The following is a reflection on Acts 16:16, the Gospel lesson appointed for the seventh Sunday after Easter, year C, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
You know that overpowering-intoxicating feeling when you’re annoyed?
And I don’t mean righteous indignation or anger over injustice. I mean being annoyed.
Quite frankly, I’m annoyed right now. Not for any good reason mind you. And certainly not for any righteous
I’m just plain annoyed.
The fact that my state of annoyance can serve a homiletical/ exegetical purpose tickles me. Not enough to lift my annoyance mind you.
But, I’m amused. Or, at least, I amuse myself.
Anyway. . . in the first paragraph of the lesson from Acts this week Paul is “very much annoyed.”
Now, from my personal and recent experience – annoyance comes in different flavors.
There’s being annoyed with someone you know well and love (spouse, child, co-worker, pet. . .). There’s being annoyed with circumstances that you can’t do much about (your train is late, your computer is slow, your overpriced iPhone keeps dropping calls…). And then there’s being annoyed with random people in your immediate vicinity.
I don’t know about you, but I get this a lot. Parents who don’t watch their kids in public spaces while they wreak havoc on the peace of others. Loud people on the subway. Slow drivers in the passing lane. People who so obviously think and act like the world revolves around them.
You know what I’m sayin’?
You’ve experienced this?
Ok, welcome to Paul’s world.
Paul and Silas are in Macedonia and they’re on their way to a ‘house of prayer.’ So, automatically you know that Paul’s looking for some peace and quiet. He’s yearning for some deep communion with God and some fellowship with some of his spiritual brothers and sisters.
And then there’s the loud woman screaming at the top of her lungs following Paul and Silas wherever they go.
And with that, Paul is “very much annoyed.”
And honestly, I can relate. I’m empathetic with Paul. At first glance this is where the scriptures intersect with my life.
So, stop for a moment and think: if you were Paul what would you do? Would you turn around and yell at this woman? Would you tell her to get away from you in a threatening-disgusted tone? Would you go find her owners (she was a slave) and, like a dog, tell them to better control her? Would you go to the authorities and complain that she’s disturbing the peace? Or would you just grit your teeth and bear it, all the while trying to slip out of her presence?
I could see myself doing any of the above, though honestly, in the end I’d probably just grit my teeth.
But, Paul does none of it. He turns, and with a word of prayer and spiritual authority he commands the spirit/ demon in her to leave.
When Paul is deeply disturbed he prays.
But, this passage isn’t finished with people being annoyed.
Because this woman who Paul exorcised. . . was a cash-cow for her owners. When the annoyed Paul cast the demon out of her they lost an income stream.
So, now they’re annoyed.
And they grab Paul and Silas and take them to the authorities and complain that they are “disturbing our city.”
People are annoyed. Heck, people are disturbed. And Paul and Silas end up in jail.
But, I don’t think that we’re done with the ‘annoyed’ experience in this text.
Because no sooner than night falls while Paul and Silas are in jail and there’s a major earthquake which shakes the foundations of the jail and opens every door.
Dare I say it?
It looks like God is annoyed.
We’ve had a pattern of emotion leading to dramatic response going on here up until now.
Paul is annoyed—he exorcises a demon.
The slave girl’s owners are annoyed—they take them to the authorities.
The town is disturbed—Paul and Silas go to Jail.
Now we only have a dramatic action performed by God: violent earthquake. One would think that there would be a precipitating emotion. Is God annoyed? Annoyed that his apostles/ emissaries are thrown in jail for no good reason? Annoyed that they can’t continue their work?
The fascinating thing here is that the result of Paul’s annoyance is a woman who is delivered of the presence of evil in her life. And the result of Paul’s annoyance, the slave’s owner’s annoyance, the town being disturbed, and God being annoyed is a guard who is brought to a life of faith.
Annoyance here has incontrovertible positive results.
Now, maybe I see this because I want some positive reinforcement of my current state of annoyance. ‘Holiness’ would be a fabulous justification for my holding onto this grudge of mine.
But, of course, that’s not what this passage is about.
And, maybe it’s not the central meaning of this passage from the Book of Acts, but what this perspective at least demonstrates for me is that ministry, and blessing, and prayer all happen in the midst of the messiness of human emotion. There’s that awful preconceived notion that the Christian life is supposed to be one of calm serenity, if not outright blandness. There’s an unspoken (though maybe in some circles it IS spoken) platitude that if we’re close to the heart of God we just smile all the time and put up with anything and anyone without bother.
Living life with God is messy. Incarnation is messy. Ministry is messy. And, it’s anything but bland.
I think a sermon on this text which points out the human-ness of Paul, the impossible nature of the position he was put in, and the tabula rasa which is the impetus behind the dramatic action of God (was God annoyed?) would be a sermon worth preaching. You’d have to put the stained-glass-voice away, though.
And maybe find ways this week to be annoyed, if not be outright annoying others.
For homiletical purposes, of course.