May 29th – 7th Sunday of Easter – Freedom – Acts 16:16-34
This sermon’s titled “Freedom.” It’s a loaded word. Songs about freedom from Jon Baptiste “to move your body just like this” to the old school “Freedom” chorus a la George Michael. Who can ever forget William Wallace yelling, “Freedom” in Braveheart? Freedom. Hot button and divisive issues like the freedom to choose and the freedom to bear AK 47’s are taken from our living rooms to social media to protests. Freedom. This weekend, as we celebrate the brave men and women who have died in active military service, choosing to fight for this country’s freedom. As we look at the Ukrainians who actively fight for the freedom of their country right now. Freedom is defined as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Jurgen Moltmann argues that the greatest mystery of human existence is not the reality of evil, or injustice, or hatred. Rather, the greatest mystery in the universe is human freedom — the freedom that God has chosen to give you and me that enables us to order our lives in any way we see fit. We are free to become a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We are free to give our lives to God, or free to be the crowd that crucified Jesus. As we close out this five-part series on the Power of the Holy Spirit displayed in Acts, we get an up close personal look at people in bondage and the glorious freedom in Jesus’ name.
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
Who is actually free?
The slave girl isn’t. She cries out about Paul and Silas, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” They are free to choose to spend their time proclaiming the way to true freedom.
The slave girl’s owners are bitter that Paul lost them their money maker and are imprisoned by their evil ways of earning a living. They certainly are not free of their greediness.
When the owners drag them before the crowd – they’re suckered in by the mob spirit that makes them look like villagers with pitchforks and torches. They are certainly not free of their assumptions, rush to judgment, mass anger and group think and they begin attacking them.
Then the magistrates who are supposed to maintain order, strip them of their clothing and order them to be beaten with rods. They are imprisoned by punitive rules that compel them to pronounce a harsh sentence on two people who are simply preaching love and kindness. The magistrates could have shown mercy, but their pridefulness and holding onto their power, certainly wouldn’t have freed them.
They threw them into prison after giving them a severe flogging. Although the jailer wears a ring of keys that open any door in the place, the jailer is just as confined as the prisoners. He’s imprisoned by his fear — by a terror so great that he would sooner impale himself on his sword than face the wrath of his superior officers.
Then the other prisoners themselves. Who knows what they could have done to end up here. They are certainly not free of their crimes.
Paul and Silas are the only ones that are truly free. Surely, they had heard how Jesus told the Jews that believed in him in John 8:31-36, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed. They are free because of the Spirit of Christ that dwells within them — the Spirit which gives them courage to sing and pray, even with their legs immobilized in the stocks.
What do you think the other prisoners thought? When they heard Paul and Silas battered, bruised and naked praying and singing hymns?
In Walk the Line (2005), Johnny Cash, who is played by Joaquin Phoenix, is talking to the prison warden.
The Warden: “Mr. Cash? The record company asks that you not play any songs that would remind the prisoners that they are in jail.”
Johnny Cash: “Do you think they forgot?”
In the same film, this is an exchange between Johnny Cash and a record company executive.
Record Company Executive: “Your fans are church folk, Johnny. Christians. They don’t wanna hear you singing to a bunch of murderers and rapists, tryin’ to cheer ’em up.”
Johnny Cash: [pause] “Well, they’re not Christians, then.”
The text doesn’t say whether Paul was a tenor and Silas a bass. It doesn’t mention guitars or other instruments. The text says: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” The other prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns. The text doesn’t say what the prisoners were guilty of, it only says when there was a massive earthquake all the prisoners’ chains were unfastened and the prison doors were wide open, but none of them left. None of them left. When we’re singing in the rain, people are going to stop and take notice. When we’re singing even through our adversity, when we’re trudging through the valley of the shadow of death, people are going to stop and take notice.
God acts through the form of an earthquake that effectively removes the chains of all the prisoners, and opens all the doors, while, miraculously, not harming a single person. I’m always curious what happened to the prisoners after the story leaves them. I wonder if it was a Kairos ministry moment. Kairos Ministries brings the life-changing message of Christ’s love and forgiveness to incarcerated individuals. It is an ecumenical, lay-led ministry that relies on 20,000 volunteers per year to carry out its mission.
“I’m glad I got caught because if I hadn’t been caught and sentenced and sent to this place, I might never have met Jesus Christ, never have known God is real,” says one of the 170,000 incarcerated men and women who have experienced Kairos Prison Ministry International, since it began in 1976.
The impact of Kairos is immeasurable. Whereas an estimated 30 to 70 percent of released inmates will return to prison, Colorado’s Department of Corrections found that only 10 percent of incarcerated individuals who had experienced Kairos ministry returned to prison. Lives are changed and when these individuals are released from prison they are better able to be the kind of spouse, parent and employee they want to be. Many even become volunteers themselves.
One inmate sums it up this way, “I came full of hate and resentment. I’m going out with love, a new Spirit … Christ within me.”
A new Spirit is what the jailer wanted too. When we’ve tried everything the world has offered and we’re desperate for an answer that completely satisfies us, we cry out to Jesus. I can imagine the heartbreaking sincerity in his voice as he asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities contains a famous character known as Dr. Manette. Imprisoned for 20 years by the king, the doctor is finally freed by the revolution. Through his long imprisonment, the doctor has taken on a new trade, that of cobbler. In the gloom of his prison cell, he has lived out his days tapping shoes with a hammer.
Finally, the day comes when Dr. Manette is led out into the sunlight, but the light of day terrifies him. The good doctor has lived too long in the shadowy recesses of his cell. The only way he is happy, it turns out, is for a servant to lock him at night in a tiny attic room. There he spends his time tap, tap, tapping on the shoes, just as he did for so many years.
Dr. Manette’s story it’s not so uncommon as you may think. How many have been led time and again to an open door through which can be glimpsed the bright sunlight of God’s freedom? Yet how many of us, when faced by such a beautiful scene, have shielded our eyes from the light, and have turned back into the shadows of our cells, retreating into the same destructive habits time and again?
Richard Rohr writes in “Restorative Justice,” “Step Five of the Twelve Steps – “We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
“As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within, festering and destroying you and those around you.
Step Five fits the biblical notion of restorative justice — to restore relationships themselves, to restore integrity with myself, and to restore a sense of communion with God. Humanity needs such an honest exposure of the truth, and true accountability and responsibility for what has happened. Only then can human beings move ahead with dignity.
Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately. We all need to apologize, and we all need to forgive or this human project will surely self-destruct. No wonder that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Otherwise, history winds down into the taking of sides, deep bitterness, and remembered hurts, plus the violence that inevitably follows. As others have said, “Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different or better past.” It is what it is, and such acceptance leads to great freedom, as long as there is also accountability and healing in the process.”
Jesus Christ offers us freedom such as the world can never know. In him is healing and wholeness and strength for the living of these days.
The opposite of freedom is captivity. And aren’t we captured by our fears? Yes! They are like old worn, comfy pajamas. They keep us captured, I mean safe. Here’s what God’s word says about fear:
Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)
9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
John 14:27 (NRSV)
27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)
6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Psalm 34:4 (NRSV)
4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV)
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. It’s that simple. Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Lay down all the fears. Lay down all the heaviness this world has put upon you and take on the light of Christ. Shout a big whopping “Freedom” like Braveheart because if the Son makes you free, you WILL be free indeed.