The story of the apostles’ adventures of spreading the good news of Jesus throughout Macedonia continues this morning. This wonderfully detailed narrative includes: an exorcism, a mob scene, a kangaroo court, a flogging, a prison-cell, a prison-church, an act of God, an altar call, a conversion, a few baptisms-and it concludes with new friends gathered around a dining table sharing good food and hospitality in the name of Jesus.
Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, Jews yes, but Roman citizens and also self-described citizens of God’s kingdom. These two missionaries were risk-takers and truth-tellers and that got them hauled into one court and jail after another. Paul’s missionary journeys could better be called Paul’s prison-tours.
When I was nineteen, a freshman in college, I took a course that required us to volunteer in a setting that was unfamiliar to us. So I signed up for the King County Juvenile Detention Center. They placed me in the 12- to 15-year-old boys’ unit. I can’t describe adequately enough just how unfamiliar that setting was.
I “hung out” with these boys three afternoons and evenings a week. I don’t know what I expected, but the first time I walked through the first set of multi-locked doors, I realized it was in fact a jail. There were multi-locked doors every few hundred yards and long, sterile hallways. The boys were in small, cramped cells. Some were alone depending upon what they were in for; others shared a cell. Their cells were barred. There were boys as young as 10 years old in the detention center because the justice system did not know what else to do with these young children who exhibited dangerous behaviors. Some boys were in for petty theft (I remember one repeat offender who could not stop himself from stealing tennis shoes); one 14 year-old was in for raping his younger siblings; one was there for aggravated assault.
It was eerie knowing a boy’s criminal record because when I just looked in his eyes, he was just a child. Admittedly, some kids were so hardened, it was frightening. Nonetheless, they were children. And when the kids were out on the basketball court or playing a game of checkers with you, they were just kids. When we ate dinner together, they complained about the food, and made jokes, told stories about their friends at home, and cracked each other up–just as kids do.
I would leave at the end of my visits, take the bus back to my nice comfortable and beautiful college campus, but I would bring along with me those agonizing questions: Why are children in prison? How can a child’s sense of self be formed in a punitive system, and then assumed how can a child be asked to function in society as a contributing adult? What emotional pain imprisoned each child long before they were living behind bars?
There were no obvious answers–not then and not now. But my experience with those young prisoners helped me “get” at some level why Jesus mandated us to visit the prisoner and to set the captive free.
In our story this morning about Paul and Silas we meet three imprisoned characters -two individuals and a group of characters. Each was in need of being set free in his or her own way. They are: a slave girl, her owners, and a jailor. Let’s consider each one in turn.
First, we have the slave girl.
Who was she? What do we know about her? She was nameless in this story. She was what was called a diviner-someone possessed by a spirit that was not of God, but a spirit that could tell people’s fortunes. Her “gift” meant she was owned and used as a commodity. She was a small, profitable business. As a slave, she wasn’t the subject of her own life—she was the object of her owners’ income stream.
As Paul and his friends were on their way to pray each day, the girl followed them through the streets of Philippi and the spirit within the girl would shout: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” That was true. But isn’t it interesting that she calls Paul and Silas “slaves of God” when she herself was a slave? Who is the real slave here?
Paul, finally was so annoyed by the spirit’s shouting that he turned and spoke to the spirit directly to come out of her. He did not tell the girl to shut up, but the spirit. In the name of Jesus Christ, she was unshackled from the spirit that enslaved her.
Now what happened to the girl after she was set free of her demon we don’t know. The text leaves the nameless girl’s future to our imagination. What happened to her when she was no longer useful to the company? Was she cast away? Did she become a follower of Jesus? Well, the silence in the text proposes that we use our interpretive imaginations.
Do you remember Lydia from last week’s scripture, the wealthy woman who was a convert from our story in last week’s sermon, who became one of the leaders of the growing church in Philippi? I like to imagine that Lydia took in that slave girl. I like to imagine Lydia treated the girl with kindness and honor as followers of Christ were told to do. I like to imagine that Lydia gave the girl work that was dignifying and humane.
I like to imagine that the young girl became part of the group of wise women who went down to the river to pray each day. I like to imagine that the girl lived a new life in Jesus, set free to live as God intended for her.
In the beautiful film, Chocolat, a woman named Vianne and her young daughter moved to a small French village to open a chocolaterie. Vianne befriended a pitiful, abused, young wife who was tormented with a mental affliction. Through Vianne’s friendship and love, the young woman began to heal. She discovered she had a gift for creating extraordinary chocolate confections. Her body, mind and heart were healed through being treated with dignity, loving kindness, and given good work. Vianne helped unshackle this young woman.
Second, in our story, we have the slave girl’s owners.
What do we know about them? Simply put: they were investors and shareholders of the girl—and furious ones at that. Their lucrative income stream had been cut off. They gathered the civic leaders to make sure they all understood the economic impact that Paul and Silas and the other followers of Jesus had on their lives. They hauled in Paul and Silas to the civil courts accusing them of “threatening the community’s way of life and customs.” Blaming Paul for challenging life as they knew it was a veiled excuse for actually hitting the slave owners where it hurt most-their bank accounts.Shackled by their own greed, the business owners could not see beyond their selfishness. Their hope was put in making money, the text says. Their hope was put in the god of mammon. Greed was their own version of captivity.
What happens when economics and religious convictions collide-like Paul releasing the girl from her oppression? It can have perilous consequences. When religious conviction moves beyond innocuous concern to real action, people take notice. When we move from sending a few dollars to the charity of our choice to saying NO MORE to the unjust treatment of others, people notice. When economic boycotting dries up income streams, people notice-and they often get really angry.
When DO we respond in the name of Jesus Christ to a situation where children or any human are being treated as slaves? In adult education for two weeks we talked about “Is God is in the workplace?” We kept coming round to asking what is our personal and collective responsibility to speak out against unjust labor systems. When do we speak out against systems that use people as commodities even if our actions will shake up the owners and authorities that be? These are hard questions but they must be asked.
We would be deaf readers of this story if we did not hear the hard question it asks of us: How many nameless young girls and boys are there in our world who tragically resemble this slave girl? Child sex slaves caught in the slave trade industry? Child prostitutes in either poor or rich cities? Child laborers in sweat shops? Child soldiers fighting grown men’s war?
Like all abused children, this slave girl was bound by a spirit that she could not free herself from. She was in bondage to it, and was at the mercy of others to set her free. Just like Paul, we too are mandated to be instruments of God’s liberation for the most vulnerable persons. We can’t just feel badly and only wring our hands. The heartening news is that there are numerous faith-related agencies engaged in bringing justice to these horrific situations that we can join with to do this work. The PC(USA) alone has tremendous amounts of information on how to get involved. (See endnotes for more information.)
Third and finally, we have the jailer.
Who was he? He too was nameless. He was in his own way a slave to the Roman penal system. He dutifully responded to the orders given him after Paul and Silas were severely flogged. The jailer threw them into the innermost cell and shackled their feet. He was a company guy, obedient to the responsibilities given him.
While the jailor was sleeping on the job, the prisoners were singing and praying. I like to imagine they were quoting Psalm 97 about the power of God being like an earthquake. And then an earthquake happened. And it was so intense, and the prisoners were shaken so powerfully that their shackles fell off.
Terrified of what would happen to him when his superiors discovered he lost the prisoners, the jailer was poised to fall on his sword. But Paul called out to him these words that stopped him short: “Do not harm yourself; we are all here.” These are beautiful words: “Do not be afraid; we are all here.” I think we all yearn to hear and believe in desperate times
The jailer’s question is key to this whole narrative: “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be set free?”
The liberating good news of Jesus Christ Paul tells him unshackles us from what imprisons and enslaves. Each of us has our own form of chains or demons. What is yours? Is it doubt or fear or anxiety; addiction; an inability to forgive yourself or someone else; a dependence upon your bank account for your security; self-pride or a controlling spirit; an illness-physical or mental; or painful childhood memories?
Each of us has our own version of a demon that might be holding us captive. We must not be afraid to name what it is that might be enslaving us. To bring it to light and to ask for help. The question of Paul’s jailer becomes THE question: What must I do to be set free? The answer might shake your insides like an earthquake.
If we let the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ inside of us, it shakes us to our foundation. Writer Anne Lamott tells about her own conversion like this: “Jesus followed me at my heels like a stray cat. And I knew if I cracked open the door and gave him milk once, he would never leave.” But she finally did give up running from God and coming up with excuses. She slowly let God into her life, and indeed, just as she feared, her life was shaken to its very foundation. Once in, God would not leave her shackled to the addictions that bound her life.
Transformation and emancipation can be bittersweet. Being set free takes time and patience and the courage to be changed. That’s what happened to both the girl and the jailer. We don’t know their names, but we know that when they encountered the name of Jesus, their lives were profoundly changed. They were shaken and set free.
The lives of the people around them were also shaken up. Being set free most likely will impact family and friends. Your new freedom might even find you new work.
Paul said, God who has not given us a spirit of fear, instead we have been given a spirit of power and love and strength. We do not have to be overcome by fear for we are not alone to face our new freedom.
Trust it. This is good news.
1. UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.
2. For a decade, the PC(USA) and other denominations have joined in the boycott of retail and fast food corporations through The Campaign for Fair Food Farmworkers and consumers advancing human rights and social responsibility. The Campaign for Fair Food calls upon retail food corporations to end the poverty, forced labor and other human rights abuses faced by Florida farm workers by establishing socially responsible purchasing practices. Led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights award-winning farm worker organization in Immokalee, FL, the Campaign for Fair Food is supported by religious, human rights, student and sustainable food organizations across the nation. The Campaign for Fair Food has been successful in achieving landmark agreements between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and some of the largest food corporations in the world: Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and others), McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Bon Appétit, and Compass Group (food service). These agreements are changing the very structure of the food system so that it ensures the well-being of the men and women who harvest. Through the Campaign for Fair Food, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has joined with the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and many other faith bodies to work side-by-side with the CIW farm workers toward a more sustainable and just food system.
3. Another similar story in Acts 19: Paul preached in Ephesus calling for the end of worshiping the goddess Artemis. As people started to convert and end their worship of the goddess, the silver smiths of the statuettes of Artemis were enraged. A man named Demetrius a silver smith brought the union of silversmiths and artisans together and decried Paul’s economic impact throughout the region by converting the people to the way of Jesus and thus ending the Artemis worshipers’ need for silver statuettes. A citywide riot and uproar took place that landed Paul’s followers in court once more.