My inner response to this week’s Scripture from Acts 16 is best described by the word disruptive. It’s troublesome and unsettling. We move from fortune-telling slave girls to demons being cast out, dark prisons of Philippi, Paul and Silas incongruently singing in chains, earthquakes, and forgiveness for jailors. It almost makes you think that the Acts of the Apostles may be patterned on Homer’s Odyssey, the epic journey coming home from the Trojan War. This is the early Christian version of the epic trials while spreading the gospel.
The passage starts with disrupting injustice. What happens to this woman, who gets mentioned only as a “slave girl”? I hate it when a character enters the story for a few sentences, her already difficult life is turned upside down, and the scene moves on without knowing what happened to her, let alone her name. She is literary collateral damage. The slave’s disappearance from the story disturbs me because of what I have observed, listened to and read about the work in homeless shelters and with the homeless over my lifetime. Much of my response comes from watching the work of the City Missions in Aotearoa (NZ), the Exodus Foundation and the Wayside Chapel at Kings Cross.
If one involves oneself in such work you can watch many people briefly emerge from homelessness or addiction and then disappear from the scene. There sadly will be so many that you will struggle to remember their names. They come from jail, rehab, psychiatric hospitalisation, and fleeing domestic violence; their stories a cascade of overlapping oppressions. Just as we would cast out one demon, another would possess them and carry them back into the hopeless chaos. They would disappear from the life of those working with them as did this slave woman in Acts.
Despite Paul’s intentions, casting out the demon from this woman does not make her life better. He has relieved his own anxiety, can now say he did something about “the problem,” but she is worse off than before. We have done this enough to know that it is impossible to go back and “fix” the situation, and the sufferers disappear too quickly from the scene. I bet he never forgot her, even if Scripture does.
I wonder what other behaviours we practice in our lives as humans that isolate others, ignore them or just be there for a one off support as with the slave girl. I wonder why we as humans but especially as Christians are unable to walk with those who are broken as God calls us to and shows in the life of his Son, Jesus. You know, we all know games of false righteousness: how men will hold the door for women but keep them out of the boardroom; how churches will build ramps but find reasons not to ask people in wheelchairs to be deacons; how sex becomes a commodity rather than an intimacy; how races and cultures are considered grotesque by people who love Jesus; how being good becomes a matter of looking good; how Sunday becomes a looking-good day.
Our politicians can be masters at this insincere fake if you like behaviour. We have just been through two Elections in this state and got our fair share of it. Sadly, it has to be noted that such behaviour seems often to win and the homeless and others are left frozen our yet again.
The gospels present several Sabbath (Holy Day like Sunday) healings: the bent-over woman, the woman with a bleeding discharge, the man with dropsy, and this poor fellow, lying in the Sheep’s Gate entry to a healing pool provided for the afflicted, yet no one will help him into the pool. Each story is a version of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty sees in the Beast what the rest of the world does not. True Beauty refuses to see a being unlike herself. Jesus, who is Beauty in gospel tales, embraces many who are considered grotesque, and presses us to see as he sees, to love as he loves. Those in need carry the face of God whom we are to love deeply and fully. This is the journey of the groups from our communities such as a City Mission, the Wayside Chapel, and the Exodus Foundation exist to become. To be the beauty of Jesus.
Jesus breaks Sabbath rules by healing. In our culture, the rule-break would be “without a license.” Sabbath, he struggles to make clear, is a day to recognise that our lives are not what we make of them but what we find in them. Each life includes something grotesque, something beastly. But that is not all we are. For Jesus, Sabbath is a time to receive Beauty’s kiss, a time when distinctions fall away and the blessing of God is heard. A time to become inclusive not exclusive. In the final act of Jesus’ story, he will become the Beast, betrayed by a kiss. And in his grotesque body, he will be set free by love, and on the Sabbath day.