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Why Did Paul Get Arrested at Philippi, and What Can a Sometimes Timid Church Learn From It?

November 3, 2014

There is a story of St. Paul’s arrest, beating, and imprisonment at Philippi that serves as a kind of metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that figuratively and literally “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser- known story of Paul and see what it ought to mean for us if we take the Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it.

Philippi was the first “European” city that Paul evangelized as he came across from Asia Minor. Arriving at the port of Philippi in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went right to work evangelizing. One of their first Converts was Lydia, a wealthy woman from Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. Other converts followed. And here is where we pick up the story.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).

Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her “owners” of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world and touched their pocketbooks. They see the Christian message, for it is revolutionary, disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.

It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, indicating that Paul was not merely preaching some “strange new religion” but was advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word “customs” here in Greek is ἐθη (ethe) and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” Cicero in De Legibus, ii. 8,  says, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, to publicly proclaim new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy and was strictly forbidden.

And frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas are true enough. In the healing they brought about, they have hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was provocative and revolutionary.  It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar and a higher King demanding our first loyalty: Jesus is Lord!

This is not the tame and domesticated proclamation of the faith so common today. This is not the faith that is trimmed to fit into worldly categories and to be tucked under political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is the faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to the world’s priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas are a serious threat.

And what of us today? We have gone through a long period during which in many ways we have thought the faith could be lived quietly and that it generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say we had finally made it and had been fully accepted. Finally we fit in.

Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days and we still had a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. But having finally “made it,” we have assumed room temperature and the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Coincidence?)

In recent years so-called Catholic universities and other institutions are now caving in, giving marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates of providing contraceptives and abortifacients. Sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.

And now we are coming full circle. We have got to rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. And as we proclaim healing and an allegiance to something other than this world, we will become increasingly obnoxious to the world around us.

Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:

1. They ate away at profit Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” In this world today, there is a lot of trafficking in sin and addiction. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs,  and alcohol. And there’s a lot of money to be made selling pornography to sex addicts and others. Sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex slave industry also feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says, “You are not pretty enough,” “You are not healthy enough,” “You are getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You haven’t impressed your friends enough,” “You need to buy our product right away so you are not so pathetic.” And thus the demon of fear and low self-esteem is exploited along with the demon of greed.

But what would happen if the Church were to start effectively preaching unabridged Christianity? You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ and so you won’t need all that extra alcohol and those drugs. And you can be set free from your enslavement to sex, take authority over your passions, and discover the beauty of traditional marriage. What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?

Well, of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be (and are) under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists since that is the most focused issue these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits may go away. Yes, we must be dealt with.

But really, we will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith. Not the faith that is trimmed and tucked under worldly priorities; not the faith that insists on being “realistic” and makes endless apologies to the inevitable objections of the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.

Paul and Silas didn’t end up in prison by preaching a watered-down, tamed, domesticated moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl and in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits well from sin.

2. They threatened power Calling Jesus “Lord” was a revolutionary threat to the incumbent power which seeks and demands our first and full loyalty. And thus today, many strive to make Catholics fit into neat little political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to fit into their narrow little categories and march in lockstep with the party system. Even Catholics in those categories want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to their Church, and are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between a Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!

But in the end, the Church will not just fit into some neat political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.

And thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being shown the door, kicked to the curb, and our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are being slowly removed and lawsuits against Catholic institutions are increasing. It will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse that loyalty.

Jesus is Lord, not the federal, state or local government. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.

No tame, domesticated Christianity will threaten or change this world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.

What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and threatens the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.

Are you ready?

In this video Fr. Barron comments on the movie “The Matrix,” which depicts an interesting Christian motif. The Matrix is a machine from which people need liberation. The solution can only happen when someone from outside the Matrix (Neo) enters in and announces liberty, dies, rises, and defeats the Matrix.

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  1. A Courageous or Timid Church? | Blogger Priest | November 4, 2014
  1. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I can do obnoxious.

  2. Ann says:

    Excellent piece for Election Day.

  3. Candida Bohnne Eittreim says:

    We are afraid of the losses. We are spiritual cowards. i too, was once just like everyone else. No more. my family thinks i’ve lost it and mock me for my faith. Friends, who once thought me fun to be with now are uncomfortable around me. My sons think i’m old and quite mad. Big losses and they hurt. But the Christ hurt much worse, suffered much more for us all. So these small stings matter little any more.

    We were not Baptized and Confirmed to be cowards. We are called, like Paul and the other Apostles to be warriors, soldiers for Christ. This fact was never meant to be theoretical, or some tale from long ago. It is our living credo, we should all be living. If we are lukewarm in our faith, God said He would spew us out of His mouth.

    But then, we have to look at our outright refusal to embrace the Way of the Cross. In that refusal, lies the real truth. We simply cannot will not have the love, the zeal and the gratitude to stand up willingly and be counted.

  4. Steve M says:

    I heard an interview last week that talked about the most important thing we can do is to be nice to our fellow humans. How sad can it be. In the name of niceness we walk away from virtue and salvation. The world is so confused. How many men and women have given their lives for Truth and Love and our society celebrates a young woman who killed herself because she would soon be suffering. How does any of this make sense to people? It is some kind of perverted hedonism. We don’t know what suffering really is I guess or how else would we equate someone feeling bad about something they have done with suffering? It is like our world has become full of twelve year olds of various ages. How else can we explain the common assumption that anything we want bad enough we can have. Some times we will suffer and it is part of life. Suffering is minimized and turned in to a bad thing by those who do not accept it is part of life. If God’s Son actually chose to suffer when he could avoid it then maybe He was onto something and we should rethink our thinking not assume God or HIs Holy Church somehow got it wrong.

    • Candida Bohnne Eittreim says:

      ” It is like our world has become full of twelve year olds of various ages. ” perfect! What we have here in large part are a whole mess of scared children who are so afraid they will get hurt, they simply gave in and learned to accept everyone and everything. A very adolescent m state of mind. This juvenile and egocentric mindset has been reinforced by priests who preach only sermons of comfort. This was driven home forcibly to me, when i posted one of Msgr. Popes homilies on Hell.

      A man, who had never posted before on my page, wrote, visibly shaken, that this was serious. How sad was that! We must, we must try and waken these adolescent sleepers to the truths of our faith. If we don’t, the Church will continue to lose members who are desperate for the Word of God.

    • C Beltz says:

      I feel so bad for the family and friends of Brittany. That she cared so little for them as to deprive them of sharing in her journey is heartbreaking. What she did was neither brave nor dignified, it was cowardice, plain and simple.

      There is true beauty in sacrifice, and miracles are borne out of suffering. What a pity she gave into despair and deprived her family and friends of such an amazing gift.

  5. David F says:

    I am always amazed at the inner strength of Paul. He was so composed that he could sing hymns in prison. No American Catholic faces anything close to the risks Paul ran, which is good because so few show the courage to be so outspoken.

    • Candida Bohnne Eittreim says:

      Paul had learned, through great suffering, to embrace his cross with great honesty and courage. That suffering, which so many try and avoid at all costs, can be the refiner and definer of your faith. It teaches us to suffer willingly and unselfishly, offering through prayers for others, our little woes, in unity with the suffering Messiah. As one man said “I’d rather get drunk thank you”

  6. edraCRUZ says:

    Today I voted with full conscience and The WORD of GOD as my guide. Though, I know that my vote will be a minuscule one compared to those who neither vote with their conscience nor with The WORD of GOD, I feel I have done my duty. This is the least I can do for our country that is wallowing in hedonism, materialism, secularism and relativism. I am glad though that I can practice my freedom and I am not under duress and I need not receive 40 lashes less one to exercise my right. One thing is for sure though, a time is coming, at the rate we are going that one will not be able to do this anymore without pressure from people in power. I know my Church will fight all the way that this will not happen. I pray to GOD it will not be under our watch. LORD, protect us from all evil seen and unseen.

  7. Father Joe says:

    The ideal is not co-existence with the world or evil but rather to plant the seeds for repentance and conversion. Today many Catholics are silent upon important issues. A candidate for the office of governor in Maryland is a “practicing Catholic” and yet he is on the record as pro-abortion, yes even for allowing partial-birth infanticide. How can we reconcile this with the faith? The issues continue to mount: no fault divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriages, lack of support for parochial schools, contraception giveaways in public schools, free contraception, abortion on demand and growing sympathies for euthanasia. Sins are counted as rights and Catholics and their Church are expected to fall in line. Wimpish silence satisfied in the past, and that was bad enough, but today complicity is demanded.

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