Acts 16: 16-34
May 5, 2013
Today’s scripture is about imprisonment – being held captive against your will. The question, though, for us this morning, is not who is in prison, but who is imprisoned. Who of these four is bound and shackled in the worst kind of chains. Who is not at all free.
Today’s scripture has already been read, but let us now hear it again with fresh, new ears. Once again, listen to the word of the Lord:
One day, on our way to the place of prayer, a slave girl ran into us. She was a psychic and, with her fortunetelling, made a lot of money for the people who owned her. She started following Paul around, calling everyone’s attention to us by yelling out, “These men are working for the Most High God. They’re laying out the road of salvation for you!” She did this for a number of days until Paul, finally fed up with her, turned and commanded the spirit that possessed her, “Out! In the name of Jesus Christ, get out of her!” And it was gone, just like that.
Gone, it says. Gone was her “spirit of diviniation,” as the New Revised Standard Version calls it, or her “demon possession,” per the New Living Translation, or the “Spirit of Python,” if you want to get literal Greek with it. Whatever it was, somehow “it” enabled this young woman to see the future – or, at the very least, to see beyond the face of the person in front of her and see deep into their souls, like spiritual x-ray glasses. Sometimes she liked what she saw. Most of the time, she didn’t. Imagine the raw, unfiltered secrets of a person, opening up right before your eyes. More often than not, this gift was a burden.
And so when she saw Paul and Silas, met them for the very first time, she saw that they were slaves like her but not at all like her – slaves to “the Most High God.” And she delighted in telling everyone what she saw in them – day after day after day. So much, in fact, that it grew tiresome for the two travelers. So much that, with mere words spoken out of frustration and fatigue, Paul drove that spirit, that possession, that burden away. And it was gone. Just like that. And for the first time in a very, very long time, the young woman was free.
Free not just from the burden of seeing the messiness of people’s secrets. Free from those who had exploited that gift, exploited her, all for their own profit. The same way that women and men in our day exploit children in sweat shops, or down dark alleys, or on drug trails with automatic weapons in hand. This slave girl had been enslaved by the power structure of the day that said a child had no rights of their own; enslaved by twisting and perverting the gift implanted in her by the living God, all so they could make a quick buck.
When her owners saw that their lucrative little business was suddenly bankrupt, they went after Paul and Silas, roughed them up and dragged them into the market square. Then the police arrested them and pulled them into a court with the accusation, “These men are disturbing the peace—dangerous Jewish agitators subverting our Roman law and order.” By this time the crowd had turned into a restless mob out for blood.
The judges went along with the mob, had Paul and Silas’s clothes ripped off and ordered a public beating. After beating them black-and-blue, they threw them into jail, telling the jailkeeper to put them under heavy guard so there would be no chance of escape. He did just that—threw them into the maximum security cell in the jail and clamped leg irons on them.
Someone would have to pay for this. Nothing personal, of course. Just business. Someone would have to suffer for their losses. Because when the bottom line is the onlly thing that matters, when human lives lose their God-given value, someone has to pay when things don’t go according to plan. Their little charade was over and done; the gig was up. So they took out their anger on the two strangers; those who had disrupted the balance of things with nothing more than spoken words. And now the young girl didn’t have to bear her burden for their gain anymore. She was free.
But they – they were more imprisoned than ever before. Imprisoned by the rabid greed that had festered deep inside them like an unchecked cancer, driving them to do to the many what they had done to her for so long. They could barely remember the last time that they looked at someone not as a commodity to be exploited, but a human being to be cherished.
So they were red-hot with anger – because unlike the young lady who was free, they were still very much enslaved. Enslaved to the seduction and irresistible intoxication of not money, but Power. Domination. Control. And since they had lost all of that over the one, they would now lord it over another. So they roughed up Paul and Silas. Beat them up good, and made sure there was a crowd to see it. Made up lies about them, and enticed the crowd to join them in their anger. Because anger can never stand to be by itself. Anger, like misery, loves company. And with that company, they threw Paul and Silas into prison.
Along about midnight, Paul and Silas were at prayer and singing a robust hymn to God. The other prisoners couldn’t believe their ears. Then, without warning, a huge earthquake! The jailhouse tottered, every door flew open, all the prisoners were loose.
Startled from sleep, the jailer saw all the doors swinging loose on their hinges. Assuming that all the prisoners had escaped, he pulled out his sword and was about to do himself in, figuring he was as good as dead anyway, when Paul stopped him: “Don’t do that! We’re all still here! Nobody’s run away!”
His job was fairly simple: keep the prisoners in prison. Don’t ask questions, don’t think too much, do not pass GO and collect $200. Keep them in their cells. Feed them only enough to keep them alive, because a dead prisoner is not imprisoned anymore. Let the metal bars and rock and stone do their job, as you do yours.
Unless, of course, the unthinkable happens; and with no warning whatsoever those rock and stone walls suddenly crumble to the ground, and the metal bars fall like toothpicks standing on end. When there is nothing to keep the prisoners in; nothing standing in between these unnamed souls and their freedom, which they rush into joyfully.
Because if that happens, then your job becomes crystal clear: kill yourself. Take your own life. For if there are no prisoners for the jailer to keep imprisoned, what is his life worth? It doesn’t matter that it’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter that you have no control over the earth shaking at its foundations. Someone must pay. And why give the Romans the pleasure of doing it for you – the Romans you fear deeply, the Romans everyone fears. So beat them to your own death. In a weird sort of way, victory in defeat.
This is the way an imprisoned man thinks, even if that imprisoned man happens to be the jailer.
Until those thoughts are interrupted by voices, screaming at you as you prepare to fall on your sword. Voices of almost urgent joy: “We’re here! We’re still here!” In other words, “Don’t do it! Your ‘prisoners’ haven’t left. Although we were never really prisoners, were we? We have and always will be free men, free with a freedom the likes of which the Romans could never provide for you. But we can help you be free. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
The jailer got a torch and ran inside. Badly shaken, he collapsed in front of Paul and Silas. He led them out of the jail and asked, “Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?” They said, “Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live—and everyone in your house included!”
They went on to spell out in detail the story of the Master—the entire family got in on this part. They never did get to bed that night. The jailer made them feel at home, dressed their wounds, and then—he couldn’t wait till morning!—was baptized, he and everyone in his family. There in his home, he had food set out for a festive meal. It was a night to remember: He and his entire family had put their trust in God; everyone in the house was in on the celebration.
All of this, from Paul and Silas. In prison. This, from two men who had simply spoken the truth and freed a young woman from her burden. This, after being falsely accused, beaten and dragged through the streets with the crowd hurling insults and hurling stones. This, from Paul and Silas, who witnessed the stones of their prison walls crumbling around them, so that they were staring at an open night sky and breathing the fresh clean air. This, from two men who chose to stay put.
The question begs to be answered: Why? Why did they not do what you and I would’ve surely done – get up and leave? Why did they not think to themselves: “It’s a miracle! A sign that we are not meant to be here one moment longer. The prison walls have fallen down! It’s time to go!”
Could it be that Paul and Silas understood the great paradoxical truth of the gospel: that they had been and always would be free! For freedom in Christ is not about the absence of pain or suffering, or even prison walls or metal bars. Freedom in Christ is about going deeper into one’s self, so that one can then go deeper into the world. Let me say that again: freedom in Christ is about going deeper into one’s self, so that one can then go deeper into the world! An inner and outer joy that can never be contained – not by hate and lies, not by anger and fear, and certainly not by stone and metal. All the doors, swinging loose on their hinges.
And therein lies perhaps the greatest of ironies in this scriptural collision, and in the gospel we give our lives to: that the ones outside that prison were in fact the most imprisoned, and the ones inside were the freest of them all. Think about that. Think about that and ask yourself: what things am I enslaved to, right now – greed? Power and control over another? Anger and fear? A vengeful heart? Perpetual shame? What keeps us “locked up” and unable to experience the fulness of the joy of God’s freedom?
You and I, we are called – we are created – to be free in Christ. But we don’t stop there, because we are created for something else, too. Like Paul and Silas, we are called to then go out into the world and help swing loose the doors for others! Just like Jesus did. When a hated tax collector waited for Jesus in the trees because nobody else wanted him near, Jesus took him out to dinner. When the woman was in the process of being executed, Jesus implored those without sin to cast the first stone. When his closest friend denied three times that he even knew him in his hour of greatest need, he ate lunch with him on the beach and told him how much he loved him. We set people free by being agents of God’s grace and love.
And so along with Paul and Silas, you and I are engaged in a new kind of “prison break.” Let’s be freed from those things that seek to enslave us. And let’s work to free others from the same, revealing to them the blinding light of God’s image within. All the doors, swinging loose on their hinges. All the doors! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.
(Many thanks to Sara Bailey and Jack McCluskey for reading scripture during the sermon. The scripture was from The Message translation.)