Acts 16 Freedom in Chains
What does it look like to be free? We in America certainly have our own views about freedom. We tend to paint freedom with a brush that leads to financial success and a lack of trials or tribulations of any kind. Here in the south our image of freedom often includes the right to have firearms, to wear or carry a certain flag, to keep others from stepping into our space. We tend to have a limiting idea of freedom. “Your rights end where mine begin,” is not an uncommon phrase. Freedom is only freedom when it benefits us.
In today’s scripture lesson we begin with an instance of freedom. A girl who is doubly enslaved, by an earthly master and a spiritual oppressor stumbles upon Paul an Silas as they are teaching and preaching in the area. Instantly she recognizes them for what they are, truth speakers, those with the words of salvation, those with the knowledge to set people free.
She follows them around for days, scripture tells us and finally Paul has had enough. He is annoyed by her presence. He is annoyed by her words and proclamations and in this annoyance he casts out the demon inside of her. In one way she is set free. But what did this leave her captive too?
In his annoyance, Paul set her free, but seemed to pay no head to what might happen to her in this new found freedom. Just a few verses earlier Paul brings the good news to Lydia, a wealthy merchant woman and then stays at her house, uses it for a base of operations. But this girl, doesn’t get so much as a backwards glance.
In fact, I’m convinced she wouldn’t even have been a footnote in Christian history had she not been of value to someone else. Not emotional value, but financial value.
You see, people haven’t changed too much over the centuries. Mess with our money and we will come and get you! Paul had annoyed the wrong person with his action. He had taken the financial stability of someone else and the marketplace would not stand for that. This poor slave girls life has been dramatically changed, there are real possibilities for healing and restoration, and instead the money people get involved and we witness the marketplace at its worst.
They gather together against Paul and Silas. They were stripped and beaten with rods, then thrown into prison. Things look dark indeed. I find myself wondering if Silas had wished Paul had held his annoyance in a bit better. We don’t have a record of what they said to each other in that prison, with their hands and feet in stocks. But whatever it was encouraged them enough to begin singing songs. And not just any songs, but songs of praise!
Songs of praise in the midst of their imprisonment. Songs of praise with their backs bleeding, skin broken, hands and feet tied. Songs of praise in the midst of the dark. Songs that not only encouraged Paul and Silas, but had an affect on the other prisoners as well.
How do we know that? Because when the earth begins to shake, when the walls begin to crumble, when the shackles fall free, no one, not one prisoner leaves. They all stay put in the midst of calamity, even when they have every opportunity to be set free. Why?
Perhaps because Paul had learned his lesson. This time perhaps Paul thought about the consequences his actions would have on another. This time maybe Paul paused, looked past his own nose and realized that there was much more to be gained by staying.
In staying he saved the life of the jailer, literally. He also led the jailor and his family to Christ. He showed the love of Christ by thinking of others first, by putting his own needs after those of another person. By living the life Jesus asks us, rather commands us to live. A life that does the unexpected, that loves in unusual and life changing ways.
Sometimes when I’ve heard this text talked about I hear the comments “Wow, that must have been some powerful singing.” And I think it was. It was powerful enough to change the hearts of the prisoners and Paul. Praise can do that, when it is genuine. Paul’s reaction of love leads to freedom for Silas, and leads to the beginning of another house church group in Philippi.
This passage leaves me wondering how I can love in a way that changes lives. How we can all love as Christ called us to love, in unexpected and amazing ways.
There is a well-known story that Tony Campolo shares about a speaking engagement he had in Honolulu, Hawaii. He had jet lag and found himself awake at 3 in the morning and craving food. He hunted down an all night greasy spoon, one with a counter, no booths, and sat down for a breakfast of day old donuts and stale coffee. While he was sitting there the doors opened and in walked 10 or so prostitutes. He tried to make himself invisible, but it was a very small space, and he’s not a small guy. The women began talking with one another and the woman on his right said to her friend “Tomorrow is my birthday.” Her friend replied “What do you want me to do about it? Buy you a cake or something.” “No,” the woman replied “I was just telling you, you don’t have to be mean to me. I’ve just never had a party or nothing before and I wanted someone to know it was my birthday tomorrow.”
When they left, Tony turned to the owner of the greasy spoon and asked “Do they come in here every night?” The man nodded. “Even the one sitting next to me?” The man said “Agnus, yeah, she comes every night.”
“Let’s throw Agnus a birthday party!” He planned it out with the man and the next night Tony arrived at 2:30 to decorate the place. When Agnus and her friends arrived, a crowd had gathered and they shouted “Happy birthday Agnus!” Agnus was floored. She had to be lead to a stool to sit down. They brought out the cake, and she was too overwhelmed to blow out the candles. The diner owner told her to cut the cake and Agnus said “I can’t. Do I have to?” Tony said “It’s your cake, do what you want with it.” “Id like to take it home and show it to my mother, I only live a couple of doors down. Let me show it too her and I’ll be right back.” And with that Agnus left.
Tony was left standing there with a diner full of prostitutes and the owner/operator of the greasy spoon. There was absolute silence and then Tony said “Let’s pray”
He prayed for Agnus, for her mother. He prayed that God would bring about new life in Agnus. He prayed that she would be healed from the things terrible men did to her, because at some point that’s how all of this had started out. Some man had hurt her at some early age and then left her to deal with the fallout, while society blamed her and not the man who did these things to her. As he ended the prayer the Owner of the greasy spoon said “What kind of Church do you preach at?”
In one of those rare moments where the perfect words come together at the right time, Tony said “I preach at the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
The owner replied “No, no you don’t; cause I’d go to a church like that.”
Tony ends this story saying “Wouldn’t we all go to A CHURCH LIKE THAT? Well friends I’ve got news for you, that’s the kind of church Christ calls us to be, not some hybrid church/country club! We are called to be the kind of people that reach out with love and compassion wherever and whenever it is needed.
Friends we as Christians are too often known by what we stand against, what we hate, what we disapprove of. But that is not the command Jesus gave his disciples or us! They will know we are Christians, not by what we rally against. Not by who we exclude. No. They will know we are Christians by our love. By who we love, and how we love. May we love as Christ commands us to love. Our neighbor, our enemy, the foreigner or stranger, the widows and the orphans. Let us love one another since love comes from God.