Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Acts 16: 16-34)
Today’s scripture from the book of Acts is one of those wonderful instances in the Bible where multiple lives and multiple stories collide. Like winding roads meeting fast and furious at an already crowded intersection. A slave girl. Her owners. A jailer. Paul and Silas. The day before, their lives all separate and distinct. But on this day, in this moment, their worlds ricochet off each other, hopelessly intertwined.
Today’s scripture in one sense is about freedom and imprisonment, about the things that set us loose and the things that hold us captive. But in another sense the question runs much deeper because it is not just about imprisonment and captivity in a general sense, but more specifically who it is that is imprisoned. Who is not at all free. And the truth is, in a sense, it is everybody.
Today’s scripture has already been read, but I want to invite you to hear it again with fresh, ears, from The Message version; and as you hear it again, listen for where you hear people being imprisoned. Once again, friends, listen to this:
One day, on our way to the place of prayer, a slave girl ran into us. She was a psychic and, with her fortunetelling, made a lot of money for the people who owned her. She started following Paul around, calling everyone’s attention to us by yelling out, “These men are working for the Most High God. They’re laying out the road of salvation for you!” She did this for a number of days until Paul, finally fed up with her, turned and commanded the spirit that possessed her, “Out! In the name of Jesus Christ, get out of her!” And it was gone, just like that.
A “spirit of divination” is how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. Or “demon possession,” if you read the New Living Translation. Or, if you want to get all literal with the ancient Greek, the “Spirit of Python.” Scripture makes clear to us that it is not entirely sure what to make of this woman’s condition. Perhaps you and I should sit with this for a moment, not jump too quickly into the story that unfolds, not blindly embrace the “demon possession” motif so readily, the kind of thing we have come to expect from Hollywood blockbusters.
I do wonder how differently the faithful over the years might have approached this story and this woman, had the writer of Acts had the language needed to describe more effectively matters around mental illness. This young woman was a byproduct of her sad circumstances – she whose name we do not know, she who was a slave, she who was undoubtedly sold in markets, abused in any number of ways by any number of people. This woman was not a demon-possessed crazy. She was mentally unwell, victim of the very system that had not only failed her but thrived off her. Which makes the fact that some were capitalizing on her pain, exploiting her acting out for personal gain, all the more tragic.
And it is true that Paul and Silas’ reaction may not have been the noblest of responses. They are more annoyed than altruistic, more callous than caring. But they do recognize the brokenness at hand; that something is amiss in both herself and the society that has permitted this in the first place. They see that she is carrying far more of her share of the burden; held captive to something way too powerful for her to manage on her own. And so they speak words of healing, if you will; words that relieve her of the burden that had been unfairly put upon her They provide space for her mental health to be tended to, cared for.
And in so doing, they empower her to not be held captive any longer – captive to her struggles, yes, but also captive to those who had exploited her for their own benefit. The same way that those in our day exploit women and men and children in sweat shops or on drug trails with automatic weapons in hand. Who out there needs to be freed from the systems and structures that imprison them? Whose spirit is broken and needs us to help it heal? And who out there may not want this to happen?
When her owners saw that their lucrative little business was suddenly bankrupt, they went after Paul and Silas, roughed them up and dragged them into the market square. Then the police arrested them and pulled them into a court with the accusation, “These men are disturbing the peace—dangerous Jewish agitators subverting our Roman law and order.” By this time the crowd had turned into a restless mob out for blood.
The judges went along with the mob, had Paul and Silas’s clothes ripped off and ordered a public beating. After beating them black-and-blue, they threw them into jail, telling the jailkeeper to put them under heavy guard so there would be no chance of escape. He did just that—threw them into the maximum security cell in the jail and clamped leg irons on them.
Interesting, isn’t it, how in a domineering system, the healing of one leads to the brokenness of another; the freeing of some means others must be brought into captivity. It would seem that all would rejoice in a young girl made well. It would seem that all would be made right when the bonds of captivity are broken. But that is not the way the system is designed, because there are those who rely on those chains, who thrive on the brokenness. And that is how status is maintained, that is how power is perpetuated.
And because someone must pay when the balance in the system is upended, those men took out their anger on the two strangers; those who disrupted the order of things with their healing words, those who helped her release the burdens she was carrying, those who helped to set her free.
And in their vengeful response, those in power revealed the sad irony of it all – that the oppressors are imprisoned themselves, held captive by the thickest of chains. The rabid greed and lust for power that had festered inside them like an unchecked cancer, driving them to do to the many what they had done to her for so long. They could barely remember the last time they looked at someone not as a commodity to be exploited but a human being to be cherished.
So in their imprisonment they roughed up Paul and Silas. Beat them up good, and made sure there was a crowd to see it. Made up lies about them and enticed the crowd to join them in their rage. Because those in power hold on to power by turning one against the other. They capitalize on the brokenness. They think themselves to be the free ones, but in truth it is the worst kind of prison they’re in.
Along about midnight, Paul and Silas were at prayer and singing a robust hymn to God. The other prisoners couldn’t believe their ears. Then, without warning, a huge earthquake! The jailhouse tottered, every door flew open, all the prisoners were loose.
Startled from sleep, the jailer saw all the doors swinging loose on their hinges. Assuming that all the prisoners had escaped, he pulled out his sword and was about to do himself in, figuring he was as good as dead anyway, when Paul stopped him: “Don’t do that! We’re all still here! Nobody’s run away!”
He had one job. His task was fairly simple: keep the prisoners in prison. That was it. Do not ask questions, do not think too much, do not think at all, really. Just keep the prisoners in prison. Feed them just enough to keep them alive, because a dead prisoner is not imprisoned anymore. Let the metal bars and rock and stone do their job, as you do yours.
Unless, of course, the unthinkable were to happen; and with zero warning that rock and stone suddenly crumble to the ground and the metal bars fall like toothpicks standing on end. When nothing is there to keep the prisoners in prison; nothing to stand in the way of those unnamed souls and their freedom, which they rush into joyfully.
Because if that were to happen, the jailer’s job becomes even more obvious: eliminate yourself. Take your own life. For when there are no prisoners to keep imprisoned, what purpose does the jailer have? It doesn’t matter that it’s not his fault. It doesn’t matter that he has no control over the earth shaking at its foundations. Someone must pay. That is the way the system works
This is how an imprisoned man thinks, even if he happens to be the jailer!
And it would’ve certainly come to pass had it not been for the voices screaming at him as he prepared to fall on his sword. Voices of almost urgent joy: We’re here! We’re here! In other words, Your ‘prisoners’ haven’t left. Although we were never really prisoners, now were we? We have and always will be free men, free with a freedom the likes of which the Romans could never provide. We can help you be free, too. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.
The jailer got a torch and ran inside. Badly shaken, he collapsed in front of Paul and Silas. He led them out of the jail and asked, “Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?” They said, “Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live—and everyone in your house included!”
They went on to spell out in detail the story of the Master—the entire family got in on this part. They never did get to bed that night. The jailer made them feel at home, dressed their wounds, and then—he couldn’t wait till morning!—was baptized, he and everyone in his family. There in his home, he had food set out for a festive meal. It was a night to remember: He and his entire family had put their trust in God; everyone in the house was in on the celebration.
A demon-possessed girl. Her owners. A jailer. Paul and Silas. Tell me, Trinity, who among these people is imprisoned and who is free? Is it all of them? Is it none of them? What is it that holds us captive – captive beyond bars and chains, a deeper kind of imprisonment? In our own lives, what things have sway over us, demons we have to face, struggles we seek to hide by putting a brave face on; the energy it takes to do that wearing us down?
What is it that holds us captive to the powers and principalities of the world in which we live? What is it that leads an 18-year old man this past week to commit an act so heinous and abhorrent that we can scarcely believe it could happen, were it not for the fact that, in this year alone, 149 days into 2022, it has already happened 212 times? What kind of captivity is it that keeps those who have the power to do something about it from doing anything? What is it that keeps all of us bound up, jailed, confined, cut off, incarcerated, locked up, put away, held captive, imprisoned, not at all who we were created to be?
And what is it, Trinity, that can set us free? We long for that, do we not? To be freed from all that binds us and prevents healing for our brokenness? We long to be like the slave girl who gets the help she needs, who has others advocating for her well-being. We long to be like those who had exploited her, having the rug pulled out from underneath them and realizing, shockingly so, that systems of oppression hurt all who are part of it. We long to be like the jailer who comes to understand that freedom for some is, in fact, freedom for all. And we long to be like Paul and Silas who know in their hearts of hearts that the worst kind of prison is almost always the one of our own making.
We long to be set free. Liberated. Released. Unbound. Unshackled. Untethered. Unrestrained. Let go.
Could it be that Paul and Silas realized the paradoxical truth of what real freedom is – that it is not simply about the absence of pain or suffering, or even prison walls or metal bars. True freedom is about going deeper into one’s self, so that one can then go deeper into the world. Going deeper into one’s self so that one can then go deeper into the world.
Beloved, this world is a world that needs us to go deep into it. May we answer that call and follow the lead of Paul and Silas: healing brokenness, releasing burdens, confronting oppression, speaking truth in love, setting the world free so all prisons might shake at their very foundations. All the doors, swinging loose on their hinges. All the doors!
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.