Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – People of Peace in a Violent World

Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – October 18, 2020

We’re going to talk about violence today. I don’t like talking about violence, I don’t like watching it in movies or in the news. So even though I’d often rather skip over the violent parts of the Bible or find something else to talk about, I’m glad the Bible has something to say about living as people of peace in a violent world. We need all the help we can get. I know this because I’ve been praying for y’all, especially when you put in prayer cards. We got heavy stuff weighing on us already. And even if it’s coming from the Bible, it can still feel too heavy to listen to more violence, riots, beatings. So we’re going to work together, hold it gently, and trust that God’s got a good word for us today.

One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” She did this for many days.

This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.

Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center.

This woman’s enslavers are really upset that Paul and Silas ruined their financial exploitation. Now I thought they would go to the police and say “these men exorcised a demon from our slave without our consent and we would like to prosecute.” Maybe they could be sued for damages. But you see what they do instead.

When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod.

Remember last week when Pastor Donnell was talking about how crazy difficult it was for Jewish and Gentile believers to figure out how to worship together? This story right here is a little window into why. Paul’s enemies don’t say a word about their enslaved girl or their lost income. They turn straight to the anti-Jewish sentiment simmering right below the surface in Philippi. They complain that Jewish customs are offensive to the Roman way of life.

And everybody in the marketplace was already ready to believe there was something wrong or threatening about the distinctive culture and customs that Jews lived by, like circumcision, sabbath, and worshiping just one God. This is probably not the first time that anti-Jewish sentiment has erupted into violence, and I say this because everybody in the Philippi marketplace already knew what side they were going to take. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten, and imprisoned. And not for following Jesus. Not for freeing this woman from an evil spirit. It’s for being Jewish. That’s the only thing the riot is about.

When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.

Where is God, church? Where is God when somebody gets beat up for their ethnic identity? Where is God when the police are very careful and thorough with their beatings and security, but very negligent with their evidence, investigation, or even learning the first thing about the person in their custody?

Church, the whole point of Jesus is that God is right there on the inside. In Jesus, God too got beaten up for his ethnic identity, abused by soldiers who were good at torture and bad at justice, condemned by a mob and not protected by the law. So when God stands against violence, it’s not just on some moral high ground that violence is wrong. In Jesus, God says “OUCH! STOP! THIS IS NOT OKAY! YOU’RE HURTING ME!”

This story has a happy ending. God breaks open the prison, frees Paul and Silas, rescues the jailer, and in the end the same people who beat them up for nothing come to publicly acknowledge their rights. We’re going to get there. I want us to take our time a little today so we can learn something about how to be people of peace in a violent world.

  1. People of peace cannot use the tools of a violent world.

Violence is a very straightforward and accessible way to get power. But getting power from violence requires some tradeoffs. And at the heart of our identity as people of peace is the conviction that these tradeoffs are NOT WORTH IT. We have a better way to live.

The simplest one is that when we use violence, we get control at the expense of relationship. And sure this is true for dictators and stuff. But it’s just as true for us. If you’ve ever tried to control someone, or been controlled, you know how this works. In the family of God we’re committed to relationship over control.

Another trade off that violence requires is that it dehumanizes others at the expense of your own humanity. That’s not as complicated as it sounds. I can show you in a story. here’s a story that’s about just about all of us. Okay so imagine, or remember, a time when you’re having a fight with someone you care about. You’re doing your best to fight clean, handle yourself in a mature way. But while tensions are high, a thought comes into your mind, something you immediately know is not a good idea to say. It’s really mean, and the worst thing is that it’s actually at least a little bit true so you know it’s really going to sting, and if you say it you’ll be personally confirming the deep personal insecurities of this person you care about.

At first you don’t say it but your patience wears down, and finally you just blurt out that thing to say you were holding in all this time…

Now two things happen now at the very same time. First, you see the look on your friend/child/parent/sibling/partner’s face and you can tell it WORKED, it had exactly the effect you knew it would. And also you see that you are a monster and a terrible person and what kind of human would say something like that to a person they love.

That’s how dehumanizing somebody works. When we use violence to attack someone else’s self worth and dignity, it does a real number on our own as well. It’s not so different when we do it with bodies or institutional power. It just sometimes takes longer than others for that backlash of dehumanizing to come back at us—in this story, it comes back to smack the jailer in the face later this same night.

#2 People of peace have a lot of power.

Now even though the people of peace are getting beat up and killed all over the Bible, the people of peace are not powerless!

See, the people of peace get to use all the power that violent people traded away.

When they chose control, we kept relationships. Relationships have power!

When they chose to dehumanize, we kept our humanity—and our ability to see others as human. Valueing human life has power.

They chose this lie that with enough violence they can be invulnerable, and it’s eating them alive…meanwhile we are free to be part of God’s power working in the world. These things really make a difference.

In fact, the people of peace have a SUPERPOWER. What superpower could be a formidable foe to those who trust in violence? I thought instant resurrection would be a great superpower—like every time a christian gets killed, they just pop right back up again. But that is not how resurrection works for us. God gave us a different superpower. One that a violent world can never achieve on its own and is desperately sought after by people everywhere. I’m going to tell you a little more about what it looks like to live as people of peace, and see if you can figure out what our superpower is.

See how this played out for Paul and Silas.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 

Living peacefully in a violent world is HARD. Nobody just has this in them already, not even Paul and Silas. So we have to be people of prayer if we’re going to keep being people of peace. One of the best ways to humanize humans, is to start by God-ifying God. That puts the rest in perspective. Paul and Silas remind themselves and each other over and over that God is on the throne in heaven, that God is right there in the prison with them, and violence is not the end of the story.

It’s also a subtle form of resistance here. Like, if you’re going to beat us up and throw us in jail because you think Jews have intolerably weird customs, we’re going to be the weirdest prisoners you’ve ever had, singing our intolerably Jewish songs and prayers at the top of our lungs for the whole prison to hear.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 

#3 People of peace embody radical welcome

God sets every prisoner free! Every person in that jail that’s been hearing God’s praises loudly sung all night, has experienced for themselves God’s power! We don’t know who any of them are, but given how Paul and Silas ended up here, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others who fell out of favor with someone powerful, or belonged to the wrong ethnic group, and ended up here. Imagine all those folks going home and telling their families, somebody else’s powerful god showed up for all of us. That’s the kind of testimony that we’re capable of when we partner with the power of a Resurrection God instead of violence and control.

But now Jesus has his sights set on the JAILER.

When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

This man had traded in relationship for control a long time ago. He was used to dehumanizing others which tells us something about his own connection to god and himself. Very suddenly, he is not powerful. He is not invulnerable. Because the only tools he has are tools of violence, he turns those tools against himself. That is always a risk for those who choose violence.

So the tables are turned. Paul and Silas have the upper hand. And they unleash their SUPERPOWER OF WELCOME! They can see him as loved and desired by God even when he couldn’t. They stand up for him, firstly by still being there and then by crying out in the dark to him that his life has value.

The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

Paul knew this kind of conversion better than anyone. He’s been in the place of seeing others—especially Christians—as no longer worthy of life or dignity. He too committed his life to using violence to control others. And he too came to a point of repentance as a last resort. He knew the experience of being confronted with the power of the God of peace. In Paul’s case that was a vision of the persecuted Jesus saying OUCH! In the jailer’s case, he responds by washing the very wounds he inflicted.

This shared meal is the beginning of a profound gesture of welcome. See, a lot of things are about to change in the jailers life now that he belongs to Jesus. Whatever prejudice or rude jokes or assumptions he carried about Jewish people yesterday, they didn’t just wash off him when he got baptized. This is what makes welcome a real superpower. Paul knows Jesus has a lot of work left to do on this jailer—but he already extends to him the welcome he received from Ananias and Barnabas and others. They’re going to treat him like a brother while he navigates the learning curve of joining a mixed Jewish-gentile community of worship.

Here’s how our story ends:

The next morning the legal authorities sent the police to the jailer with the order “Release those people.”

So the jailer reported this to Paul, informing him, “The authorities sent word that you both are to be released. You can leave now. Go in peace.”

Paul told the police, “Even though we are Roman citizens, they beat us publicly without first finding us guilty of a crime, and they threw us into prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? No way! They themselves will have to come and escort us out.” The police reported this to the legal authorities, who were alarmed to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They came and consoled Paul and Silas, escorting them out of prison and begging them to leave the city.

Paul and Silas go back to the prison just to be escorted out of it. Their position as people of peace gives them a platform to expose the shameful work of the police, the government, and the mob. As people of peace, their message isn’t “look now we’re on top and you’re the losers.” It’s “can you see yet that this really isn’t working for you?”

Church, when we choose to become people of peace, we have a lot of power. We have superpowers of radical welcome that can transform even our enemies, through the Holy Spirit. We also have this power of witness. Paul and Silas become witnesses of the shameful work of violence. And they also become witnesses to a powerfully better way to live and be human in relationship with God. The promises of violence have never looked more appealing than they do today. But our world has never been more hungry for welcome and belonging than it is today. So today, let’s buckle down to practice our prayer and worship, our repentance and faithfulness, our community and welcome. Every person in our sphere, from the most forgotten prisoner to the mayor and the jailer, is waiting to hear that powerful voice in the dark saying “we see you, we’re here, you matter to God.”