Three weeks ago Rebecca preached about Tabitha, the faithful disciple, whom Peter raised from death to life. Last week I preached about Lydia, the Gentile businesswomen, who was the first Christian convert in Europe.
Each of these stories is different and particular in the same way that each of our stories with God are different and particular. But they all witness to the power of the Risen Jesus to transform lives.
Today we have another story about lives changed. It is a dramatic story, which I think would make a great screenplay for an action movie.
Paul and Silas are still in Philippi, where we left them last week. There is a slave girl, a fortune teller with “a spirit of divination.” “A spirit of divination” is a pretty good dynamic equivalent English translation, but we lose something cool from the Greek which is pneuma pythonos, literally “the spirit of the python,” the snake that was the symbol of the prophetesses at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The slave girl was a prophetess.
Apparently, this slave girl was quite good at predicting the future and brought home a lucrative profit for her owners. One of the persistent features of the New Testament is the ability of various spirits and demons to recognize Jesus, even when others (especially the disciples) are clueless.
Here, Luke describes a demon properly identifying Paul and Silas as slaves of God. The slave girl would follow Paul and cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Eventually Paul became annoyed by her stalking him and he exorcized the spirit from her, much to the displeasure of her owners. Then things get ugly. The owners accuse Paul and Silas of disturbing the peace and being Jews, a bit of Roman anti-Semitism, and the crowd riots, and beat them within an inch of their lives.
Then they threw them in prison, in the deepest cell, and placed their feet in the stocks. So things are not looking too good for our heroes. And this is where it gets really interesting. It is midnight, literally and figuratively, the darkest hour, and you might expect that Paul and Silas would be down in the dumps, but no, they are singing hymns about Jesus, so that the other prisoners can hear.
I thought about calling this sermon Singing in the Stocks. Let us all make a note to ourselves that in our most difficult time, at our darkest hour, we could take a page from their book and just sing a good hymn. Pick a strong hymn reminding you who’s in charge, such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” or “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” which we are blessed to get to sing today.
So, there they are, at midnight, in the stocks, singing their hearts out, when: “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.”
I definitely want that part in my movie. Then the jailer realized he was in a heap of trouble and was about to fall on his sword, when Paul yelled out, “It’s OK, we’re still here.”
The jailer called for lights and saw that they were still there, and he took them outside and asked, “What must I do to be saved.” Now to us, this sounds like a religious question, but he may have merely been asking “how do I get out of this mess?” But Paul and Silas heard it as a religious question and answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Which is what happened. And the jailer cleaned their wounds. “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.” There’s that generous hospitality again that we saw in the story of Lydia’s conversion. For Luke, hospitality is always one of the signs of conversion and one of the marks of the church.
Now, what are we to make of this strange story. Let me share with you some of my musings.
Luke, the author of Acts, believed in the power of Jesus and his Gospel not only to transform lives, but to make extraordinary things happen and we have several of them in our story. The commentators say that Actsis “highly idealized” and should be read as a theological narrative and not as history.
So, what are the theological points Luke is trying to make? There are several:
- The Gospel is addressed to all sorts and conditions of people, to women and men, to Jews like Paul, to Gentiles like Lydia, to rich people like Lydia, to poor people like the slave girl with the demon, to powerful people like the Roman jailer and to powerless people, like slaves. The Gospel erases all those previously important social distinctions.
- Despite the attempts of many Christians to create a “one size fits all” template for Christian conversion, each of these people experiences the Gospel in a way particular to them. Lydia is moved by Paul’s teaching, the jailer by the dramatic earthquake and opening of his prison, the slave girl by being freed from her demon. Some come to Christ all at once, some over time. Some are “born again,” some are born again and again and again (that describes me and I’m not done yet.) Some are once born and never experience conversion but still know and follow Jesus. As I said last week, Luke believes in the power of the Holy Spirit, but also in human free will, and sees no contradiction between divine guiding and human choosing.
- Finally, Luke sees the Gospel as shaking foundations, disrupting conventions, and overturning proscriptions. There are many reversals in the Book of Acts, Luke describing in stories what Paul described in his First Letter to the Corinthians when he wrote:
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1: 27-29)
The best example of the topsy-turvy values of the Gospel in our story is the contrast between the Roman jailer and Paul and Silas. The jailer is a functionary of the most powerful empire in the known world. It’s his prison. He’s got the keys. He is powerful. He is free. Paul and Silas are bloodied from a beating, cast into a dark cell and fastened by the feet in stocks. They are not powerful. They are not free.
But Luke’s story leaves no doubt who he thinks is really free and who isn’t. Paul and Silas are singing in the stocks. After the earthquake breaks their shackles and opens their prison door they don’t even try to run away. The jailer, on the other hand, is not free. He would take his own life before suffering the shame of not doing his job for Rome.
So, this story invites us to consider our own freedom and power. I have known some very powerful people in my time, captains of industry, rich people, famous people. I’ve had congregants on the cover of Forbes Magazine. And I can assure you having power and money doesn’t make you free, much less happy or secure. Real personal freedom is something else. It comes from somewhere else.
I have wise friends in the recovery community who tell me that they only experienced real freedom when they admitted their powerlessness, and turned their lives over to a “higher power.” They have told me that the chains that held them and the doors they were locked behind were often of their own making. And this is what Luke’s story tells us, that the power of the Risen Christ can not only transform us, but can break our self-made chains and our locked prison doors and set us free.
So, on this final Sunday of Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and the power of God to bring new life to us all, what are the chains that hold you? What are the doors that are closed to you? It may be time to cast them off and open them up. “Exercise the freedom in which Christ has set you free!” Amen.
(I preached this sermon on June 2, 2019 at The United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. To listen to an audio podcast of this sermon go to: https://anchor.fm/sunday-on-the-commons/episodes/Open-Doors–Broken-Chains–Guest-Preacher-the-Rev–Dr–Richard-L–Floyd–June-2–2019-e48v6m