Are you a troublemaker? This is what Paul and Silas are called in Philippi. They were accused of troubling the city. Today, Christians are rarely viewed as troublemakers. In fact, the church today is riddled with respectability.
Respectability was drilled deep into my DNA as I grew up. I still have an instinctive uneasiness about “causing trouble” in public. In 2003, I joined 2 million people in the protest march in London against the Iraq war. It was my first and I was deeply uncomfortable because it fitted under the category “causing trouble in public.” I did love doing it until something happened. When the protest ended, one of my friends joined about 200 protesters who were heading back to the houses of Parliament. The police were less friendly towards this impromptu march. The first thought I had was “I don’t want any trouble.” The police corralled the group for about 4 hours and I fretted about being identified with troublemakers while my friend was delighted – because the protest could keep going!
A Christian friend in Nottingham had been tempted to join the protest in London, but couldn’t – his Christian, middle-class, respectable upbringing made it impossible to even imagine doing it. The desire for respectability runs deep in Christians.
But the early church was not interested in respectability, not worried about causing or inviting trouble. Jesus didn’t worry either! The Gospels show us that he was far from respectable. In fact, he was even called a drunkard and a glutton who kept the company of prostitutes and sinners. I suspect most of don’t run that risk.
Acts 16 is the story about the amazing working of the Holy Spirit and God’s saving power. It tells us about the conversion of Lydia and her household, the deliverance of the slave girl from a divination spirit, and the miraculous events that lead to the conversion of the jailer and his household.
But if we focus only on the miracles and conversions, we miss something very relevant to us: Paul and Silas, like the other early Christians, were troublemakers. We, too are called to be trouble makers of a sort in our world.
Paul and Silas met the slave girl who followed them shouting out (some translations say she was screaming) that they were “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaimed the way of Salvation.” It is curious that Paul did not respond for some days. Why not? Firstly, she brought her owners a lot of money and interfering in this would cause a backlash. The girl was within the city gates, and as a Roman, Paul knew it was illegal to convert someone to a non-Roman cult in the premises of a Roman colony.
But this was not all. We are told that Paul and Silas went outside the city gate on the Sabbath to find a place of prayer. There was a reason for this. Philippi had no synagogue, no place of Jewish worship. A quorum of 10 Jewish men was needed for an official synagogue, so clearly Philippi had very few Jews. And the accusations against of Paul and Silas suggest Philippi was not Jew friendly – the Jews were ‘outsiders’ – migrants who were ethnically different and of another religion.
So Paul was cautious and when he cast out the spirit from the girl. They were causing a LOT of trouble, and they knew it.
The Philippians reaction was swift and vengeful. They dragged Paul and Silas to the authorities and magistrates with two accusations.
The first accusation is that Paul and Silas were “throwing the city into confusion and causing trouble.”
What was this trouble?
The owners “hope of making money was gone.” As one writer described it “their profits went out with the demon.” They had lost the source of their profits and it had touched a raw nerve. As it always does, even today. Money speaks loudly. If exploitative profits are threatened, there will be trouble.
The second accusation against Paul and Silas fans the racism of the crowd: “these men who are disturbing the city… are Jews going against Roman customs.”
Preparing the sermon during the time of elections, I was reminded of the mayoral election in London where there was a smear campaign against Sadiq Khan (now the elected mayor). The comment was that because he was a Muslim, he could be linked to terrorists. Society and people have changes little through the centuries. The same buttons get pushed!
Paul and Silas, in exorcising the spirit, knew they were destroying the exploitative, money-making venture. Yet they acted.
An article, titled “God’s Bankers” in 2011 by Alex Preston (a banker-turned-writer and journalist) showed that Christian bankers in London were very different to Paul and Silas. Alex was curious about how “disciples of evangelical Christianity reconcile their faith with the avarice of high finance.” While a banker, he realised that colleagues disappeared at lunchtime to a secret Christian meeting. Years later he reconnected with them – some now middle ranking executives at different banks. He was disappointed at the guarded conversations they had, all requesting anonymity, as if a lawyer was watching over their shoulders. Although he valued the morality of Christian bankers and thought their Christian giving was commendable, he was disturbed because they were not concerned about abusive and greedy financial system they worked in. Some were ashamed of their faith and kept it a secret because it would hamper their banking careers. One of them told Alex that because London was an amoral city, if his colleagues knew he was a Christian it would make things very difficult for him. If his boss knew he prayed, he would look irrational. So he told his boss he was going for physiotherapy when he went for a prayer meeting. The story was echoed by others. They didn’t want to cause trouble for themselves. They were afraid.
Invisible Christians. Keeping their heads down. Not speaking out against the corruption of the city and its systems. No word to say to a curious journalist about the Godly ethics of money. No courage to identify themselves in public as those who belong to another Kingdom with different values. Afraid of the consequences. Not wanting to be troublemakers. This is precisely what Paul and Silas were not in Philippi. They knew the dangers – but they still acted.
The early Church followed Jesus’ footsteps. As Paul said, “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” The early Church didn’t just cause trouble – they faced death. Many Christians still do in parts of our world.
Paul and Silas suffered an attack by the crowd, and a public flogging It is interesting that they don’t tell the authorities at this point that they were Roman citizens. If they had, things would have been different. They would have had a fair trial. But they were silent. They let everyone believe they were Jews. Unlike the silent fearful Christian bankers in London, intent on self-preservation, Paul and Silas deliberately let themselves be identified as Jews, and be beaten. They didn’t use their Roman citizenship to escape.
I speculated about this. I wonder if they chose to identify with those in Philippi who were treated badly if they stepped out of line or interfered with the systems of the city. Maybe the reason that there were very few Jews in the city was because this was how the City treated them. Perhaps they endured the persecution as an example to the emerging Christian community, which might someday suffer the same fate. In fact, the first chapter of Philippians might confirm this possibility. Paul often says in his Epistles: “for your sake I endure suffering, for your sake I am persecuted, for your sake I am in chains.” There is another reason I will come to in a minute.
Paula and Silas end up in prison. Now they don’t need to worry about the legalities of conversion. It couldn’t have got much worse! They pray and sing hymns as the prisoners listening to them. When the earthquake breaks their chains and opens the prison doors, the terrified jailer recognises God’s hand, and he and his household find salvation.
But, at the end of Acts 16 we discover that Paul and Silas went on to cause further trouble. When the magistrates and authorities ask for them to be released, instead of leaving quietly, Paul sends a message back to the authorities. This is what he says: “They have beaten us in public, un-condemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The authorities are afraid and come in person to apologise to Paul and Silas. They beg and plead with them to leave the city. Perhaps Paul didn’t reveal his identity earlier because he was reserving it for a time when it would cause discomfort and fear in the authorities. One commentator says that in doing this Paul may have been acting to safeguard the new Christians in Philippi.
If you saw the film “Amazing Grace” – you would have seen the length to which William Wilberforce went in order to ensure that slaves were set free. The trouble he got into, the way it jeopardised his career as a politician.
Often today, we as Christians, wear a badge of respectability. We don’t want to disturb the status quo. We don’t want to rock any boats, jeopardise our positions or reputations. We are afraid to act in situations we need to. In Acts 17, Paul and Silas are attacked again, this time by Jews, who describe them as “these are the people who have been turning the world upside down”
Are you a trouble maker? Someone who turns the world upside down?
We must dare to live in the paradox that Jesus calls us to: to be both peacemakers and troublemakers for Christ and his Kingdom. A Godly people, who turn the world upside down.