The story of the Apostle Paul exorcising the slave girl sets the stage for his and Silas’ arrest in the city of Philippi. Growing frustrated with the slave girl’s constant harping of Paul and Silas’ ministry by pointing out that the two of them were offering “the way to be saved”, Paul turns and demands that the spirit filling the woman remove itself from her immediately . . . of which, it does. With the spirit went the slave girl’s ability to predict the future. This did not make her owners, of whom were quite wealthy thanks to her fortune-telling gift, happy as they suddenly lost their “cash cow”. Angry with Paul and Silas at ruining their business, they had the two of them arrested . . . all of which sets up the rest of the story.
The rest of the story is that Paul and Silas are dragged before the magistrates, beaten, and thrown in jail. Later that night—around midnight—the two of them are singing and praying in their jail cell when an earthquake happens. The earthquake shakes the cell doors open and unbounding the chains . . . definitely a heavenly opportunity for Paul, Silas, and the rest of the prisoners to walk out to their freedom. But, they were not the only ones touched by the earthquake. The jailer, who had been sleeping, was woken up . . . surveying what had happened, he realized what an opportunity this was for the prisoners and he expected the worse . . . that the prisoners had all escaped. Thinking the worse the jailer was about ready to kill himself, but Paul spoke up and let him know that everyone was still there in their cells.
Discovering Paul’s words were true, the jailer falls down before the two evangelists and asks what he must do to be saved. The scene turns out to be a regular jailhouse conversion . . . the jailer follows the evangelists’ instructions, believes in Jesus, and is converted. But, the story does not end there as the jailer takes Paul and Silas to his house, shows them hospitality, and in return have all the members of his household baptized and saved.
Pretty dramatic story . . . with a great ending . . . but, one has to wonder . . . whatever happened to the slave girl in the story? Whatever became of the character in the story that got the whole ball rolling in the first place? What became of the slave girl?
We don’t know.
Nowhere in the scriptures are we told what happened to the slave girl who is freed of her controlling spirit. Because she is no longer useful to her masters, do they sell her off or do they set her free? Do they continue to keep her enslaved and repurpose her? Is she killed? We don’t know because there is nothing written. We want to assume the best, but we wonder about the worse for this slave girl. What we do know is that she is the “impetus”—the spark—that gets the story moving towards the saving of the jailer and his household.
The word “impetus” means “a moving force; impulse; stimulus.” As I said, the spark that gets a fire going. The slave girl is the impetus that gets this story going as she is so irritating to Paul that he exorcizes the spirit from her. Like dominoes falling in a row, this leads to the arrest of Paul and Silas, the two of them being thrown into jail, the earthquake, and the salvation story of the jailer and his household. But, there is also another “impetus”—another spark—to this story!
The slave girl got Paul and Silas to jail, but it is the earthquake that get the ball rolling for the jailer. Until that earthquake, the jailer was not even concerned with Paul and Silas . . . shoot, he was sleeping. But, boy did things start moving once the rumbling and shaking was all said and done. The jailer recognized the potential problems . . . all the prisoners could escape . . . and, thinking he was too late, he decided it would be better to take his own life than to face up to the magistrates who would certainly be unhappy.
Luckily Paul’s words of reassurance saved the jailer’s life. I imagine that the jailer put two and two together to realize that the earthquake was some sort of a miracle . . . and, that among all the prisoners, Paul and Silas were pretty special. This sparks the interest in the salvation message the evangelists have been sharing . . . it sparks the conversion of the jailer and then his family. It brings the jailer and his household into the fold of those who believe . . . who are a part of the “Way” . . . the way of Jesus.
Within each of our lives there has been some sort of impetus or spark that brought us to our faith. For about six months now, on Saturday mornings, the Billings Gazette has been publishing stories of people’s conversions to their faith. Stories about how they came into a relationship with Jesus. For example, yesterday’s story was written and shared by a Mennonite pastor who talked about how his impetus towards following Jesus came from a conversation he had with a friend at the age of 13. It came about with an innocent question that his friend asked, “Have you ever thought about where you are going after you die?” From that question his friend introduced him to Jesus.
Another story on that page shared how one of the Methodist ministers in Billings found an impetus in her family’s history of mental illness to spark a ministry of reaching out to those who suffer from this debilitating handicap.
Last week, at our annual meeting of the Christian Church in Montana, those in attendance heard story after story about how their faith and their call to mission . . . their call to ministry . . . was all started with a spark or impetus in their own lives. One speaker shared how her son’s suicide sparked a ministry of suicide prevention. Another shared how a prejudiced attack upon the homes of residents in the community because of their race and religion sparked not only him, but a whole community, to rise up to create a ministry of justice and equality. Another shared how, through a single phone call from a leader of white supremacy group—wanting to get out of that group, sparked a ministry to fight racism and hate through the art project born out of the use of group’s own writings. And, there were many other stories shared by those who were sparked to move with the Spirit towards ministries helping others.
Within all of our lives we have experienced something that has made us move in certain directions . . . even in directions when it comes to our faith. And, I imagine, if you are like me, sometimes you have allowed that impetus to start a fire . . . and, sometimes, you have ignored it and hoped that it would go away. But, we have all experienced it within our lives and within our journey of faith . . . of walking with Jesus. The truth of the matter is . . . if it is of God’s will, that spark—that impetus—is not going to go away. It is going to keep showing up . . . and showing up . . . until we stop and explore it.
That is what we must do . . . we must explore those little and big moments in our lives when the spark flashes in our lives. We must explore it with our whole being . . . body, mind, and soul. We must pray about it . . . discern about it . . . and, we must fan the spark to create the fire. We must do it because we never know where that impetus will lead . . . we never know whose life it will touch.
Paul never expected the turn of events when he spoke out to silence the spirit infecting the slave girl. He never had any clue that he would be thrown in prison . . . that a miracle would occur in an earthquake . . . or that a whole household would come into relationship with Jesus.
The jailer never expected that his whole life and direction would change with an earthquake.
None of them ever expected any of the things that changed their lives in this story . . . from a little spark to a raging fire.
So, it makes me think . . . optimist that I am . . . that things worked out for that slave girl. That, having been freed of the spirit that controlled her life, she discovered her freedom . . . that she embraced the God who had freed her . . . and, that she, too, had given herself over to Jesus and his ways. I think that that exorcism was the spark that changed her life . . . but, we will never know for certain. We can only hope.
The saying is that it only takes a spark to get a fire going . . . within our lives, within our congregation, and beyond. May our thoughts and prayers on this passage truly be an impetus upon our lives and faith . . . may we start a fire. Amen.