I don’t know what is most remarkable about this story.
On 12 May 2013 Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori of the Episcopal Church preached a sermon at Curaçao, Diocese of Venezuela. Her text for the day was the prescribed lectionary reading from Acts 16. Have a little read of the first paragraph…
With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
Now, I appreciate that there are varied readers of this blog. Some have lots of theological education, some are converted church members who love their Bible because they love Jesus, some are critics, some are just intrigued, and one married me over 12 years ago and just smiles when I waffle on about stuff. But for all of my readers I would guess that this paragraph is not hard to understand.
Paul and Silas arrive in Philippi and meet a slave girl who also appears to have some spiritual power of divination from which her slave-masters profit. But when Paul and Silas arrive she recognises something about them that is quite extraordinary and blurts it out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”, and keeps blurting it out day after day. Paul is annoyed by this and casts out the spirit in the name of Jesus and, lo and behold, it comes out of her almost immediately. As you read on you realise this gets Paul and Silas thrown into prison; you can’t go around messing up people’s livelihoods like that, can you?
The point of this brief vignette is, I trust, pretty clear. Here is a girl in bondage not only to slave masters but to a spirit. The words this spirit makes her speak are certainly supernatural and her owners are profiting from her. In contrast Paul and Silas have another form of bondage – “Slaves of the Most High God” – and speak a different supernatural message from which others profit and by which their master, God, seeks to benefit those who hear and not simply get more gold coins for himself. The contrast it starkly set up and the tension between the two easily resolved by, interestingly enough, another spoken word. Paul speaks in the name of Jesus and the spirit is quickly banished. The girl is freed and the Lordship of Jesus over all spiritual forces is clearly established.
Well, so you would have thought. Unless you’re the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Catch a load of her sermon. She speaks for a while about the evils of slavery and the history of it in Venezuela. And then we get this,
We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.
Just so we’re all reading on the same page, the “God … doing something unexpected” she is referring to is the blessing of same-sex relationships. If you’re surprised that that could possibly be a topic for the Presiding Bishop then you don’t get out much. Now, to the “exposition” of the text:
There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.
And there it is. You read it correctly. Paul “deprived her of her gift of spiritual awareness”. Her spiritual slavery was actually “a gift of spiritual awareness”. More than that, it was “beautiful or holy”.
More still than that. Paul banishes the spirit in Jesus’ name and the spirit departs. So, according to the Presiding Bishop, Jesus Himself who is the power behind the exorcism, is apparently depriving the slave girl of her beautiful and holy gift. At least, that’s the logical inference if you’re taking the Bible text at face value.
But of course, that’s not what she’s doing at all. Here we have possibly the best ever example of how far the Presiding Bishop has moved from any claim to orthodox Christianity. As my blogging colleague at Stand Firm, Matt Kennedy, put it,
Demonic possession, according to the PB, is “sharing” in the nature of God
Spot on. So obsessive is this “God is doing a new thing” paradigm that theological liberals are so committed to that they end up with God doing a very new thing.
What I find curious is how little the Anglican liberals have to say about this. Anyone with half a right mind knows it’s indefensible and so the usual suspects are entirely silent on the matter. Presumably due to the embarrassment. Can’t blame them, despite their long and insistent protests every time we point out just what a heretic she is. Anyone want to defend her now?