02 June 2019

A wealthy trader and
a slave girl show how we
use and abuse religion

The head of Medusa, depicted with snakes in her hair, at the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 2 June 2019,

The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Easter VII)

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert)

Readings: Acts 16: 16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17: 20-26.

Delphi and the ruins of the Temple of Apollo … the slave-girl in Philippi was part of the cult of Apollo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, or the Sunday after Ascension Day. We are, I suppose, in some ways, caught in an in-between time, between Ascension Day, last Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday [9 June 2019].

In this ‘in-between time,’ the disciples and other followers of Jesus and their family members are gathered together in an upper room, devoting themselves to prayer (see Acts 1: 13-14), and there Matthias is chosen to join the Twelve (see Acts 1: 23-26).

The Gospel reading this morning (John 17: 20-26) is part of Christ’s great prayer at the Last Supper for his disciples and for the future Church after his departure, after the Ascension. All our readings are a call to look forward to being with Christ in glory, which is an appropriate preparation for the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday.

Our reading from the Book of Revelation is the promise that Christ is coming, and that with him he brings the New Jerusalem, the new Heaven and the New Earth. He is our Beginning and our End.

But how do we respond to him in this in-between time?

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16: 16-34), Saint Paul has arrived on European soil for the first time, and he is in Philippi. We heard last Sunday how he and his companions were welcomed by Lydia, a prosperous businesswoman who becomes a Christian.

Now we hear of two miracles: the curing of a slave-girl who is possessed, which puts Paul and Silas in prison (verses 16-24), and the miraculous earthquake that leads to the conversion and baptism of the jailer and his family (verses 25-34).

The slave-girl’s cry when she realises who Saint Paul is and the response of Saint Paul to her plight are reminders of the stories of the exorcisms carried out by Christ himself. There too evil spirits recognised God and spoke the truth. Saint Paul continues what Christ began; it is Christ who cures (‘in the name of Jesus Christ,’ verse 18).

The slave-girl’s owners bring two false charges against Paul and Silas. They stir up the crowd and justice follows swiftly: Saint Paul and his companions quickly find themselves in jail.

But even this has interesting consequences, for instead of killing himself, the jailer and his family are baptised too, and they join the heavenly banquet, they share the meal, rejoicing (verse 32-34), and so they come into Communion with the whole Church.

Taken out of context, this first reading is quite stark and raises many questions.

The first woman Saint Paul meets in Europe is Lydia. She is from Thyatira, a city in the area of Lydia that was a centre of the cult of Apollo and Artemis, and one of the great Lydian temples to these twins was at Didyma, near the Lydian city of Sardis.

Lydia’s wealth, social standing and independence are unusual for a woman of her time. She and her household are baptised, and she provides lengthy hospitality for Saint Paul and his travelling companions.

Lydia’s freedom of choice when it comes to religious matters contrasts with the plight of the second woman Saint Paul meets in Europe. She is an unnamed woman, a slave-girl who is described in some translations as a ‘damsel’ (e.g. KJV). Unlike Lydia, she has no name, no wealth, no independence from men, and no freedom of religious choice.

This poor girl is possessed – the translation we read this morning says she has ‘a spirit of divination.’ And other people make money out of that. The Greek here is much more specific than this English translation: she ‘has the spirit of Python’ (εχουσαν πνευμα πυθωνος).

No, she is not possessed by the humour of Monty Python. Nor has she swallowed a snake. Πύθων in Greek mythology was the name of the Pythian serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi and was slain by Apollo.

And so, Python became one of the names of Apollo, the Greek god of light and the sun, the fine arts, music, poetry, medicine, eloquence and prophecy, the patron of shepherds and the guardian of truth. He is the son of Zeus, and in Greek mythology he dies and rises again.

The oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo, was said to be inspired by Apollo. Her words about about the future were regarded as the oracles of the god.

This possessed young woman is a minor oracle of the cult of Apollo. She is exploited by a group of men who make a pretty income from her utterances, what the reading describes as her ‘fortune-telling.’ The original word to describe her (μαντεύομαι) tells us she is not just some ‘Mystic Meg’ in a red-top tabloid or a fortune teller with a turban in a circus tent looking at the palms of hands. She is a seer, she delivers an oracle, she is a priestess of the cult of Apollo.

The priestesses of Apollo were said to give their answers from their bellies – the seat of emotions – while their mouths were closed.

How does this oracle of Apollo behave when she is confronted with the disciples of the good shepherd, the one who is the way the truth and the light, the Son of God who died and rises again?

But there is a contradiction here: if she is an oracle and slave of Apollo, why is she proclaiming that Saint Paul and his companions are the slaves of the Most High, proclaiming the way of salvation?

And I find myself asking, why does she keep on doing this, for days and days on end (see verse 18)?

Why is Saint Paul so annoyed with what she says?

Was he right to ignore her for the first few days?

Or has he come to realise her plight, the full enormity of her religious enslavement?

If she is already proclaiming, for many days, the God that Paul and Silas proclaim as the Most High God, and she is acknowledging that they are preaching salvation, surely she has already lost her value to her owners before they start blaming Saint Paul and his exorcism?

She may be stating the truth, but she is not serving the truth. How often are we deceived by people who claim to speak the truth but whose intentions are so contrary to what is truthful and wholesome?

And if the financial dependence and the religious slavery of this girl contrast with the financial independence and religious freedom of the more mature Lydia, then her slavery to exploitative religion, her imprisonment to those who make a fortune out the cult of Apollo, is in contrast with the subsequent imprisonment for Christ’s sake suffered by Paul and Silas.

The story comes between two sets of conversions and baptisms – those of Lydia and her household and of the jailer and his entire family.

Of course, later, when Saint Paul challenges the cult of Artemis in Ephesus, he is jailed by those facing financial loss, just as he is jailed in Philippi for challenging the exploitative cult of Apollo.

But this reading raises a number of questions:

Are there appropriate and inappropriate times, means and places for proclaiming the Gospel?

Is there an appropriate time or place to be annoyed or irritated by what other people are saying in the name of Christianity?

Are we aware of times when religion is used as a way of trapping and abusing vulnerable people because of their social status, their gender, their sexuality or their ethnic background?

Are there times when religion is used for making a great deal of money for others?

Do we appreciate and pray for those who suffer for the faith, sometimes in hidden and unseen circumstances, perhaps even in the silence of their own homes?

Apart from acknowledging God most high and preaching the way of salvation, which even this oracle of Apollo can acknowledge, how do we show our faith and our life in Christ in the way we live our own lives?

Is Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper for his Church, which we hear in the Gospel reading, brought to life in the way we live as the Church, in this parish, in this diocese, in this land?

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Temple of Apollo in Didyma … one of the most important shrines and temples in the classical world to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 20-26 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

The Last Supper in a fresco in the Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, between Chania and Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

O God the King of Glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

The Blessing:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Two Greek stamps produced in 1995 to mark the 1900th anniversary of the Book of Revelation … the series of readings from the Book of Revelation reach their climax this Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


92: How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (CD 6)
34: O worship the King all-glorious above (CD 2)
518: Bind us together Lord (CD 30)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Revelation 22: 13) … Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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