Our reading from Acts this week is a great story. A lot of the book of Acts recounts the travels and journeys of the Apostles–mostly Peter in the beginning and then slowly focusing more on Paul. Today’s reading, from Acts 16, is one of the more exciting stories: a healing, an angry mob, a prison break, and finally a baptism. Which part is the most exciting for you?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everybody loves a good prison break story, right? It’s usually someone we can root for, someone who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place: Edmund Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo, or Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. We come to appreciate them as the underdogs, wrongfully imprisoned, and their journeys to freedom are ones that we cheer.
Edmund Dantes must sneak out of prison by posing as a corpse. Andy Dufresne digs his way into the sewers and must crawl a hundred yards through muck and dirt to be reborn on the outside. They are dramatic stories of release and rebirth and freedom.
We have all the makings of a great prison break story today. Paul and Silas are in jail, accused by a xenophobic mob on trumped up, racially motivated charges. Paul had healed the unnamed slave girl, mostly because she was annoying him with her truth. Her owners are upset because now they can’t make money off of the spirit that had plagued her life.
But they don’t accuse Paul of stealing from them. No, instead, they accuse him of spreading insurrection. Of being a threat to their society and order. The mob quickly forms, spurred on by their racism against these Jewish men. And Paul and Silas are jailed without trial, placed in the most secure cell of the prison.
Then there’s this dramatic moment, they are praying and singing hymns, and there’s an earthquake and their shackles are gone. This is the moment the whole story has been leading up to; we’re ready for our heroes to bust out of this place, saved by God’s miraculous actions. And that’s when our great prison break story becomes a really lame prison break story. Because, even though everyone’s bonds are released, they don’t escape. They don’t escape! Their chains are gone, but they stay in prison.
In fact, they even call out to the jailor, who is ready to end his own life because his culture demands that he do so because of this great shame. They reassure him, this man in charge of keeping them in bondage, that they are all present and accounted for. No one needs to die for this.
It’s a prison break story without the prison break. It’s a story of liberation that doesn’t focus on physical freedom. Paul and Silas end up free at the end of this story, but so do others. Because this story isn’t just a story about breaking out of an actual, physical prison. It’s a story about freedom of all kinds. Paul and Silas weren’t the only ones who needed to be set free.
There’s actually three liberating moments—and Paul and Silas might have the least exciting one. The first is the slave girl. She is doubly bound. She is a slave, her freedom is taken from her by her owners. But she is also bound by this “spirit of divination.” A demonic spirit is making use of her body, just as her owners are making use of her.
And she is haunting Paul and Silas as they are seeking the place of prayer. Paul, it says annoyed, although the word could also be translated “deeply grieved,” commands the spirit to leave her in the name of Jesus. And it does. It’s worth noting that this moment of liberation is only half-liberation. The girl is freed from the spirit, but remains a slave. We don’t know what happens to her after this.
And then there’s the jailor. Although he holds others in captivity, he too is in need of freedom. When that earthquake comes and opens the prison doors, he is so distraught at his failure in his job that he is prepared to end his life. He is so bound by the systems of honor and shame, by his fear, that he cannot see another way forward.
When Paul announces that everyone is still there, the jailor’s relief is palpable. “What must I do to be saved?” He asks. His liberation comes as he receives God’s Spirit and blessing in baptism that very night. He is freed from thinking his job is his worth. He is freed to see those he held captive as humans worthy of welcome and care.
What is it that you need liberation from? I was trying to get into the story this week, and wondered what it would be like to have someone follow me around and announce my intentions everywhere I went. And then I wondered, what would the girl with the spirit say if she followed me around. When she follows Paul and Silas, she tells the truth: these men are servants of the Most High God. Is that what the spirit would see in me and my actions? In you?
Would it say that we are servants of the Most High God, which we certainly hope to be? Or would it say other truths? These people are servants of their schedules, their busy-ness, their need to be productive. These people are servants of their political ideology, their self-centeredness, their consumerist ways.
What are you in bondage to? What rules your decisions and choices? Some of our bonds are external—they are things that we do not choose for ourselves anymore than the girl chose to be a slave. They are the institutions, the racism and sexism and homophobia that we might not create but that we are caught up in. Other bonds come from within us. Our own prejudices, our fears and shame, hurtful patterns that we keep returning to.
There’s a lot of questions in our story today: what happened to the slave girl? What kind of salvation was the jailor seeking? But the one I keep coming back to—why would Paul and Silas stay in prison, once God has miraculously released them? Why didn’t they take the opportunity to get out of there? To leave Philippi and its xenophobic mob behind?
Even though they were bound physically, they knew what true freedom was. And the jailor needed it. True freedom, ironically, is found in knowing to whom we belong. The Most High God. In baptism, God claims us as daughters and sons, and frees us from the bonds of sin and death. We are freed from ever having to prove ourselves; we are freed to love and serve our neighbor resting securely in God’s love and grace.
“These men are servants of the Most High God!” the spirit declared, speaking truth on that street in Philippi. The truth today, in this room—these people are children of the Most High God! This is most certainly true. My prayer is that we believe this truth, that our lives shine forth with this truth. These people are children of the Most High God. Amen.