There’s an old story about a boy who went out fishing one day and fell into the lake. His mother asked him how he came to fall into the lake. He replied, “I didn’t come to fall in the lake. I came to fish.” In Acts 16, Paul and Silas didn’t plan to end up in jail. But doing what they came to do just naturally led them to being imprisoned. You see, there was this girl who was being exploited. Paul knew that an injustice was being done to her by the men who owned this slave. Now these two apostles didn’t go to the city of Philippi that week with the goal in mind of freeing slave girls. In fact, it was so much a part of life in the first century throughout the Roman empire that there wasn’t even a movement or a political party back then trying to get slavery ended. Everyone accepted it as normal. Freeing slaves wasn’t just unpopular, it was considered nuts. Paul and Silas came went to Philippi with the goal of telling people about Jesus. When they got there, though, the social justice issue of this girl’s mistreatment overtook their stated goal. They went to fish for people to join their movement and become Christians. But, they ended up falling into a current, political, hot-button issue. They ended up going to jail.
Now, I want to tell you that this kind of thing still happens. Today, we often get pulled aside from our stated goals. We might want to make our church so popular and contemporary that young people flock to us. We might go fishing for new members. But we end up falling into the lake of some hot-button social issue. We might, for instance, discover that our young people expect the church to be accepting of LBGTQ people or that the community around the church enables the police department to profile people of color and stops or arrests them without cause.
Let me tell you what I believe. If Paul didn’t stop what he was doing and helped that poor slave girl, then the Christianity he was trying to sell wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans. If we today just want to tell people about Jesus, but we don’t want to help them get free from the systems of injustice that bind them, then we have become blind to the real power of the Gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ, doesn’t just give people a secret password so they can get into heaven. No. It gives to each of us a new heart. And that heart has compassion on anyone who is exploited or discriminated against or put down because of their race, their ethnicity, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Our God loves justice. Sometime we seek to tell people about the love of God, and we find ourselves falling into telling people about the heart for justice that he has placed within us.
Now I want to circle back to the what happened when Paul helped that slave girl to know Jesus. Some how setting that girl spiritually free lessened her value to the people who owned her. Now, I think slavery is wrong. I think considering another person to be your property is wrong. There are many people today who once they become Christians, become less valuable to their employers, because they aren’t willing to lie when they sell the merchandise of that store anymore, or they aren’t willing to do things that are unethical at work anymore. Christianity is a dangerous thing. Truth and justice are a whole lake of trouble for those whose eyes are opened by the holy spirit. I want to remind you that Paul and Silas went to jail because of the gospel of truth and justice.
When we engage in the hot-button issues of today. When we go to fish for Jesus and find ourselves instead in jail with Paul and Silas. We must be prepared. For it is said (I don’t know where this is in the Bible) that no good deed goes unpunished. Dr. Martin Luther King realized this perhaps better than anyone since Paul. From the Birmingham jail he wrote a letter to the clergy people of that city, explaining the process of doing the kind of good that God calls us to do. From time to time, we will find ourselves in an argument with those who want to keep on doing some kind of injustice.
This my paraphrase of his wisdom, Martin Luther King’s understanding of the process of doing justice:
First) We must collect all the facts and fully understand the justice issues surrounding the situation.
Second) We must negotiate in good faith with those who take the opposite view and have some power of authority in the matter.
Third) We must engage in self-purification — fasting, prayer, confession, and the study of scripture.
fourth) We must choose the appropriate targeted action. It must not be done in anger or with the intent to cause indiscriminate harm.
And then in light of the way King and the apostle followed these methodical steps to bring truth and justice to their times, we must be willing to accept the fact that doing the right thing may cause us to be punished. It is part of the process. But our faith isn’t worth much if we are willing to go where God calls us to go.