Text: Acts 16:16-40
We have been reading from the Book of Acts these past few Sundays. Acts is the story of the early church – it tells of the spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. We have read the account of Peter raising from the dead the much-loved disciple Dorcas. We looked at Peter’s vision from God in which he is told not to differentiate among people and that he should not call what God has made unclean, and Peter defends his ministry among the Gentiles to church leaders in Jerusalem. Last week Susan brought the message and we looked at the story of Paul going to Philippi and meeting Lydia, a Gentile businesswoman who was a dealer in purple dye, and baptizing her and her household. Lydia was the first Christian believer in Europe.
This morning we continue reading in Acts chapter 16, picking up right after last week’s scripture. This is one of the great stories in the New Testament and it invites us to think about freedom in perhaps a different way because nothing is as simple or obvious as it first seems.
While still in Philippi, it appears that Paul and his friends regularly visited the place of prayer where they had met Lydia. (You might remember that they are staying in Lydia’s home.) In Philippi as in many cities, there was a place of prayer by the river, a place where Gentiles who were drawn to Judaism would gather. These Gentiles were sometimes called “God fearers.”
While Paul and his companions were on their way to the place of prayer, they would pass a slave girl who would shout out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God!” She would follow them and keeping shouting out. This happened for days. Apparently, they passed by her every day, and every time, she would follow and shout, “These men are servants of the Most High God who proclaim a way of salvation!”
And as you might imagine, Paul became annoyed. It’s more than a little distracting.
This girl was not only a slave, she was also possessed by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers. Scholar Paul Walasky explained that this was not uncommon in the ancient Greek world. People would come to such people, called “mantics,” and ask them questions, which they answered while in a trance-like state. This sounds rather exotic to us, but in that day, this was seen as performing a useful function in society.
What this all added up to is that this girl was a lucrative small-business enterprise for her owners. She is used by people who have figure out how to make money off of her. For her to keep shouting that Paul and his friends are servants of the Most High God, you might think that this would not really help their business. But on the other hand, maybe it reinforced the idea that she had special powers, special knowledge, so maybe it would help their business.
Either way, Paul walks by, this girl begins to shout at him yet again, and he has had it. And so he heals her – he exorcises the spirit from her not out of compassion or deep concern for her well-being, it seems, but impulsively, because he is just so annoyed. Paul orders this spirit to leave her, and it did. The girl was made well and is in her right mind.
But now, this girl has lost her ability as a fortune teller. She was no longer plugged into the Psychic Friends Network. Rather than being happy that this girl has been made well, they are angry at their loss of income.
And so they have Paul and Silas dragged into court. Their complaint was not that these men had healed the girl and thus deprived them of a lucrative source of income. Instead, they were charged with disturbing the peace and engaging in un-Roman activities. Disturbing the peace is always an easy charge to bring. In the Civil Rights era, marchers were some times beaten and rather than charging those who were responsible for the beatings with assault, the marchers would be charged with disturbing the peace. If they hadn’t been there stirring things up, none of this would have happened.
It isn’t much of a trial. Paul and Silas are charged and the crowd gets worked up. Who did these people think they were? Paul and Silas are beaten with rods and then thrown into prison. They were apparently considered to be a security risk, because they were placed in the innermost cell and their feet were put into stocks.
They had healed a girl of a spirit that possessed her, and this is what happened. Sometimes you just can’t win. Here we have a good illustration of “no good deed goes unpunished.” You have seen it happen – it’s probably happened to you. You try to do the right thing, and it only gets you into trouble.
The story is told of the man who stood at the gates of heaven when St. Peter stops him and asks what good has he done in his life. And St. Peter adds, “We’re really looking for examples of true greatness.”
The man thought for a minute and said, “I saw a group of skinhead bikers harassing a young woman. I was afraid of what they might do. So I went to the leader and told him to leave her alone or he would have to deal with me. He laughed at me, so I kicked over his bike, told him to back off, and ordered the whole group to get out of town.”
“Wow!” said St. Peter. When did this happen? “Oh, about 3 minutes ago,” he replied.
Sometimes it really does seem true: no good deed goes unpunished. I read that in Cincinnati a pedestrian was prosecuted for slipping a quarter into a parking meter that had expired. The do-gooder faced a hefty fine for her trouble.
If we expect to be rewarded for doing good, we might want to think again. Being rewarded for our thoughtfulness or concern or kindness can’t be our motivation for doing the right thing because chances are, it’s not going to happen.
In fact, maybe we ought to expect to get into trouble for doing the right thing. That was certainly Jesus’ experience. And that’s what happened to Paul and Silas. Bringing freedom to the oppressed changes the way things are. It always shakes up the status quo, and that is threatening to people, generally the ones who are in power.
So Paul and Silas are beaten and then thrown into jail. Now if it were me, at this point, I would be a little bit – well, a little down. Depressed. First off, I don’t like being beaten up. Probably just me, but I don’t enjoy that. And then, you are stuck in jail, which was a lot more unpleasant then that it is now.
A few years ago, when they opened the new Story County Jail, CCJ had a fundraiser before the jail was officially opened. It was called “Slumber in the Slammer.” They had a tour of the new jail, there was food, local celebrities were on hand, and if you made a contribution and chose to, you could actually spend the night in jail. It was fun! The facility was fresh and new wanted to and you got to hang out with fun and interesting people.
It wasn’t like that for Paul and Silas. It was not remotely like that. They are not just in jail, they are in the high security area and their feet are in stocks. They can’t move.
It had been a hard day. Getting beaten by rods tends to take it out of you. Prison conditions were not good. It is surprising they are even awake at midnight, but then it is hard to get comfortable when your feet are in stocks. So, what do they do? Paul and Silas are praying and singing hymns at midnight. What an image: singing hymns at midnight in jail.
William Willimon told of a visit a number of years ago by Bishop Emilio de Carvalho, the Methodist bishop of Angola. The bishop was asked what it was like to be the church in a Marxist country. Was the government supportive of the church?
“No,” the bishop said, “but we don’t ask for it to be supportive.” “Have there been tensions?” he was asked. “Yes,” said the bishop. “Not long ago the government decreed that we should disband all women’s organizations in the church.” What happened? “Of, the women kept meeting. The government is not strong enough to do too much about it.
“But what will you do when the government becomes stronger?” “Well,” he said, ”We shall keep meeting. The government does what it needs to do. The church does what it needs to do. If we go to church for being the church, we shall go to jail.”
What a great attitude. We need to be smart, we need to be aware of what is going on, but we are not responsible fro what others do. We are ourselves responsible before God.
The bishop went on, ‘Jail is a wonderful place for Christian evangelism. Our church made some of its most dramatic gains when so many were in jail. In jail, you have everyone there, in one place. You have time to preach and teach. Sure, twenty of our pastors were killed during the revolution, but we came out of jail a much larger and stronger church.”
And then, as if anticipating the next question, Bishop Carvel said, “Don’t worry abut the church in Angola; God is doing fine by us. Frankly, I would find it much more difficult to be a pastor in Illinois. Here, there is so much. There are so many things. It must be hard to be the church here.”
Paul and Silas are in prison, in chains. They are worshiping God, singing hymns at midnight. Like the bishop said, jail can be a wonderful place to be the church. And then, a powerful earthquake hits. The foundations of the prison are shaken. Doors fly open. Stocks come apart. Chains are unfastened.
The jailer was an employee of the empire and responsible for the prisoners. If a prisoner escaped, the jailer would be liable for whatever punishment the inmates might receive. In a corrupt system, this tended to discourage jailers from being bought off, and it made for tighter security.
The jailer was very afraid. And he had reason to be afraid. His future was over. He drew a sword to kill himself, assuming the prisoners had escaped. But Paul called out for him not to harm himself, because everyone was still there.
The jailer had heard the songs and prayers and knew that something was very different about Paula and Silas. Now he knew for sure the difference Jesus had made in Paul’s life. He believes in Christ. He washes Paul and Silas’s wounds. He is baptized, along with his household. And then he has Paul and Silas sit down to a meal. (Since the earthquake was around midnight, I suppose this was an early breakfast.)
It is interesting is to think about this story in terms of who is really free. The slave girl was freed from her demons while her owners were captive to their greed. Paul and Silas are in chains in prison, but singing hymns at midnight, they are free. They have found a freedom in Christ that surpasses the difficulties of the moment. Meanwhile, the jailer is imprisoned by fear.
Later, Paul writes these same Philippians: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul knew what real freedom is like.
We would all claim to be free. How free are we really? We have to pay our monthly mortgage or rent, most of us. We are bound to our job or to school. We may have fears about money or health or children or parents weighing us down. We may be carrying a load of burdens and worries. Some of us may be nursing bitterness and anger. We may be trying to live up to others’ expectations. We like to think that we are free, but maybe we are really as free as we would like to think.
Paul and Silas show us what freedom really looks like. It is not so dependent on outer circumstances, but rather on the inner peace of God.
For Paul and Silas, the grace and peace and hope they had in Christ could not be taken away, and in light of that, other things did not matter so much. They were free, free enough that they could sing hymns at midnight in jail. May we too know the peace and joy and true freedom that are found in Christ. Amen.