Easter 7 – Paul & Silas, the Magistrate’s perspective

8 May 2016

 The Sunday after Ascension Day

Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As most of you know I sometimes sit as a Magistrate, which is a great privilege, as much of life passes before the court, and we do try to do justice to the best of our abilities without fear or favour.

Now, I want to tell you about a very interesting case that came before the court, which seemed quite straightforward at the beginning, but which got stranger and stranger as it progressed and left my fellow magistrates and I in some alarm.

The day began as any other. The Magistrate’s bench was set up at one end of the marketplace in the middle of Philippi. We sit in the marketplace because that is where most of the disputes seem to arise – sometimes it is simply common thieves shoplifting from stalls, sometimes it is traders fighting about who has cheated who and sometimes we even get a murderer brought before us…but we have to send them up to the higher authorities to deal with.

As I say, the day started as any other and the early cases were run-of-the-mill stuff which I can hardly remember. I think we had someone who accused a stall holder of mixing sand into the rice, or some such thing. We dismissed the case; I tell you it is the compensation culture gone mad. I blame these no-win no-fee advocates going around the market place trying to drum up business.

Anyway, the next thing we know the place is in uproar and we were faced with two very disgruntled looking citizens of Phillipi who had seized hold of two visitors to our city and dragged them before us.

Although I didn’t know the two Philippian citizens well, I was aware of them and their own particular way of making a living.   They owned a slave girl whom they had originally bought to help out around the house, but through good fortune or ill (you can make your own mind up about that) it turned out that this slave had a gift for fortune-telling. Others said that she was possessed by a spirit.

Whatever you think about such things, and personally I find it quite distasteful, it seems that lots of people will pay good money to be told their fortune and so these people, sorry I should say citizens, dragged this girl around being paid handsomely by all and sundry to hear her predictions.

Where was I?

Oh yes. Those citizens of Philippi dragged two strangers before us that day and started accusing them of all sorts:

These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

To be honest I wasn’t that impressed by them starting off with the whole anti-Jewish thing. Although there aren’t many Jews in Philippi I am no anti-Semite, and I find that as distasteful as I do making a living out of fortune telling. So they weren’t doing that great with me so far.

But we told everyone to calm down and got them to tell us the whole story. It seems that their slave girl had started following these Jewish visitors around; they were called Paul and Silas by the way, and had started yelling at them:

These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

Now having that yelled at you once or twice would be annoying enough but it seems that she had been following Paul and Silas for many days, yelling it over and over.

These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

Eventually the one called Paul said to the poor-benighted slave girl:

In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her.”

I had never heard the name of Jesus Christ before, and I think he was another Jewish person who had been executed a good number of years ago. Anyway, it seems that there was some power in that name because immediately the spirit of fortune telling left her – poof! gone!

I don’t know quite how the slave girl felt about that, relieved I would have thought, but I could see very clearly how her owners felt – their money-for-old-rope cash-cow was gone. They would have to go back to earning an honest living, I mean can you imagine…

As you can probably tell, left to my own devices I would have had little sympathy with the owners of the slave girl. I would have told them that it was good while it had lasted but what the gods had given, the Most High God had taken away. But my fellow magistrates didn’t feel quite the same, they said the Emperor’s peace had been disturbed, that Paul and his accomplice Silas had unlawfully interfered with their business and so on and so forth. And I could hardly deny that the peace had been disturbed given all the uproar earlier.

But I did manage to moderate the sentence a bit – the others were all for some unpleasant amputations, but I got them down to a lashing with rods and a night in the cells to cool off. You may think that still sounds harsh but let me tell you that I have been lashed with the rod a few times myself and it never did me any harm.

After the lashing was over the jailer was told to guard them carefully and they were taken away to the cells. We have to tell the jailers to guard them carefully because since the prisons were privatised you can never tell what they will do next.

As far as we were concerned that was the end of the matter and we thought no more about it for the rest of the day. There was quite a violent earthquake that night, but it is not uncommon to feel quakes around here so there was nothing unusual in that. But it was the following morning that things started to get even stranger.

As I said we only wanted Paul and Silas to spend one night in the cells so the following morning we sent our officers to the jailer with the instruction to release them. And then it all came out that the earthquake the night before had shaken all the doors open and released all the prisoners. But, instead of escaping, which would have cost the jailer his life, the prisoners had stayed put and had told the jailer that if he wished to be saved he should believe in the Lord Jesus, there is that name again, and be baptised, which seems to be a way of washing away your sins and starting again.

So, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the city jail, the jailer became of follower of Jesus and he and all his household were baptised by this Paul and Silas.

Anyway, our officers told the jailer that Paul and Silas could be released but then things got a bit complicated legally. Rather than just going away quietly Paul started complaining that he had not had a fair trial the day before and, even worse, it turned out that as well as being Jewish he was also a Roman citizen. This could have made life rather awkward for us magistrates on a number of fronts. Long story short, all of the magistrates decided that we needed to smooth this over and so we all trooped down to the jail ourselves to try and appease these disgruntled citizens and to encourage them to try and leave our city quietly. And quite amazingly, they did, which caused a few sighs of relief around the Philippi Bench, I can tell you.

But, you know, ever since it happened I can’t seem to get the name of Jesus out of my head. As it happens I had sometimes bought purple cloth from the woman Lydia who had recently been baptised along with all her household, and now the jailer and all his household had done the same and it seemed that this name Jesus had the power to cast out spirits and to set captives free. Certainly Paul and the other followers of Jesus seemed to have something, something I can’t put my finger on, which the owners of the slave girl never had.

This coming Sabbath I may go for a little walk in the morning. I understand that they have a place of prayer by a river outside the City gate. I want to talk further to Lydia and the jailer about the power of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and perhaps even to ask them about baptism.