Return to Barbarism (Acts 16:16-34)

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is risen! [Indeed he is risen!] Al-Masīḥ qām! [Ḥaqqan qām!] Christos anesti! [Alithos anesti!] Khristos voskrese! [Voistinu voskrese!] Hristos a înviat! Adevărat a înviat!] Resurrexit Christus! [Vere resurrexit!]

The story of the conversion of the jailer, Paul and Silas singing a hymn in the middle of the night, that same Paul and Silas who appeared in another hymn—“It was good for Paul and Silas, it was good for Paul and Silas, and it’s good enough for me.” I don’t know that that’s the hymn that they were singing in the middle of the night. I’m suspecting it was probably “Let God arise; let his enemies be scattered.” That would be something to solicit interest.

I want to approach this text this morning, though, my brothers and sisters, from what we could call a moral perspective. I want to talk about children. It seems to me very important to talk about children. In fact, if I were a priest in Europe, I would talk about nothing else, because Europe is dying from lack of children. Children are inconvenient. Only two countries in Europe—only two—are replacing their own population by birth: Albania and Kosovo, both of them predominantly Muslim. Christian Europe is going to disappear by the end of the present century. I won’t be around to see it, but my great-great-grandchildren are going to be. Notre Dame is going to become a mosque, the great church of the Crusaders become a mosque. Western civilization is absolutely destroying itself with birth control and abortion, but these are only symptoms of a deeper, much deeper, spiritual malaise that has to do with the attitude toward children.

First, today’s reading begins with the exploitation of a child. I’ll read it for you again in the New King James Version.

Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain girl possessed of a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by sooth-saying.

This girl is described as possessed. What possesses her? It’s what the text calls a pythonic spirit: pnevma python. She herself is described as a paidiske, which means a young girl, that’s all. The pythonic spirit—that’s what it says in Greek—is the spirit of the Delphic oracle, isn’t it, the spirit of the python? This spirit recognizes the message of Paul and Silas.

“These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.”

She started shifting from sooth-saying to a little something more serious. We remember, in fact, that in the gospel of Mark the demons are the first ones to recognize who Jesus is.

[She] brought her masters much profit by sooth-saying.

That is to say, this is an abused child. She’s being maintained for the profit she brings to her owners. She is thus a slave. In fact, some of the translations actually translate paidiske as “slave girl.” She is a rather extreme example of the abused child, held in bondage for the advantage of those who exploit her.

There is more slavery, especially slavery of children, in the world right now—international slave trade—than in any other period in human history. What do we think of slavery? You see, what Paul and Silas face in this story is a terrible evil. This little girl is not loved. She’s not wanted for herself. She is the embodiment of all abused children in history. In particular, we observe that this abuse has an economic base and an economic impulse. In fact, economic considerations become very important to this story.

My beloved, let us make no mistake on this point. The abuse of children cries to heaven for vengeance. Let me suggest to you that the primary, most basic form of child abuse is not to want them, to resent them when they show up, because we had other plans. God looked at that, my brothers and sisters, and he hates it! Children are not an inconvenience, and to think of them as burdens, to weigh children in an economic balance, is something hateful to God, and civilizations have been destroyed for that sin. Alas, this is how the world thinks. There is a distinct chance that we, too, might be tainted by the influence of this world in this respect, because it appears to me what we’re having in Western civilization right now is a return—not to paganism, because paganism does much better than that—a return to barbarism.

One week ago in the afternoon, I saw this on the news. A well-known community organizer gave a speech in a little town in northern Indiana. He said that those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life—or anti-abortion—could at least come together on a common ground. Already the ground is no longer common. You see, that is exactly what Elijah was talking about on Mount Carmel. Who were the prophets of Ba’al? What is the worship of Ba’al? What is the chief expression of the worship of Ba’al? It’s the killing of children, the slaughtering of children. And Elijah looked at the prophets of Ba’al and looked at the Israelites and says, “One or the other, boys. You can’t walk both sides of that fence.” We do not have a common ground.

What was the “common ground” this community organizer said we should find? The reduction of unwanted pregnancies. Now I wasn’t at all surprised this man said this. I wasn’t even particularly shocked or dis-edified. What did bother me is that hundreds of people—hundreds—gave him a round of applause for that statement. For that statement, he was applauded, because that’s something we can all agree about: children are just unwanted pregnancies. We can certainly agree on that thesis, right? And people applauded.

The deliberate murder of small children was the sin for which Tyre and Sidon and Carthage were destroyed, and a massive step in that direction is to refer to any child as an unwanted pregnancy. That is to de-personalize somebody made in God’s image and likeness and the object of God’s infinite love and the one for whom Christ shed his precious blood. It is blasphemous even to think such a thing, but to say it—that is to invite the wrath of God and the contempt and condemnation of everyone with a clean conscience. But again, I regard that as a symptom, not the cause. To speak about unwanted pregnancies, that’s the Holocaust in rhetorical form.

That brings us to point number two. How does the Church regard this exploitation of the child in today’s reading? Paul says to the little girl:

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

He invokes the name of Jesus on this little girl. That’s what’s important. He invokes the name of Jesus on the child. The child is set free from her bondage, and those who exploited her are deprived of the profits of her slavery. I’ll read you the text again.

But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the marketplace to the authorities. […] Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods.

We all know that Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. Everybody seems to know that, but sometimes people forget why. They were beaten and thrown in jail because they had helped an enslaved and abused child. They challenged an economic system. They put their bodies between that child and her abusers.

What is the historical significance of this incident? As far as the Scriptures testify, this is the first Christian miracle worked in Europe. Remember, they had just crossed over. They came from Troas (Troy), up to Samothrace, and then arrived over in Macedonia. This incident was likewise the first recorded persecution of Christians on the continent of Europe, and it had to do with the liberation of a child. This is how the Christian Church entered Europe: by affirming the dignity and worth of a child and invoking the name of Jesus over a child against those who exploited that child for economic advantage. In this way, the Gospel took aim at the very root of barbarian Europe.

It was the beginning of a challenge in a cultural transformation. The entire direction of European history was altered by the story we read today. Europe learned to receive little children as Christ, and that’s what Jesus says we must do. “He who receives a child as me.” “Receive the little children as me.” He identifies himself with every little child, and that’s why to speak of an unwanted pregnancy is blasphemy against Christ. He has identified himself with every child who is conceived. The child becomes very important to European art and music in ways it never had before. A major feature of Christian art is a mother holding the child. It’s a symbol for everything that Christians hold dear and precious.

And third, before leaving Philippi this morning in this reading, Paul and Silas had one more thing they needed to do. They needed to baptize an entire household: father, mother, and children. Listen to what the jailer asked them.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Big important question, isn’t it? “What must I do to be saved?” Here’s the answer:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of God to all of them, to all who were in the house, and (says the text) he took them at that same hour and washed their stripes, and immediately he and all his household were baptized.

He and all his household are baptized. That is the attitude of the Christian Church with respect to conversion: the entire household is baptized. It appears to me that a most serious form of child abuse is to deprive children of baptism. I say that to a lot of Christians. It’s a very serious thing to do, to deprive children of baptism, to keep them outside the Church. “We’ll sort of string them along, but we won’t let them come in. We will not incorporate them in the only way one can be incorporated in Christ, and that is by baptism.” Observe that the apostles made no distinction between adults and children with respect to baptism and membership in the Church.

You see, my beloved, there are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. In an accord with their age, children receive the same blessings as adults. They are baptized. They receive the Holy Spirit. They partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. You see, in the Church of the apostles, it is not a matter of concern how high your head is, but how far down your feet go—and that’s all on the same level. All of us stand on the same level, even those of us who are not able yet to stand.

The Church of the apostles is a home, a home where God’s children are loved and cherished and called by name. Indeed, each of us receives his name from the Church, don’t we? The name is picked by somebody else, but we don’t really have that name until the Church baptizes us by that name. It’s a sacramental conferring of our identity by the people of God. This is the reason why we are addressed by name when we receive holy Communion. The Church affirms us. Why? Because Christ affirms us. He calls each of his sheep by name in the gathering of all his children: in baptism, in holy Communion. The love and communion that we have for one another, the support for one another, all of that is called the Church of the Lord.