This sermon was delivered on May 12, 2013, at Wallace UMC.
With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “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.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Prayer, I believe, is an incredibly powerful force in this world. I believe that it actually does work, that it changes things. I do not pretend to know how it works, because prayer is one of the many holy mysteries of the church, but one that does far more good than some give it credit for. It is the means by which we contact and interact with the divine. It has real effects on us, on the fabric of existence. Prayer can even be dangerous, though you might be tempted to think it’s harmless. But, in moments of danger, I would venture to say that prayer can even make up for the messes we put ourselves in, because it invites God to use God’s power when we might be in a position of weakness. And yes, that even goes for those people who perhaps it might be hard to get along with.
It occurs to me that in some occasions, sometimes a person’s personality winds up eclipsing the things that a person does, and it might even take a divine power to intercede on our behalf because of the situations we get ourselves into. This is absolutely the case when it comes to the life of the apostle Paul. Paul is, in the eyes of many, a highly controversial person, and often, a person for whom there is little love. He said a lot of things, many of them incredibly brilliant, but also many that sparked fighting and outrage for as long as the words have been around. His very story is one that won him few friends, and in fact probably garnered more enemies than even we could dream of. We all know the story fairly well, and if not, here’s the cliff-notes: Saul, a Pharisee that was known for persecuting and killing Jesus followers, had an experience of Christ and became a Jesus follower himself, re-naming himself Paul. With a history of persecution and violence behind him, few Christians were ever going to fully trust him as one of their own. In defecting to the Christian side, he lost many powerful Jewish leaders, and thus he was beset on two sides of the argument, one hating for betrayal, and one distrustful for past sins.
Then again, even if he had never committed acts of persecution or betrayal, I imagine that people still might not have liked him very much. He is perhaps the most egotistical person in the bible. This is the guy who practically invented the humble-brag—where a person, in an attempt to act humble and respectful winds up making a big deal of how awesome they are.
Exhibit A: 1 Corinthians 15, starting in verse three:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Do you see what he did there? He, in the same breath, calls himself the least of the apostles, which is like saying “I’m the worst of the gold medal winners in the Olympics.” Right after that, he says that it’s only by the grace of God that he was made an apostle. Why? Because of all the persecutors in this whole mess, Paul claims to be the ABSOLUTE WORST—and in the end, does it really matter? The point is, you got the message of Jesus Christ! Along with a short diatribe on just how great Paul is. Long story short, I would probably hate to work with Paul. He’s got an ego the size of a whale, and he wears it on his sleeve.
The thing though is that, though his ego gets the better of him, it also in a strange way makes him endearing, because of the innocent way he does it. In fact it reminds me of one of my heroes growing up. Many of you grew up with any number of cartoon heroes: Super Chicken, Underdog, Secret Squirrel, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mighty Mouse, etc. I, however, grew up later than many of you, and so the cartoon hero that probably wound up influencing me the most was… well, let me explain. When he came out, Batman was all the rage again in the early nineties, and lots of people were trying to cash in on the Masked Detective with awesome gadgets gig, to varying effect. However, the best of them all is the one I loved and grew up with, the terror that flaps in the night, the one, the only, Darkwing Duck.
Though by day he goes by the mild mannered moniker of Drake Mallard, Darkwing Duck was the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing, self-important and selfishly silly guardian of the fictional city of St. Canard. He was, in essence, an arrogant goofball, who though had a knack for inventing useful gadgets, had way too high of an opinion of himself to really do a lot of good sometimes, or so it would seem. As often as he would get himself into trouble, every time there would come a moment when the situation would get deadly serious, and then from almost out of nowhere he would utter these three words: “Let’s get dangerous.” As catchphrases go, this one stands out, because of what it meant for him. When he said these words, the bumbling goofball somehow became a remarkably competent, deft, and clever crime fighter, and right when all would seem lost, the day would be saved. Though his ego might overshadow his competence, in the end, he almost summons the power to overcome danger by rising to the challenge in these words. Let’s get dangerous.
Paul may not have been a crime fighting duck, but their personality matches fairly well enough for me to see Paul as a dangerously egotistical but also dangerously devout follower of Christ—a flawed hero. The episode from Acts that I read to you earlier perfectly encapsulates this. Paul and Silas walking in Philippi, preaching and talking, and they are followed by this…woman. She was a woman who was possessed by a spirit that could divine spirits, and read things in the spiritual world that most people could not, and this woman was following the pair around, making a bunch of noise, proclaiming who and what Paul and Silas were doing, and generally drawing a bunch of attention to them. It says she did this for “many days.” I can imagine that the first day or so, Paul was probably into it. Hey! Free publicity! That’s not bad thing right? But a funny thing happens after more than a couple of days. It gets old, and it gets annoying. Finally Paul has enough of it, as let’s be honest, so would we. He leaps into action, and does a very Paul thing—he prays. Let’s get dangerous, indeed.
So he’s successful in casting out the spirit—mission accomplished, right? Wrong. This woman was actually a servant of a couple of men who used her prophetic abilities to make money. In essence, being a Christian and doing what Christ, nay, simply praying wound up getting Paul in trouble. For interfering with business, he and Silas got thrown in jail, which at this time was basically a death sentence. The situation had turned serious. Deadly serious. Paul’s personality, actions, and even his faith wound up getting him stuck in prison. But did he give up? Did he give in, back down, or resign himself to his fate? Nope. He got dangerous, and prayed.
He and Silas sang hymns and prayed to God, and in the middle of the night, an earthquake hit strong enough that the very walls of the prison came crashing down around them. Yet nobody was hurt. Nobody escaped. The guard, terrified because of the prospect of both loose criminals and of losing his job, and even on the verge of suicide, peeked in, and what did he see? Old Egotistical, arrogant, yet intelligent, competent and faithful Paul, still in his cell. The rest of the story follows predictably; the guard converts, he and his family get baptized, and everybody lived happily ever after.
It’s a bit of a strange story, and it proves a couple of things. One, it really displays Paul in all Paul’s arrogant glory, both a troublemaker and a representative of the faith. It says a lot about how God operates—that God works in people we may not like, but through them, good can be done and is done. The point of it all though, for me, is that prayer can be a powerful means of change, and an important part of the life of a Christian. In all honesty, though prayer is a good thing, it can also be dangerous.
It’s dangerous because in making space for God, you make space for the unknowable. With good intentions, casting out a spirit turned into a a series of unfortunate events that led to imprisonment. However, the way out of the dangerous situation was also the way they got in. When things got dangerous, Paul turned to prayer, and through prayer, he was released from the very bonds of prison that had him captured. There was no way that Paul could have guessed that it would cause a huge earthquake, potentially hazardous and life threatening—dangerous, in a word. But sometimes, danger can be a good thing.
Praying to God invites God to work in your life, and sometimes that means things will happen that you can’t predict. Sometimes, that means danger. Sometimes, that means you might do something that’s –gasp—possibly hazardous and unfriendly to business, to the status quo, to the way things work and the way things have always been. Being a Christian and praying is dangerous, but it is also a gift, and one we are called to use as the church.
When you pray, it’s not just some idle thing that may make you feel good but ultimately does nothing. Prayer is powerful. Prayer is dangerous. Prayer gets things done, but not always the things we would want to get done. It’s chaotic, it’s unpredictable, but that’s also God, and there is glory and truth and light in it nonetheless. Prayer is our means of communicating with God, and recognizing that God is good, and loving, and willing to be there for us when we need help. We just need to recognize that sometimes inviting God into our lives can be dangerous—but a little danger can do a lot of good. So let’s do it. Let’s pray. Let’s get dangerous.