People can be imprisoned in all sorts of ways – you can be put in jail for breaking the law, and in some parts of the world you can be arrested and imprisoned for expressing views about politics or human rights that threaten the ruling government. Illness can imprison a person – particularly debilitating illnesses that rob you of mobility or mental functioning. You can be an emotional prisoner of a bad relationship, entrapped in domestic abuse. You can also be hemmed in, constricted by another person’s low opinion of you and your capabilities – particularly if you are a child, and the other person is a parent or teacher; you can come to doubt your own self-worth. Another variation of that is the belief that our value as human beings is found only in our economic status and our ability to produce income. Then there is the prison of addiction in any of its various forms. There are many different prisons we might find ourselves in.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells a story about several different kinds of prisoners. Paul and Silas have remained in the Macedonian city of Philippi, after the conversion of Lydia, the first recorded person in Europe to become a follower of Jesus. As Paul and his companions went about the city they ran into a slave girl who was a psychic, who made money for her owners by fortune-telling. She was a prisoner in body, in economic activity, and in her own inner being. Whatever spirit was in her, had possession of her recognized Paul and Silas as being servants of God, and that they had a very important and weighty message of spiritual truth to deliver. And she followed Paul around in public and kept shouting this out.
Paul finally commanded the spirit to leave her; and it did – she was free of it. However, that left the girl of no value to her owners; she could no longer make them money with her fortune-telling. We don’t know what happened to her after this; we hear no more about her The owners, on the other hand, were furious; they had lost a very lucrative business. They seized Paul and Silas, dragged them to the Roman authorities (Philippi, remember, was a Roman garrison town) while a whole mob gathered around. They falsely accused Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace and subverting Roman order and customs…not knowing, of course, that Paul and Silas were both Roman citizens. So they were beaten and put in prison – not just in a jail cell, but chained and shackled, as well. They were prisoners in the common sense of the word, imprisoned because they had freed the slave girl from her spiritual bondage, which led to her freedom (we hope) from those who had owned her.
In their cell that night, Paul and Silas were praying out loud and singing a hymn, and just at that moment there was a huge earthquake; all the cell doors flew open and hung off their hinges. The jail-keeper woke up, saw what had happened, and assumed that all the prisoners had escaped and that he would be punished for this by the authorities with his own death, and so prepared to kill himself. But Paul stopped him from doing it, tell him that they were all still there. The jailer was very moved; we’re not sure why. Maybe in rapid succession he was fearful of the earthquake, fearful of the escape of his prisoners, and relieved by their presence that he blurted out the first thing that came to mind – a hugely consequential question: What must I do to be saved?
Did he even realize what it was he was asking? Or as the situation was spinning out of control did a truth deep within him finally find a voice – as a different kind of truth had found a voice in the slave girl earlier? For although the jailer was the one with the key to the cell door, perhaps he was as constricted by his role as the prisoners were. His fearful reach for suicide at the possibility of having failed in his job gives us a clue about that. Whatever might have motivated him, he asks: What must I do to be saved? And Paul answers: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ Or to put it another way: ‘Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live—and everyone in your house included!’
The jailer and his family were baptized. And the post-script to this passage, the end of the story which was not included in our lectionary reading, is that the next morning the magistrates came with the order to release Paul and Silas privately. But the prisoners claimed their status as Roman citizens and wanted an official apology – after all, they had done nothing wrong, and had been imprisoned on false charges. The official apology came, and their release, along with the request to leave town. Paul and Silas did move on to the city of Thessalonica – but not before they went back to Lydia’s house, and had a final encouraging meeting with the other Christian converts there, brothers and sisters in the faith.
The jailer and his family and the slave-girl found freedom, salvation, in their encounters with Paul and Silas, through the power of the Risen Christ – each in their own way. This was not the end of the road for them, the goal; it was just the beginning of a whole new way of life. Specifically for the jailer, it was a life in service to a very different Master – to Jesus, who offers freedom, wholeness, and joy.
As we consider how this story from the earliest days of our faith might intersect with our own stories, think about the times and places that you have felt trapped or imprisoned, hemmed in with no place to go. Where did you find hope? Where did you find light? How did the love of Christ come to you, sustain you, free you? Or, perhaps you are currently constricted by conditions you long to be freed from. Where do you hear hope and promise and new life in the story of the slave-girl, of the jailer, of Paul and Silas? For the power of God which was at work in their lives is just as alive, and active, and available for us…whatever our circumstances.
And in the world around us, we see every day the ways that disease, ignorance, injustice, poverty and so many other forceful realities imprison and hold captive our fellow human beings – people whom God took delight in creating, all of us bearing the image of God, all of us of infinite worth and value in God’s eyes. Perhaps you are feeling moved by God, called by the Spirit, to act as Paul and Silas did: to bear the message of hope and promise of a different reality, a different life of faith in Christ. To whom can you offer a word of hope and joy, to be a bearer of freedom and love through what you do or what you say?
This story is our story – the story of our faith, the story of the Church, the story that we who are Jesus’ followers are still continuing to write: the ongoing Acts of the Apostles – that is you and me. How does the story continue in your own life? What will your chapter be?
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you have freed us from the prison of sin and despair through your Cross and Resurrection; help us to live daily in your freedom and joy. Inspire us to work, speak, and pray with and for others who need your truth and love in their darkness. Bring us all to the light of your salvation, and may your story be written on our hearts. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2016