I met a man yesterday who had been in prison for twenty-four years for a crime he did not commit. Intentional racism and an indifferent system had condemned him to the violent world of maximum security. And yet he was set free ten years before his release. God found him in prison. God healed him of his rage. God gave him hope. In time, organizations who fight for justice proved him innocent. Now he lives to serve the One who loved him against all the odds. Faith is not the soft sentiment of a suburban soul, but a power stronger than any force on Earth.
We live in a country founded on the principals of freedom. Sadly, the concept of freedom often gets misconstrued. You see, there are two types of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is often how freedom is expressed in our culture. This is the kind of freedom wherein we believe we can do whatever we want to and nobody is going to compel us to do what we don’t want to do. Unfortunately, this interpretation of freedom will, when all is said and done, land us in a ditch. Why? Because it is inherently selfish and exploitative – it has no regard for our responsibilities towards others and is destructive. “Freedom to,” conversely, is a different kind of freedom – one which liberates us to be completely authentic and in so doing allows us to live for God and for others. Paul often spoke of this as a paradox: in being a slave to Christ, he experiences ultimate freedom.
Today’s story from Acts is a story about slavery and freedom. And as we hear it unfold again, pay attention to who is really free … it isn’t always who you think it is! Luke’s narrative indicates that he is an eyewitness to the events which unfold through the use of first person pronouns like “we” and “us” and he tells us they went to Philippi “a Roman colony.” This isn’t just any Roman colony – it is the site of a decisive and historic battle between the forces of the Emperor Octavian and Marc Antony and the murderers of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. With the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian rewarded his senior troops with land in the region. So this was a city full of retired military officers – a “capital ‘R’” Roman colony, if you will where law and order prevail. Paul, Silas and Luke are all headed for the place of prayer when they meet a slave girl with a spirit of divination.
This girl is triply enslaved: she is owned by others who are making a killing off of her fortune telling abilities, she is enslaved by this demonic spirit, and she is female with no rights of her own. Ironically, she speaks a truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It shouldn’t surprise us that demons speak truth about God – Jesus often is called out by demons for who he really is in the Gospel narratives. She says Paul and Silas will “proclaim to you a way of salvation” – in Greek the word for salvation, sozo, has another meaning: to be healed. But after a few days of having this girl being a walking advertisement for them, Paul gets annoyed and performs an exorcism. The girl is freed from the captivity of the demon. She is healed … but there is a price.
The girl’s owners, seeing that their business interests had been compromised, seize Paul and Silas and appeal to the governmental authorities over the loss of their profits (hmmm … government and business in collusion … doesn’t that sound remarkably contemporary!). The girl’s owners portray Paul and Silas as foreigners, outsiders, whose customs are unlawful and, by extension, contemptuous. They whip the crowd into a frenzy of xenophobic hatred and the magistrates have Paul and Silas flogged (remember that … there’s a twist coming later!). Paul and Silas are then thrown into the innermost chamber of the prison and locked in shackles.
By all accounts, our protagonists are prisoners … but are they really? While their outward appearance is that of imprisonment, their inward spirits are anything but shackled! Paul and Silas spend their time singing praises to God – not laments for how poorly they are being treated. The other prisoners and the jailer too are listening to Paul and Silas as they sing and pray. And then an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, opens the doors of the cells and breaks the chains of those imprisoned. The jailer, who up until this point appears to be in a state of freedom, draws his sword to kill himself as this was the only honorable thing to do. Evidently, he isn’t as free as we think. He too is enslaved by a system which would demand his life for a career failure.
At this point, the tables are turned. Paul and Silas, who outwardly appear imprisoned, do nothing to save their own skin and escape. If they had bought into the idea of “freedom from,” they would have booked it out of there! But they didn’t. They knew what “freedom to” meant – it meant that they were there for the jailer’s salvation too. They stay put, and we can surmise the other prisoners do too. The jailer, shocked that the prisoners would act this way, asks what he must do to be saved. Perhaps in that moment, the jailer realizes he is imprisoned by the oppression of Rome too. Paul and Silas tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus and he and his household will be saved. Notice it isn’t just the jailer, but also his whole household who will be saved. Paul and Silas have offered an exit ramp, an “opt-out” if you will, to a system which enslaves and oppresses this jailer and his whole household. The jailer, in a remarkable transformation, brings Paul and Silas to his home and tends their wounds. He and his household are baptized and all share a meal together and are rejoicing in their newfound freedom as believers in Christ.
But the story really doesn’t end there (yes, I think the revised common lectionary ended this way too soon!). Luke goes on to tell us:
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
This story is a reminder that for Christians, freedom isn’t a matter of outward circumstances as much as it is a matter of spiritual disposition. For Paul, Silas and the man Bishop Charleston speaks of, it is about God in Christ finding them and setting them free from the things of this world which bind and oppress them. All of us face powers in the world and in our lives which can enslave us. We can be held captive by racism, sexism, homophobia, economic forces, self-loathing over any number of issues, addictions of all types, immigration status … the list goes on and on. But the message of this story from Acts is that God in Christ is giving us an exit ramp – a way out – of all which subjugates us. In baptism, we are set free to live for Christ by living for others. It is a radically alternate reality where God finds us, heals us, and gives us hope. And in being liberated, we have the freedom to serve the One who loves us against all the odds.