First Presbyterian Church of Urbana, a Member Church of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and More Light Presbyterians

“Resurrection Life – Mission” A sermon based on Acts 16:16-34

On Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

No good deed goes unpunished. Who said it first, no one is quite sure, but the aphorism sure seems too true sometimes. We might think of Charles Ramsey. He’s the gentlemen who rescued kidnapped girls in Ohio a few years ago. His interview after the rescue went viral, and he was much praised.
But then a website looked into Mr. Ramsey’s background, and learned that he has been a domestic abuse repeat offender, most recently having served time in 2003. Years later, he does a very good deed, only to be shamed by the exposure of a past he might well have been trying hard to atone for. No good deed goes unpunished.
Or we might think of a time when the church kitchen clutter became more than a church wanted to bear. So a good soul finally goes through the pile of plastic containers, containers that have gone unused, some for years, containers that have not been missed in all that time, and donates and recycles the most worn and dated. Word gets out, probably as the pastor is thanking said good soul, and someone who missed the newsletter announcement about the upcoming cleaning, and the month of bulletin announcements, comes down to the kitchen to finally check on a plastic container,
only to find it gone, and who then can’t stop “singing” about how her plastic container once was found, but now is lost. No good deed goes unpunished.
No good deed goes unpunished. We see that clearly in the passage from Acts 16 today. Paul and Silas are in Philippi. You remember how last Sunday we heard about their arrival in Philippi, how they met Lydia, and led her and her household to Christ.
They are still in Philippi, and they are going to the place of prayer. Along the way, they meet a slave girl who has the gift of divination. She’s a kind of seer, who can perceive things about people, and fortune tell. What gift that must have been, but she’s a slave. So she derives no benefit for herself, but instead makes allot of money for her owners. Paul and Silas meet her. It’s all nice and cordial.
But then this girl begins saying and shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Every time she saw them, she said this, for days. They had to be thinking, “We have to wait 2,000 years for Twitter?” Having no way to Twitter her great insight to everyone, she is left to shout it out, over and over.
The experience produced maybe the best line in the New Testament: “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.”
A very good deed, all in all. The girl is freed of the spirit of divination. Paul and Silas are freed from the constant status updates. The punishment comes swiftly.
Realizing that their source of income has just been turned off, the owners of the slave girl immediately convene a kangaroo court. “…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. The Philippian Chamber of Commerce is called into action.
You may remember the story about the day Jesus healed a poor wretch who was possessed by a legion of demons. The demons asked to be cast into nearby swine, and Jesus obliges them. Out they go from the man, an in they go into the pigs. The pigs immediately stampede down the slope into the lake. All are drowned. It is a total loss.
Another good deed. Jesus has made a man well. He is then promptly escorted out of town by the local Pork Dealers Association. No good deed goes unpunished.
Now, some years later, this young woman, afflicted, really, with this spirit of divination, is freed from her possession by Paul. You would think there would be rejoicing.
But no. Economics and religion have gotten mixed up here. The owners do what vested interests have always done when they find that their interests are threatened. You can almost hear the owners say to the chamber of commerce, “We’re not against a little religion, as long as it keep its place.”
“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.”
No vested interest ever says that money is the issue. No, they say, “Our community is threatened.” “Our nation is in danger.” “These men are foreigners.”
Not only that, Paul and Silas are Jews, and everyone knows about Jews. Not only that, but they are advocating strange customs. If nationalism doesn’t work, and if racism doesn’t, then throw in the threat of religion. Nation, race and tradition, all lining up to conceal the real issue: money.
With the local populace sufficiently worked up and provoked, the authorities turn them loose on Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas are badly beaten, probably unconscious. Then the authorities haul them off to the jail, where they are thrown into the back cell, the most secure cell. Their aching legs are wrenched apart and locked into stocks. Their battered, bruised and bleeding arms and hands are clasped into cuffs and chained to the wall. No good deed goes unpunished. And what’s more, tomorrow might be worse.
At some point in the night, around Midnight, Luke writes, Paul and Silas come to, and they decide to sing. Can you imagine? Probably, it wasn’t Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, Brooks and Dunn, or Simon and Garfunkel, what with Paul signing through busted lips, and Silas hardly able to open his mouth with a swollen jaw. But they were singing and praising God, well enough that the other inmates were listening to them.
I wonder what they were singing. Was it something like Hee Haw’s “Gloom, despair and agony on me”? Or was it something like Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?” “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.” Both good songs, fitting songs for their circumstance.
But for my money, I’d bet they were singing a Psalm. And of all the Psalms they might have sung, I bet they sang Psalm 139.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you;” (vs. 7-12a)
Who knows maybe this scene inspired Carole King to sing, “I feel the earth move under my feet…” It must have been something to hear, for that’s what happened. The earth moved, the cell doors opened, and everyone’s chains fell off. Music has that power sometimes.
The poor jailer, he’s awakened by all the fuss, he sees what has happened, and he thinks the worst. Imagining that all have escaped, he takes his sword and is just about to administer his own punishment, when Paul calls out to him, “Don’t do it! We are all here.”
Stunned to hear such good news, The jailer calls for light, and he goes to seek more good news. “What must I do to be saved?” “What must I do to be saved?” Now that could be a complicated question. But the answer is simple. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your whole household, will be saved.”
That, too, is a fascinating aspect of the Book of Acts, that whole households are saved. Whole households hear the Gospel, respond in faith, and are welcomed into a new household, the household of faith. They all become part of a new family, the family of God.
We in our day, in America, too often think of faith as an individual matter. “It’s me and Jesus,” too many proclaim, “and as long as I am saved, that’s all that matters.” Not in the Book of Acts.
And the response to such good news is communal. Those saved respond by showing hospitality. “Much like Lydia last week, the guard hears the gospel and in response hosts Paul and his companions in his home. Once again, hospitality is a marker of his gratitude for the good news. In both the cases of Lydia and this guard, conversion is not a solitary experience, but one shared by all those who together create a home.”
A fitting way to end this season of Eastertide. We end with a story of release,
both of the slave girl and the foreign missionaries, praise in adversity, and transformation from death to life, as Paul and Silas are helped to recover from being beat nearly to death, by the jailer, who moved from thoughts of suicide to faith, baptism, hospitality and much rejoicing. It’s a fitting summation of life lived in the light of the resurrection.
So, yes, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. But for those of us who live in the light of the resurrection, that is never the end of the story. Money will not have the last word. Violence, and imprisonment and death will not have the last word.
In Christ, God’s home is among mortals. And so we sing as we go, sometimes even in prison at midnight. We continue to proclaim the good news with our bold speech. We feel within ourselves the life, the pulsing, earth-moving life, that undoes all that is broken or fearful or closed in, to make way for new life, new freedom, and joy and healing. and we share this freely, today and always, for the sake of the world God loves so much.
No good deed goes unpunished. But even that, in Christ, is finally overcome. Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia.