and their hierarchical church government, all say the opposite. They say that what is most important in life is not the love of Christ—which lays down its all for the sake of the poor and wretched—but the creation of a happy and whole elite, who create prosperity and wealth in order to well, create prosperity and wealth. And if they can spin the gospel a little to help them do that, then all the better! But surely these groups are actually a very long way from the gospel of Christ at this point. As Rilke said, Christ does not want to acquire the world, but to transform it by the loving gift of himself.
I close with a final observation about the way in which even the reading of the Revised Common Lectionary, which I support and encourage as a generally very important Christian practise, can sometimes fall victim to the kind of naivety with regard to truth that we’ve been discussing this evening. The lectionary’s presentation of Revelation 22.12-21, which we read this evening, actually edits out quite a lot of the text. It skips verses 15, 18 & 19. So what, I hear you say? Well, the effect of hearing the whole text is substantially different from hearing the lectionary text only, for the bits the latter leaves out are precisely those verses that name the kinds of people who won’t be counted amongst the redeemed – sorcerers, murderers, idolaters, and everyone who practices falsehood, to be exact. Ironically, one of the missing verses also warns that anyone who takes away part of the whole message of the book will also have their share in the life to come taken away! The theologian in me really does wonder at this, at whether or not the lectionary itself is sometimes guilty of exactly the kind of spin that Paul wanted to be rid of. You know, ignoring the difficult and demanding bits in favour of the bits that make us feel good and important. What do you think?
What I’ve done with you tonight is, as usual, nothing particularly spectacular. Just a bit of gardening. You know, pulling at the weeds, pruning off the dead wood; questioning the truths we’ve inherited, asking if they are really true. That kind of thing. For that is what any preacher is called to do, I reckon. To create enough cracks in those certainties we have about God, the world, and faith that, perhaps, just perhaps, the really new and entirely strange word of God might be able to seep into our lives. Any gardener knows that you have to prune off the old stuff to let the new stuff grow. Which is exactly what Paul did when he cast out that demon. Or baptised people. Or preached the gospel. Some pruning. Some freeing. Some liberating 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, and that is all.