ACTS 16: 16–34 AND 17: 6

This is a sermon from one year ago. It is more relevant now than ever.

DISTURBING THE PEACE JUNE 2, 2019

ACTS 16: 16–34 AND 17: 6

PAUL THE TROUBLE MAKER

Sometimes we make trouble without meaning to do so. A business man opened a new store. His friend wanted to congratulate him and asked the florist to send flowers. When the owner got the flowers he called the florist to complain. The card said, “Rest in Peace.” The florist said, “Look on the bright side. Somewhere there is an arrangement at the funeral home that reads, “Congratulations on your new location.”

But other times we rock the boat on purpose. That goes against what most of us have been taught. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. Just let it be. A set of jumper cables showed up at a night club and asked the bouncer if they could go in. The bouncer said, “OK, just doesn’t start anything.” Is it ever right to disturb the peace? Paul did that regularly. He would not let the status quo stand if it was not right. Let’s face it. Paul was a trouble maker by design.

In the text today, Paul and Silas are in Philippi. There is a slave girl possessed by a spirit. She tells fortunes and does tricks. Her owner profits from this act. The girl follows Paul and Silas around telling everyone that they are slaves of the Most High God. You would think that Paul would have liked that. It might have drawn attention to him and his message and been good P.R. to boot. But Paul gets annoyed by this testimony from an ill spirit for profit and he casts the spirit out of her. The spirit is called a pneuma pythona. That means a snake-like spirit. This was not good for the poor slave girl who was owned twice. That’s when the trouble started. The slave owner could not have cared less about Paul’s religion. But now he was messing with the bottom line. So there was a riot and the mob beat and jailed Paul and Silas. My guess is that the charge would have been disturbing the peace.

Then they go to Thessalonica and tell people to get rid of their idols. And the Brotherhood of Silver Artisans gets upset about their economic drop off. The charge leveled against Paul and Silas this time is, “They are turning our world upside down!” What a charge that would be. Has anyone ever accused us of turning the world upside down?

SLAVES

What surprises me in this story is that freedom and slavery are significant issues. The girl was a slave to her master and the spirit that made her bondage profitable. Paul and Silas were slaves to the Most High God. She got that much right. The slave owner is a slave to his bottom line. The magistrate is a slave to the public opinion polls rather than what was right and just. The jailer was a slave to his responsibility to the Empire.

Some people would claim that everyone is a slave to something. Some people are slaves to their economic conditions. A poor man without medical insurance is a slave to a system that denies him the help he needs. The wealthy are slaves to their high priced lifestyles that make sure that they never have enough. Some people are slaves to their appetites or their addictions. Some are slaves to a particular political party that will not allow them to think for themselves or put their country ahead of their political allegiance. And some, maybe most are slaves to comfort and the absence of conflict. A comedian once said that parents will do whatever it takes to settle a conflict between two of their children. He said, “Parents don’t want justice. They want quiet.”

But if you found some familiar ground in these types of slavery, perhaps you will also find the one true freedom that Paul and Silas found. In Galatians, Paul wrote “Stand fast in the liberty where with Christ has set you free and be not entangled again in the bonds of slavery.” There is the great irony of Christian faith. We are only truly free when we become slaves to Christ.

SUBVERSIVE GOSPEL

I wonder if one of the things that enslaves us is our desire to not rock the boat; to not make waves; to not starting anything; to not disturbing the peace? Paul was a righteous troublemaker. He came by it honestly. He was following the lead of Jesus. Jesus interfered with the financial business of the temple when he cast out the money changers. He made the Pork Dealers Association in Gadarene territory mad when the cast a legion of demons into the pigs who then jumped into the sea and drown. He disputed the false and corrupt teachings of the Pharisees, who were not just religious leaders, but civil authorities as well.

Like many civil authorities, they were interested in keeping the peace; but not so much in justice. They wanted to maintain their power, but showed little interest in what was right and just and true. Jesus went about rocking the boat by speaking the truth. And Paul is simply following suit. What about the followers of Jesus in the modern era?

In the 19th century, Abolitionists fought against the institution of slavery. They were told by many people in the north as well as the south to be quiet; stop making waves; you are disturbing the peace. Teddy Roosevelt was called a trouble maker when he busted trusts that treated people including children as things rather than human beings. Women who fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century were called trouble makers who should be quiet. Some of them were arrested. Members of my own family called Dr. ML King a trouble maker who should quit these protests and speeches because he was stirring things up by speaking the truth to power.

So Christianity is not freedom from causing trouble. In fact disturbing the peace for a righteous cause is REQUIRED of the followers of the rebel Jesus. Jackson Brown wrote a song that said, “Perhaps we give a little to the poor if the generosity should seize us. But if anyone of us should interfere with the reasons for why there are poor, we get the same as the rebel Jesus.”

SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE TO POWER

And here is a truth spoken in love that might disturb the peace for some of us. The gospel is subversive. Jesus Christ our Lord is not OK with a status quo that is built on oppression or falsehood or disregard for the stranger among us or the needy among us. I heard a man in a rich congregation once who objected to sermons like this. He said, “Why don’t you just preach the Bible?” I don’t know what Bible he was referencing, but the one I know calls men and women of faith to speak the truth to power in love. Some will say, “Keep religion in its place. We will get in trouble if we occupy ourselves with issues that are social or political.” And they are right about the trouble part. But the place of the church is IN the world.

There are times when speaking the truth and disturbing the peace is precisely our calling. Jesus is not very tolerant of us doing nothing when the establishment is corrupt or uncaring or racist or unjust. That’s not easy; especially when we ARE the establishment. I had a poster in my office for while that read, Real Christians are eternally positive, outrageously happy and always in trouble. Maybe it’s time to start something.

That’s probably not what you wanted to hear this morning. The world is so full of bad news. You probably wanted to come to church to find some peace and quiet. And that is one of the things that God will do for the troubled soul. But the other thing that God will do is to disturb the ones who are too comfortable with the status quo of inequality and poverty and apathy towards the least of these our brothers and sisters. If you are serious about seeking a deep peace, you will have to decide how Jesus is calling you to be a trouble maker to change the world for the better. I can’t tell you specifically how to do that. You have to find that for yourself. The deep peace that comes from the prince of peace comes from taking action that sometimes disturbs the peace with the truth; like Paul; like Jesus.

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.