In Jesus Christ, God Sets Us Free
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
By The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, June 2, 2019
The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C), Acts 16:16-34
Acts 16:16-34 (NRSV): 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. 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.’ 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.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 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.
This past Monday was Memorial Day, a day when we remember those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom. We sometimes take our freedom for granted, and sometimes we are more bound than we realize.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives some insight into freedom, and we can all learn from it. We hear about slavery and torture, and most of all we hear about fear. But this experience of Paul and Silas is more than prisons and darkest midnight. In this passage, we hear how God sets us free.
Paul and Silas and their companions traveled around the empire bringing the good news of Jesus. Here we find them in Macedonia, near Greece, in the Roman military colony of Philippi. As they went around preaching, a slave-girl followed them. This slave-girl was oppressed by an evil spirit, and she was a fortune teller. She kept saying to the crowd “these men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Now you would think that this was a helpful message for the apostles, but apparently Paul became very annoyed at her, so he turned toward her and commanded the spirit to come out of her. And so she was set free from this spirit.
Some might ask why Paul didn’t free her from her slavery. But I wonder if she was of any use to her masters without this skill of fortune telling. Perhaps this was the key to her freedom from slavery. Her masters were very angry at Paul & Silas because now they could not make any money off of this slave. It seems that a spirituality that was not from God had held her in bondage to her job.
Now we don’t often run into evil spirits quite so clearly, but what if we described evil spirits as unhealthy spirituality that is not from God. That’s often how evil works. Certainly, we often run into a spirituality of work that leaves us oppressed and enslaved by our jobs. This is certainly not a spirituality from God. Our priorities become skewed and we spend years running after a reward that is meaningless to the relationships and integrity and family that are so often sacrificed in the process. The power of God set this girl free from the oppression of her slavery, and the power of God sets us free as well.
For Paul and Silas, their work entailed a different kind of sacrifice. Sometimes bringing the good news threatened the status quo. The masters of the slave girl dragged Paul & Silas to the authorities, and leaned heavily on the prejudice of the Roman gentile crowd. “These are Jews,” they said “who are disturbing our city.” And so the crowds and the rulers had Paul & Silas tortured and thrown into jail, with their hands and feet in chains.
But the power of God set them free. An earthquake came and the doors and chains were opened, and the prisoners were freed. As political prisoners and POWs and others know, God has the power to bring dramatic change to our lives and to set us free from the bonds on our lives, whether they are shackles on our hands, or bonds of addiction or bonds of despair or bonds of an unrewarding job. God’s power can set us free from these oppressive situations.
But is that the focus of freedom in this passage? Is this only about opened doors and unlocked chains? Remember what the slave girl said—Paul and Silas were slaves themselves—slaves to the Most High God. Paul and Silas, while still bleeding from their wounds at the darkest midnight, were not in despair as their hands and legs hung in the stocks. They were not bound by despair or by fear or by pain. They knew a freedom that they could bring as one bringing light to the darkest of places. They prayed and sang hymns of praise to God while in their bonds! I don’t know about you, but I would like to have that kind of freedom in my life.
The prisoners listened to these prayers and hymns, and when the earthquake came and the doors were opened, they didn’t need to run anywhere. They stayed where they were because they were already free. Paul had been freed in Damascus years earlier—freed by God to bring the light of Christ to the darkest of places—freed to sing with joy even when he was stuck unjustly in jail. God gave Paul and Silas a new life more powerful than anything they could face, and they lived trusting in the power of Jesus Christ at work in their lives. Paul and Silas found their freedom in obedience to God.
Paul and Silas are not the only ones who know this kind of freedom. Think of Christians held as prisoners or captives. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. and others with him who sang hymns in jail when they spoke the truth to an oppressive culture, answering hatred with love.
We may not find ourselves in jail for speaking the truth, or for telling others about Jesus. But we may find ourselves stuck in an unrewarding job because of our integrity. We may find ourselves stuck in a family situation or a difficult relationship because of our commitment. God may bring us an earthquake, and that situation, those relationships, that job or that school may indeed change, and we may find our freedom in very concrete ways. But Paul & Silas demonstrated that they were free long before the magistrates threw them into jail, and no chains would rob them of that freedom in Christ.
Even when the job stays difficult and the relationships stay challenging and our circumstances stay demanding, we do not have to be spiritually bound! God’s power and God’s joy can set us free. God can and often does set us free to be the one who can bring light to those dark places. That may be why we are there—to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a world bound and enslaved by a spirituality not from God, and bound by fear and despair. God’s power and joy moving in Paul and Silas led them to sing hymns at midnight, and God’s power working in them brought peace and freedom to the whole prison. God truly does set us free.
I met a man once who displayed some of that freedom and that gift of bringing light to dark places. He was diagnosed with cancer and was going through chemotherapy. So he went to one of those places where people with cancer suffer through their treatment, where doctors and technicians labor in the shadow of death. But this man was not bound by his cancer. He discovered what was going on in the lives of those around him. He brought the nurses boxes of candy, and when he learned that one of the men at the hospital collected stamps, he brought him an old set of special stamps he had. These were small gestures, but you could see that instead of letting his cancer bind him in despair, he brought light to that dark place. He was sick, but he knew God’s freedom, and he brought that freedom to the sick people around him.
You see, God sets us free from more than evil spirits and oppressive chains. God sets us free from fear and despair as well. The slave girl, and Paul and Silas, the slaves of the Most High God, were not the only ones set free that night. There was another person who was not a slave, but he desperately needed his freedom. He had power—power over the lives of other men. His place in culture was a place of power. But the jailer was also bound. He was bound by his job—bound by his success or failure. When he came into the prison after the earthquake and found the doors to the cells opened, he drew his sword to kill himself. Like so many men whose identity is bound up in their economic success or failure—their prestige or their career, this jailer felt he had no reason to live with his job threatened.
But Paul and Silas called out “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer rushed to them and asked these beaten prisoners what he must do to be saved! And Paul and Silas tell him “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” So he and his whole household were baptized, and they all rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
This passage is about slaves who are free, about tortured prisoners who sing hymns at midnight, about jailers who are set free by prisoners who don’t run away when their cells are opened. This passage is about the power of God to set you and me free from despair and fear. We may find ourselves in dark places in our lives, but they do not have us bound. In Jesus Christ, we are set free. The power of God working in us is mysterious and beyond our imagination. Life will always have its challenges, but when we trust in Jesus Christ, we discover the power and joy that overcomes anything the world can dish out. God’s power in Jesus Christ sets us free—free from fear and despair, free from spiritual oppression, and free to bring that freedom to others bound by the darkness of their own hearts.
In Jesus Christ, God sets us free.