Acts 16:16-35 (36-40)
May 12, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
The scripture for today is the last in our series on the book of Acts, and next week we will celebrate the day of Pentecost. We’ve been tracking the apostles Peter and Paul in their early journeys as they go out from Jerusalem to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ve been witnesses to the power of God at work in the world to redeem and redirect and release people from sin, captivity, illness and ignorance, literally raising one person from the dead, and figuratively setting all of them free for new life. So we come to this story now, in Philippi, where we traveled last week with Paul. Paul has been staying with Lydia, a new convert, as he and Silas work in town to share the good news of Jesus with people. But every day, on the way to work, there’s this crazy shouting after them by this woman who tells fortunes for money.
One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. She began following Paul and us, shouting, "These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!" She did this for many days. This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!" It left her at that very moment. Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, "These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can't accept or practice." The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks. Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison's foundations. The doors flew open and everyone's chains came loose. When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul shouted loudly, "Don't harm yourself! We're all here!" The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He led them outside and asked, "Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?" They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household." They spoke the Lord's word to him and everyone else in his house. Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.
Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister and missionary, was taken hostage in 1985 by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. He was held for 16 months and released without any explanation. He was held with a number of other Americans, including Father Lawrence Jenco and Terry Anderson. Weir’s deep faith carried him through that experience.
“…I remember saying to myself that I was still in the presence of God. I was shackled and they taped my face, leaving only a tiny spot open so I could breathe through my nose. After we stopped at one place, they put me in a box and closed the lid. A truck took me to what was to be my prison. They removed the tapes and put a blindfold on me instead. …
I tried to get my bearings. It was a small, bare room, seemingly completely cut off from the outside world. I felt my faith becoming rather weak. I missed the presence of God in there. I knew I must hold on to my identity at all cost. I let my imagination go to work. I looked up and I saw a round metal weight suspended from the light fixture above me. It looked like an eye. ‘Here's God's eye watching over me,' I thought.
On Christmas Day 1984, Mr. Weir said, “I thought of my family; of all the families who would be celebrating together in the 'normal' world. Then I hit on an idea. I would sing all the Christmas hymns and carols I could remember since my childhood. Now, my captors had told me not to make much noise. So my singing was more like a humming. But it helped.”
Like Paul and Silas, singing through the dark night, Weir sang the songs of his faith through that bleak Christmas. But also like Paul and Silas, Weir did not hate his captors, nor wish them ill. Weir recalls that one of his guards lamented that he too was a prisoner. He told Weir, “We've got to spend our time here looking after you, and we're not free.”
When Weir emerged from captivity, it was with a new understanding of the plight of Palestinians and Muslims in the Middle East. “What the extremists are doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The resentment towards our policies (is) widespread, even among Arab moderates. They feel that our backing of Israel with $3 billion worth of weapons and other materials is a grave threat to their own lives. Unless the Palestinians achieve self-determination, there is little hope for peace in the Middle East….”
Weir’s experiences and his story informed the response of the church. After his release, he wrote a book entitled Captive Bound, Captive Free. And the next year, he was elected moderator of the General Assembly, At that gathering in 1987, the PC(USA) shifted its public position on the issues of Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. The final document recognized the importance of the Holy Land for Jews, but it added an expression of sympathy for Palestinians and “all people to whom rights of 'land' are currently denied.” In a separate action, the church pledged to counteract bigotry against Muslims and Arabs in the U.S.
A good story – captive bound, captive free.
Paul and Silas, bound as captives in a land far from home, are beaten and thrown into prison for healing a slave woman. She’s being used by her owners to make money, and since she is a slave, her owners are keeping that money. A common factor of all Luke’s narratives in the two-book set of Luke-Acts is the special attention he gives to the poor and downtrodden, and to women. But here Luke doesn’t mention that Paul felt compassion or even love for the woman shouting after them every day. Paul doesn’t feel sorry for her, enslaved and mentally off-balance. He is annoyed by her. Annoyed. So he sends the evil spirit away from her. Cures her. Heals her.
But she’s still a slave. Still owned by these men. And they are furious. Paul and Silas have violated local customs, confronting a tiny sector of the economic system, and destroying their livelihood of exploiting this unfortunate woman. In short, Paul and Silas are a first century version of the Occupy movement. Occupy Philippi. They are arrested, stripped, beaten and thrown in jail. Never mind that they are Roman citizens, with rights as citizens. Never mind that the act they have undertaken was one of healing. They are guilty. Guilty of upsetting the status quo. Off to jail.
But of course, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and no jail cell can hold the apostle if God doesn't want him imprisoned. So an earthquake comes and breaks their chains. Sets them free.
The jailer is in despair.
When the warden finds out, he is dead meat. So he prepares to take his own life, to preempt the execution he must certainly suffer. But … Paul and Silas aren’t leaving, they reassure the jailer. He leads them out into the night and asks that question which everyone must finally ask in some way at some point in our lives: “What must I do to be rescued?”
They answer simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
So the jailer takes them home, cleans them up, feeds them supper, and everybody in the whole household gets baptized. He’s overjoyed. A good story – captives bound, and captives freed.
Really good story.
It’s got all the elements – good guys, bad guys, slave and cruel exploiters, innocent victims, unjust charges, singing in the jail cell, an earthquake, a conversion for the jailer, freedom, irony, and dissembling government authorities. The temptation is to stay on the surface of the gripping story and skim across the spiritual aspects without confronting the layers and layers of relevance for us today. The temptation is to ignore the questions that niggle and nudge at the back of our minds.
Why didn’t Paul do something to free that poor woman?
Maybe she was better off before – now she is fully aware of her captivity.
Then there is this paradox of freedom and captivity that we see with Paul and Silas in relation to the jailer – who is really imprisoned, and who is really free?
Then there’s the personal element: What must I do to be rescued?
But to really get the irony to this tale of Paul and Silas, we have to read on to the end of the chapter. Here’s what happens after that wonderful night with the jailer. The next day the authorities send the police to the jail to turn them loose. Apparently without a hint of irony, they say “You’re set free. Go in peace” But Paul’s not having any of that! He tells the police to go tell the authorities they are Roman citizens, and they have violated their constitutional rights, as it were. This alarms the mayor and the whole town council of Philippi. These boys are trouble. So they go and escort them out of prison and then like the sheriff’s posse in a western movie, tell them to get out of town by sundown! Paul and Silas get out of Philippi and head to Thessalonica, where they run into more troubles with the locals.
There’s another good story.
When Benjamin Weir was released by his captors, it turns out that it was an arms-for hostage deal engineered by the Reagan administration: Iran-Contra. The United States sold armaments to Iran in a deal that was was brokered and facilitated by the government of Israel. When he was asked whether the recent U.S-Iran arms deal affected his release, Mr. Weir said that he could not be certain. “Certainly … I would regret it very much. The best way to stop kidnappings of Americans is to help remove the causes that make some men choose that drastic method in despair," he said.
In approximately the year 50 AD, the first Christians faced captivity, imprisonment, and persecution, and they responded to their jailer with compassion, healing, and the gospel. His despair, which led him to the brink of suicide, was relieved by the message of grace brought by his prisoners.
In 1985, a group that called itself Islamic Jihad held a Presbyterian minister captive, and when he was freed, he responded with compassion, an attempt at healing, and the gospel. The message hasn’t changed. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.
Now, more than 25 years later, we still struggle with these issues.
To what forces are we held captive?
What does it take for us to be truly free from sin and truly captive to Christ?
What must we do to be released from the chains of hatred,
from the prison of prejudice,
from the fortress of our past mistakes?
How can we be set free from our fear?
What must we do to be rescued from the anxiety created by an onslaught of frightening news stories, from a relentless pressure to consume beyond our means, from the solitary confinement of lives that have no meaning beyond pleasing ourselves?
The message hasn’t changed.
Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.
To believe in Jesus means more than simply nodding when we hear his name.
To truly live in Christ and have him live in us demands that we make ourselves captive to the Holy Spirit, servants to the law of love, slaves to the message that Jesus taught.
To truly live in Christ is to be his servants, and his alone.
Through his pardon, we become free from sin and in his spirit, our spirits are captive to his grace. His love breaks the chains of hatred, shatters all the walls that divide us from self and neighbor, and emancipates us from the slavery of our past.
In him, we are given the gift of a new life of freedom, unbound to share the good news— and to shout it louder than the evening news: through Jesus Christ, we are set free.
The prison walls will crumble, and we will live not in confinement but in the blessed sunlight of community, and no matter what may happen, our spirits, through the Holy Spirit, will be free.
Believe in the Lord Jesus, in what he said, what he taught, what he did,
-- in his life, his death, and his resurrection, and you will be set free.
The songwriter said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
In Christ Jesus, we have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.
Thanks be to God for freedom!