by David Baer, April 22, 2018
Text: Acts 16:16-34
The Shawshank Redemption, The Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke. The movies are just full of stories about escapes from prison. We root for the heroes of these stories, who are prisoners of war, innocent men wrongly convicted, or else irrepressible nonconformists. (“What we have here is a failure to communicate!” says the warden in Cool Hand Luke.) In any case, we identify with these men (and they’re usually men). We want them to succeed in breaking free of their captivity. There’s something exciting and romantic about a story of someone who refuses to stay locked up. As Americans we value self-determination and personal freedom, and these prison-break stories draw us in by putting the value of those ideals and the sacrifices people are willing to make for them into high relief.
Today’s scripture from the book of Acts is sort of a “Prison-Break: Bible Edition” tale. But this is a different kind of story than your average Hollywood prison-break film. It begins with an accidental rescue. It ends with a jailkeeper asking his prisoners to free him. And in the middle, the good news of the crucified and risen Jesus puts a whole city into uproar and shakes the very foundations of its institutions. This is a story about the disruptive, liberating power of Jesus’ resurrection!
First, the accidental rescue. Last week we heard about how Paul the persecutor of Jesus’ disciples became Paul the apostle. Now we skip forward many, many years. With the blessing of the other apostles, Paul is on a mission to share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles, that is, people like you and me who are outside of the Jewish faith. He and his partner Silas have found their way to the city of Philippi. Now Philippi is a Roman colony. That is, it was established as a place for Roman soldiers and their families to settle as a reward for their service to the empire. So this is a community founded by people who pledged their lives to the power that killed Jesus. It’s an unlikely place for Paul and Silas to look for converts, unless you remember that Paul himself was once an enemy of Jesus, and so he’s not going to be put off by a hostile or skeptical reception.
Paul and Silas have already made contact with a local prayer group led by a woman named Lydia. This prayer group worshiped the one God, the God of Israel, although some of them seem to be Gentiles, and they may not have been able to pull together the quorum of ten Jewish men required for a synagogue. But it’s a start, and Lydia responds favorably to Paul and Silas’s teaching, asks to be baptized, and invites them to stay in her home.
The story opens with Paul and Silas making their way back out from the city to the place of prayer. A slave girl happens upon them. This young woman is possessed by a spirit that gives her supernatural insight into people’s stories. But it’s apparently a kind of compulsion she can’t control, and it makes her vulnerable to exploitation. When you hear about this girl, you might think about the thousands of women and girls today who are trafficked into slavery and prostitution. They share a kinship with this girl, whose illness provokes in her owners not compassion, not a desire to ease her suffering, but a chance to reap lucrative profits from the suffering of a weaker person.
As we read the story, though, it’s not clear that Paul and Silas know any of this. All they know is that this disturbed person latches onto them and tails them for three days, shouting at the top of her voice, “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” Finally, Paul has had enough. He snaps, turns around, and says, “That’s it! Evil spirit, in the name of Jesus, come out! And shut up already!” And the girl is healed. But the motivation for this amazing healing wasn’t compassion. It was annoyance that prompted this accidental rescue of a captive person.
As someone who is not infrequently annoyed in this life, I take some comfort in this story. God can use our all-too-human limitations, our frustrations, our impatience, our annoyance to lead us to do good. If you’re experiencing anger and frustration in your life, you might ask whether the things that are frustrating you come from someone else crying out for help in the only way they know how.
The other thing that’s worth thinking about is what this girl means when she says that Paul and Silas are here to proclaim a “way of salvation.” Given the affliction she lived with and the injustice of her exploitation, I think for her “salvation” didn’t just mean the consolation of knowing you’re going to heaven when you die. When Paul cast that evil spirit out of her, she had a freedom she had never known before. She no longer had to tell fortunes to enrich someone else. For her the name of Jesus meant a transformed life and freedom here, now, today. For her salvation meant justice, safety, peace in her soul, and release from spiritual and physical bondage. As we think about the kind of healing that, as Christians, we’re called to offer our neighbors, we need to be willing to see all the dimensions of pain in people’s lives. We need to see how they’re impacted by mental illness or substance abuse or troubled relationships, but also poverty, racism, economic injustice, or the presence of violence in their homes and communities. The salvation Jesus offers is more than a spiritual band-aid. As the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Sometimes healing those in pain means disrupting or overturning the systems built upon their pain.
Barkley Calkins keeps us up to date on a new friend of his by the name of Anthony Baptiste. We’ve been praying for this gentleman, an immigrant from Trinidad currently held in immigration detention as he waits for a hearing on his status. It matters a great deal to Anthony that we pray for him, and he’s told us so. But I wonder if we might also give some thought to why it is Anthony is being kept from his home, kept from productive work, and kept locked up while the lawyers sort things out. This is causing him a lot of anxiety and heartache. To what purpose? For whose benefit? We ought to pray for our friend in detention. We also ought to ask what we might do to relieve our neighbors of heavy undue burdens they are carrying. When Jesus said, as he did, right at the start of his ministry, that he came to proclaim release to the captives, if he means you and me, if he means the slave girl in Philippi, then surely he also means those like Anthony who are literal prisoners.
When you mess with unjust systems like the one that kept the slave girl captive, they mess with you. The girl’s owners haul Paul and Silas into court, and they charge them with the very serious offense of illegally preaching Judaism to non-Jewish Roman citizens in the city. Without trial, without evidence, Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown into the innermost cell of the city’s prison. But then an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the place, and all the doors swing open. It’s God demonstrating that the Roman authorities have no power to hold the apostles of Jesus. More than that, by opening all the cell doors, God is showing that wherever the message of Jesus reaches, chains are broken and people receive freedom.
But Paul and Silas don’t leg it for the open countryside. Instead, they remain in their cells, out of concern for the jailer. And for good reason… This jailer knows that if the prisoners under his charge escape, he’s as good as dead anyway, so he draws his sword to take his own life, until Paul assures him that everybody is still there. They’re worried about this man, who has participated in an injustice against them. They stay in their cells, and it seems they persuaded the other inmates to do the same, out of love for someone who was their enemy.
And I think that’s the key to understanding what the jailer is looking for when he asks them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Again, I don’t think, in that moment, that what he means is, “Can you tell me how to go to heaven when I die?” What has just happened has revealed something about the world. The situation is completely upside-down from what the jailer had thought. The prisoners he had been guarding are the ones who are really free, and it’s the jailer who is captive to a power that is every bit as hostile to him as it is to Paul and Silas. He sees that he’s the one who’s in need of rescue. So he asks them for help—can they free him?
Sometimes the things that make us feel powerful are really just signs of our captivity. When we store up anger and resentment over past wrongs, we may think we’re holding someone else accountable for what they did, but often we’re the ones who are captive. It’s only when we do what that jailer did—make space at our table for enemies, bind up their wounds, listen to their testimony—that we discover how Jesus saves.
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker who sheltered Jews in her home during the Second World War. In 1944 she was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, although she was later released, due to a clerical error at the camp. After the war, Corrie ten Boom traveled and spoke about her experience and how her Christian faith had led her to make the hard choices she made. Once, when she was speaking in Germany, she recognized in the audience one of the camp guards who had been exceptionally cruel to her. After her talk, he approached her and extended his hand. Ten Boom prayed for the power to forgive him. She said it was as though she felt that power coming from outside of her, flowing through her arm: “For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”1 That moment of forgiveness was a kind of second liberation for a woman who thought she had been free.
This is not a path many of us will be called to walk. The new life, the resurrection that each of us needs is going to look different. But God’s disruptive, liberating word is meant for all of us. I keep coming back to that image of the jailer sitting at table with his former prisoners, his old life gone, his new life just beginning, and a feeling of sheer joy filling the room. The God who shakes the foundations of every prison frees us for a life where spiritual and physical captivity lose their power, where enemies become friends, and where families and communities rejoice at the liberating power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead and raises us to new life with him.
Let us pray: Good and loving God, when we wall our hearts behind ramparts, batter them down. When we conceal ourselves because we are afraid to use the gifts you give each one of us, seek us out. When we live inside the closed-in rubble of busy-ness and self-concern, fill our emptiness with your presence, and call us by name. Where illness stifles us, heal us. Where cynicism blinds and binds us, release us and give us sight. Where guilt hems us in and limits who we can be, forgive us and give us new life. We pray in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Amen.
Corrie ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. Quoted in "Corrie ten Boom." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 28 Apr 2009, 13:41 UTC. 22 April 2018 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Corrie_ten_Boom&oldid=286644151>.