Acts 16: 16-34; 1Corinthians 12: 12-27
The children’s time was set up so that all the kids had a paper “ball” and were asked to make a basket from where they were seated, with the reward that they would be called “the best voice in the St. John’s choir.” Of course only four boys made it, all of whom sat in front of the basket. We then had a conversation about who had the advantage, and what it means to have privilege.
As we saw a few minutes ago with the budding basketball skills of our singers this morning, privilege is really about power— the power each one of us has, not because of anything we’ve done, but instead because of our status or our skin color or what country we were born in or what language we speak or because our culture values the talents happen to have; or, as in our game, because the choir director told you to sit in a certain order. And power that comes from privilege often gets lived out as freedom.
One example of this is what happens when we travel outside of the United States as American citizens. One year when I took a road trip through South Africa, my friends and I wanted to stop in Swaziland where there is a huge national park. Swaziland, however, is a country completely surrounded by the country of South Africa. My friend Janak is from India. His passport allowed him to go into South Africa only once. If we went into Swaziland, it would be illegal for him to re-enter South Africa. All of us were students; all of us were in Southern Africa for the same education; all of us were the same age; but Janak didn’t have the privilege, the power, the freedom to go wherever he wanted to; the laws were different for him because of something he couldn’t control— the country he had been born into.
Often when we think of putting ministry in the hands of the people, we think specifically of finding a teacher to teach; a singer to sing; an administrator to organize. And that’s definitely part of our third church goal: to equip people to be disciples of Jesus in their everyday life. But if we stop there, then what we’re really saying is that living as a disciple has only to do with what you are able to contribute— it’s a very consumer oriented view of discipleship. Instead, it’s important for us to go deeper and recognize that this goal is also about sharing power, about recognizing privilege, about helping one another find places of healing so we can be our authentic selves.
Which is why this image that Paul writes about time and time again, about all of us being a body, is so wise. We all know that when one part of our body hurts, it affects every other part of our body. Even something that is small in size like a Bunyan on your toe or a pinched nerve in your neck or a muscle spasm can make a day miserable. We know that when one part of our body is healed, it contributes to the health of the whole body. And so it is with our human community. When one of us hurts, we all hurt; when one of us has joy, we all benefit from that joy.
In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, this book that was written about the early followers of Jesus, we see a messy story about privilege, about power, about racism, about slavery, about imprisonment, and about government. It literally has everything we aren’t supposed to talk about in church all wrapped up together.
Paul and Silas have been traveling around talking to people about Jesus, when they get into trouble. A young girl, who is possessed by some kind of demon, has been yelling at them everywhere they go and Paul heals the girl; which sounds like a good thing except this girl is a slave and her owners are now very upset. While its clear that the appropriate response to healing is celebration and joy, her owners were making money off of her illness, and so they are now enraged. They bring Paul and Silas to the government officials, and if you thought it was already an ugly situation, it only gets uglier, for here we see a pattern that will look familiar to all of us. Perhaps knowing that they would look bad if they explained what they are actually upset about, the slave owners fall back on racist stereotypes. They blame Paul and Silas for disturbing the peace because they are Jews. They make false accusations against them because they are outsiders. And then Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown into prison.
It’s fairly obvious who has the power in this situation, isn’t it? It’s obvious who has the privilege— the slave owners not only use their privilege and their power to make a profit off of a young girl who is ill; but in their rage they also lash out at Paul and Silas, recognizing their vulnerability in being Jews in a Roman colony, and getting back at them by flexing their muscles of privilege.
But the writer of Acts isn’t done yet. Because God isn’t done yet. And even though it looks like it is the girl who is enslaved and Paul and Silas who are imprisoned, everything turns upside down. The girl is released from her demon, and before we have time to worry about Paul and Silas the author of Acts tells us that they are in jail singing and praying when an earthquake comes and the doors of the prison are opened. Do you remember what Jesus read in the temple for his first sermon? He told them “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor; to proclaim release prisoners; and recovery of sight to the blind; to to set the oppressed free.” And Christ is still doing all of those things in the book of Acts through Paul, Silas, and many others.
Here it is that we find out that those who imprisoned Paul and Silas are actually the ones who are enslaved to a master of wealth and violence. Here it is that we find out that the jailer, right outside the door, the one who had beaten Paul and Silas hours before, the one who seemed free and full of privilege, is not free at all. When he finds out the doors have been opened, he assumes the prisoners have fled and he is about to kill himself out of shame and fear when Paul calls to him, saying, “We’re all accounted for. Don’t harm yourself.” And it is in this act of love, that Paul and Silas put love first— not to save themselves, but to save the life of the one who imprisoned them. And it is this love that so overcomes the prison guard, that after hearing about Jesus, causes that same guard who beat them to now wash their wounds, kneel down and wash their feet, and join this community that is truly free through the love of Christ even as they sit in a prison cell.
So often, in using our privilege for our own gain, we end up imprisoning ourselves because we have forgotten that we are all a part of the body. When we condemn one person, we are all condemned. When we hate our neighbor, we hate ourselves. But when we love first— setting aside or using our privilege to serve God and those around us, then God is able to transform all of us and heal the body.
Later, when Paul writes back to this church in Philippi, the same community that helps him when he is in prison, he will write, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...”
Jesus was able to acknowledge his privilege— far more privilege than you and I will ever have— and did not exploit that privilege, did not take advantage of it, did not use it to promote fear for his own gain, but rather cast out fear and chose to love. And how did he show that love? By sharing a meal with people of other faiths; hanging out in disreputable clubs where he talked with outcasts; healing the sick so that they could once again be invited into community; challenging religious authorities; praying with his disciples. That’s what love looks like—that’s what it looks like to use the privilege, the power each of us has not for ourselves, but to serve God. It looks like kindness and joy and peace and patience and faithfulness, and generosity, and self-control.
The truth is, in your life you may be sitting close to the basketball hoop or you may be sitting far away, and it has nothing to do with how hard you’ve worked. We know our world isn’t just and it doesn’t seem to be getting closer to being just. But we have the power, when we come together, to use our privilege to recognize the sacredness of every human being. To use our privilege to move the basketball hoop or to help move people closer to that hoop. Or we may just decide that this isn’t the game that’s worth playing and go play the hokey pokey instead where we’re all invited to put our whole selves in.
Paul chose to play the game he was given. When the magistrate comes in the morning and tells him he can go, Paul refuses. He refuses to leave the prison. Why? Because he is a Roman citizen and he knows that law— that it is illegal to imprison a Roman citizen. So he waits and waits until the same officials who chose to imprison him because of racist accusations, come in fear to let him go. Paul uses his privilege to call out what is wrong.
We can use our privilege to create fear; to try to control people and situations; to pretend to protect ourselves from everyone else in the world. Or, we can choose to do as Jesus did, and stand up against what is wrong; create places of healing for people to share their stories; and put love first, before privilege. Imagine what we can do as a church when we are able to celebrate all gifts; when we are able to celebrate all people; when we are able to recognize how we function as one body— each with a part to play; each wholly loved by God.