ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 8, 2016
Acts 16: 16 – 34; John 17: 20 – 26
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A woman woke in the middle of the night to find her husband missing from their bed. She got out of bed and checked around the house. She heard sobbing from the basement. After turning on the light and descending the stairs, she found he husband curled up into a little ball, sobbing. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Remember, 20 years ago, I got you pregnant when you were only 16? “Yes”, said the wife, “that’s not something I’d forget.” “And remember your father told me I could either marry you or go to jail?” “Yes but that was 20 years ago. What’s upsetting you tonight?” she replied. “Well, I would have been released this morning.” There are many types of prisons: some physical, others emotional; some external and some internal; some we are well aware of and others we are can’t perceive; some we find comfortable in their familiarity and others we’re desperate to escape. Getting out of prison is not easy; it’s not meant to be – if it were there’d be prisoners on the loose everywhere; assuming of course the average prisoner is smarter than this guy: (cartoon) Freeing ourselves from our own prisons is even harder.
In today’s scripture we encounter a number of people who are imprisoned in various ways. First we meet a “slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” (Acts 16: 16) This girl was captive in two ways. First, she was enslaved by her gift. She had the ability to discern spirits and to tell the future. Our spiritual gifts, when they come from God’s Spirit, are pathways out of enslavement but this girl was enslaved by a demonic power, a spirit of divination. Rather than possessing her gift, her gift possessed and controlled her. She was also enslaved by the people who “owned” her and used her to make money for them. Time and again, they’d take her out on the streets where she would tell fortunes, share insights and give warnings and guidance. People paid big bucks for that sense of control over the future, but the girl had no control of her own future. Instead being the subject of her own life, she was the object of someone else’s commercial enterprise. She was their meal ticket, their free ride to fortune. This girl had no power to free herself from her demons or her owners. She comes into the story because one day she encountered Paul and his fellow missionary Silas; the sinister spirit within her recognized the Spirit of Christ in them. So she followed them around crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (vs. 17) We would think that Paul and Silas would have been thrilled with the free advertising. But that’s not the case. At first the missionaries let her be but as the days passed, Paul grew increasingly annoyed. We get that – it’s annoying to have someone follow you around repeating the same thing about you, even if it’s true. Paul may also have been disturbed by the girl’s enslavement. Paul had his own spiritual sensitivity and knew the Spirit was not of God. He could also see the girl was dominated and exploited. Finally there was a subtle mockery in the girl’s statement. She declared Paul and Silas to be “slaves” and slaves can’t free themselves never mind lead others to freedom. She was undermining their ministry. Finally, Paul got angry. He turned to the girl, not in gentle tones of pastoral compassion, but in exasperated fury and commanded the demon, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” (vs. 18) Within the hour the girl was set free. What a glorious moment of triumph for Christ. We’d expect people to flock to Paul and Silas, but something else happened.
The owners of the girl, the investors and shareholders, were very unhappy. Their easy income source had been destroyed. They wanted “justice. They wanted vengeance. These people were locked in a dungeon of sociopathic narcissism, greed and laziness; their selfish souls saw the girl solely as a commodity. Shackled by greed and imprisoned by their hard hearts, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the judge. But rather than saying, “These men have destroyed our money making scheme” they hit the judge in his Achilles’ heel. They catastrophized, “These foreigners, these Jews, are a danger to our entire social order; they’re leading people astray; they’re attacking the nation; the city’s in an uproar. Soon they’ll be brainwashing our children! We’re losing jobs. They’re destroying the economy. This girl’s going to end up on welfare; taxes will increase. But with fewer jobs, who can pay tax? This is a disaster!” The crowd was panicked. The judge was shocked. Immediate action was a must. So Paul and Silas, were stripped, whipped and thrown into prison. Not just prison, “the hole”. They were thrown into the innermost cell with their feet in shackles. No way were these “dangerous offenders” getting out.
At this point Paul and Silas are also in prison. These “slaves of the Most High God”, whose only crime was delivering a slave girl from demonic possession, are naked, bleeding, sitting in dirt, damp and excrement, with shackles cutting into their ankles. Night fell and they were in complete darkness with no hope of escape. Locked up, imprisoned, bound, confined, stripped of their freedom and rights. What would you do? Cry, howl, curse, pull on your chains? In the dark of the night, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns. They turned to God. They gave God glory. The other prisoners noticed, they listened. Do you think the inmates would have listened had Paul and Silas been whaling and whining? Not likely. They’d done enough of that themselves. But here were two people who shared their fate, whose punishment was worse than their own, and they were praying and singing. What a witness! People listen to that. As they were doing this, a mighty earthquake shook the foundation of the prison. “Immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (vs 26) Now most of us would cease this opportunity to get as far away as fast as possible. There’d be nothing but a cloud of dust. The prison guard assumed his prisoners were long gone.
This was not a good moment to be the guard of a Roman prison. This man had quickly gone from being a guard to being an offender. He too was imprisoned. His cell was the shame of failure and the fear of Rome’s power. There was no way he’ll make it out alive. Remember how the Roman’s punished their felons? The man decided to take the coward’s way out. It would be better to fall on his sword than hang on a cross. He was about to off himself when Paul called out “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” (vs. 28) We’ve got to ask: why on earth are they still there? No doubt it’s the very question the guard asked. We’re not given the answer. My guess is Paul and Silas realized the earthquake wasn’t their key to freedom; they were free regardless of their chains. Free in the assurance that nothing could separate them from the love of God. Free in the confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was bigger than Rome. Free in S/sprit. Free in Christ. Free to pray and praise. The earthquake wasn’t for their freedom, it was the jailer’s opportunity to find the same freedom. And he did. Paul told him about Jesus. The Guard and his household were baptized. They were set free. The jailer was free to wash the wounds of his wards. He was free to bring them into his house, a clear violation of prisoner/guard boundaries. He was free to sit at the same table and share in a meal with them. He was free of protocol; free of his fear of Rome; free of his shame. Moreover, he and his entire household were free to “rejoice that he had become a believer in Christ” (vs. 34)
The central question this story raises for us is not what kind of prison are you in? It’s not how can you get out? It’s not when will God send the earthquake and unshackle us? These are important questions but the deeper questions are: In the depths of your prison, whatever it is that binds, limits or possesses you, have you learned to pray? Have you learned to sing at midnight, when there is no light and you are alone in the dark night of your soul? Have you learned to turn to God in faith and give God praise when you are unjustly treated? When life beats you up and leaves you bleeding? When others shackle you? Have you learned to pray and sing when you are in pain, scared, miserable, alone, without any sign of hope? Are you free?
Freedom comes to a number of people in this story: the girl, the guard, Paul and Silas. And it comes in one way: through the name, the message and the power of Jesus Christ. We find freedom when we find Jesus. And when we pray, sing, act and speak in the name and power of Jesus, others find freedom too