These days it seems like “Christian” is another word that we use to identify ourselves. We choose whether we are one or not, just like we choose any thing else about us. Either that, or society, our culture, and our upbringing tell us who we are, until we disagree with them. It seems like sociological identification, even for our faith, is just arbitrary as anything.
I want Jesus to supply me with who I am, as opposed to just being labeled and categorized, or coming it up with it on my own. I think we can sometimes make our faith, though, as much of an arbitrary label as the others. I suppose that’s why all the nominal Christians are finally coming out as nones now, huh?
I suppose we all felt that this week when Rachel Dolezal told us that she identified as black. She is the former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. It is interesting how she made one choice about her identity and her parents made another, and the nation is arguing about who is right. And as arbitrary as worldly identities can be, they still carry immense power, as we learned Thursday when we witnessed a tragic hate crime in South Carolina. Some people simply don’t have the luxury of choosing how society frames them and then they are subject to whatever oppression comes with that imposed label.
I think Jesus can free us from that oppression. I think our Creator and our Savior is the one who gives us our true being. Even the process of making disciples is transformative for the disciple-maker.
I want us to look at three scenes in Acts 16. In each story, the process of discipleship changed the disciple-maker or the disciple. It transforms their identity—it changes how they see and how the world does:
In verses 1-5, Luke introduces us to Timothy, one of Paul’s most important helpers and companions. We know how important he is because of the letters later in the New Testament are addressed to him. Timothy is an interesting character to scholars because his mom is Jewish and his dad is a Greek. So they have what is the equivalent of an interracial marriage. Such a marriage is illegal according to Jewish Law, so we get the idea that Timothy did not grow up in a strict Jewish household.
But Paul circumcises him. This is an amazing moment. Some commentators are surprised because in Galatians Paul vehemently criticizes Judaizers who would require circumcision, but here he is endorsing it. But what is really happening is more than a theological difference. Paul is opposed to circumcision if it someone is saying it is necessary for salvation. Here, Paul circumcises Timothy (which, because he is Jewish, wouldn’t be totally unheard of) so that the Jewish people in the area would be open to hearing the Gospel. Paul is willing to put his disciple through more than the bare necessities for the sake of the mission. We see this in 1 Corinthians 9 when Paul tells us that he is all things to all people. His circumcision of Timothy is precisely that kind of accommodation.
Timothy humbles himself to include someone. Jesus offers us an opportunity for humility to. Timothy doesn’t need to do this for his own salvation, but he wants to remove a cultural distraction from his ministry to the Jewish people and so his circumcision helps him accomplish that task.
For us the question may be: what do I not need to do that might benefit me in including someone? What liberty, even a liberty that God grants me and his salvation gives you the freedom to participate in, would be better sacrificed for the sake of someone else? Where must I be humbled? How can I change in order to help change someone else?
In verses 11-15, Paul and Silas (and maybe Luke and Timothy) journey to Philippi, which is quite a cosmopolitan town, rich with precious resources, and Roman culture. It has more Latin inscriptions than Greek, and so it is like a little microcosm of Rome. It’s also important in the Bible because of the church that begins there and that Paul writes to from prison.
There aren’t many Jews in this town, and there doesn’t seem to be a place to pray. Paul and his crew go by the river outside and begin to pray. In the absence of a place of prayer, such a locale would do fine. So they are doing their thing and Lydia overhears them. She is a wealthy women and is enchanted by their words. The word for “listening” here suggests also that these interactions could have taken place numerous times, or perhaps for a long period of time. They build a relationship. Probably right there in the river, Paul baptizes her and her whole household. That term household in Greek is “oikos.” I only mention this to you because we also use that term in the Cell Plan. Lydia influences her household and they follow too. Lydia then invites them to stay with her, her servants, and her family.
She is a Jewish person, and according to historians, the Jewish order attracted many more women to the movement than men. This is noteworthy because women were not leaders in the Jewish community, by and large, and we think Lydia is the first Christian convert in all of Europe. She founds the Philippian church, which is a crucial town in the spread of Christianity in Europe.
Lydia is wealthy and has the capability to lead and influence her family. Paul takes advantage of that, but manages to subvert the common order by empowering a women. He elevates her status and the region changes.
The question then for us is what changes can we make that may ripple into our household. How can following Jesus empower others so that they can influence others?
Finally, in 16-19, Paul continues to travel to the place of prayer, and in this case they meet a slave girl who has a spirit in her. The word is “python” in Greek, so it was like something of a snake spirit, like Bellatrix here.
This girl is being exploited by her owners and making them a great deal of money. The other woman in this passage, Lydia, makes her own living and survives on it. This poor girl is exploited and apparently she is soothsaying. She was following Paul and Silas (maybe Timothy and Luke too). She keeps yelling about Paul and Silas being slaves to the Most High God—that is an unusual term, in fact, in the New Testament and she doesn’t mean Jesus when she says that. Similar words were used to describe Zeus, the leading Greek god, for example. She also says they are preaching “a” leading way of salvation, as opposed to “the” way. So she, and whatever is possessing her, is not clear about what exactly is happening. But she thinks they are slaves too.
This version says that Paul is getting annoyed—not with her, but rather the spirit within her. It doesn’t seem like the girl is being hostile. But Paul is disturbed, another word might be burdened deeply. Almost as a result of his irritation, he addressed the spirit to come out of her. And the spirit moves out of her.
Luke uses some clever wordplay right after this when he writes that at the moment the spirit left her, the owners hope of making a profit was gone too and so they freak out.
Paul crosses another major barrier here, culturally, in freeing a slave of her bondage, not just of the spirit but of the world. He frees the enslaved. Following Jesus frees people from their earthly bondage, of all sorts of oppressive things in order to liberate them. We are so stuck in the ways we are enslaved. We are enslaved to our identities, to our prejudices, to our mental illnesses and we have no way out but Jesus, in my opinion.
We have struggled for a long time in this nation over enslavement. It seems like our bondpeople aren’t even free yet. In the state the still waves the Confederate flag right at its Capitol Building, we just witnessed a racially-motivated shooting. We are deeply entrenched in racism in this country, like a python demon is possessing us. Can we acknowledge the demon that is over this nation? And then let’s start with praying, just like Paul did.
I think if we are going to have any hope of making disciples, we need to start with Timothy’s humility. We need to take advantage of the allies that we have, like Lydia, and include her radically in the mission. We need to see slavery and be emancipators, freeing people from their bondage and knowing that true freedom comes from Jesus and his Spirit.
I don’t want to over spiritualize this, but the Spirit of God is in each of these stories and without it, I’m not sure these barriers would be not just crossed, but overcome. Following Jesus leads to transformation that allows us to transcend our faith merely as a cultural byproduct. Though the people above didn’t have to get rid of the labels society gave them, they became transformed into new creations, knowing themselves first as Christians.