Okay. I’m just going to say it: I like Paul. The older I get, the more I appreciate Paul for his passion, conviction, and unapologetic humanity. What the church has done with what he wrote and what has been (falsely) attributed to him, isn’t his fault. The man had some serious endurance. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, and rejection in a variety of potentially life-threatening forms. Paul persevered and managed to inspire countless people to become followers of Jesus. All things considered, Paul is person to be admired not admonished. The tepid church goers of today could do with a little passion and, personally, I’m up for a bit of persistence.
Let’s face it, many people around us would much rather go fishing on a Sunday morning than attend worship. Paul didn’t have that problem. It seems he drew crowds almost the way that Jesus did. He had something that was appealing to those who heard him speak. It was more than his charismatic personality, more than his words alone. I suspect it was his integrity and authenticity. For all his eloquence, Paul didn’t say anything he didn’t mean. The Holy Spirit it had him firmly in her grips and she wasn’t letting go. I wonder if anyone would notice that intensity of Spirit today…
The story in Acts about the slave girl is a weird one where Paul’s humanity is on full display. So, too, the presence of the Spirit. How awesome is it that the writer tells us that Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl because he’s irritated? He’s annoyed that she has been following them around, proclaiming that they are slaves to God Most High. This had been going on for days. Paul couldn’t take it and silences the demon without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t think what might happen to the slave girl. He didn’t think what might happen to him and his companions. He’d just had enough of the girl’s proclamations. Consequences be damned.
And there were serious consequences. The writer didn’t mention what happened to the slave girl though I doubt it was anything good. Her owners disguised an economic issue with a racial issue that stirred anxiety and aggression in the crowd as well as the magistrates. Violence followed as it often does when those in service to the Empire feel slighted. So if the girls owners were angry enough to have Paul and the others somewhat falsely arrested, flogged, and jailed, I’m guessing they didn’t go easy on her. Did Paul regret his impulsiveness in the duress that followed? Did he pray for forgiveness? Did he want to make amends? Or did he blame the hard hearts of the slave owners? Who knows? However, the subsequent events point toward forgiveness with a hint of compassion.
In the midst of prayers and hymns an earthquake hits and opens all the doors. You’d think everyone would leave; that would be the sane thing to do. No one did. The prisoners stayed put. Why? I like to think that Paul remembered that all this was because of his own impulsive actions and he didn’t want anyone else to pay the price for his unthinking behavior, including the jailer. Paul, and the others, no doubt, knew that the jailer would likely be executed for allowing all the prisoners to escape – earthquake or no. Though, instead of an execution, we witness another household converting to Christianity. Forgiveness and compassion on full display. Well, that and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring goodness out of human folly.
I’d like to say that we’ve all learned something from Paul’s experience. But I don’t think we have. We still give in to annoyance and act without thinking. Those who have more power than we do, still take advantage by subverting the real issues with divisive ones. We are still easily manipulated by the Empire into accepting, if not participating in, violence. We don’t seem to pray and sing hymns while waiting for the Spirit to show up and do her thing. There isn’t much room in our lives to give and receive either forgiveness or compassion, is there?
As we come to the end of Eastertide and prepare for Pentecost, maybe we should pay more attention to Paul and embrace our humanity and the Holy Spirit. We can be unapologetically the fragile, fallible, frustratable people we are because we are also unapologetically the named, claimed and beloved children of God. In spite of what the Empire continues to tell us about supremacy and division, we are all in need of forgiveness and compassion. The more we share these things, the more we open ourselves to receiving them. Isn’t it time to recognize that Paul was who he was because he accepted and celebrated the fierce, demanding, loving grip the Holy Spirit had on his whole being? We can be the irritable, irrational, impulsive people that we are because the Holy Spirit has the same fierce, steadfast, and redeeming grip on us. This is good news for us, and unwelcome news for those who continue to serve the Empire.