(watch here: https://youtu.be/xEVbK93tivY)
16One 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. 17While 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.’ 18She 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.
19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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 is an intriguing passage to lift up on this 4th Sunday of Easter. In the one sense, it has little to do with our risen Lord unless you consider the witness of Paul and Silas as an encounter with our risen Lord. In another sense, this passage lifts up an important quality of our risen Lord that we, as Americans, highly value—the quality of freedom. Why did Jesus go to the grave on our behalf? Why did Jesus come back to us from that grave? There are a number of reasons—to get us back into right relationship with the Father, to share the love of the Father, to conquer sin and death, to name but a few—but perhaps the most compelling reason was to set us free. He freed us from our slavery to sin and the fear of death. We are no longer required to sin. Jesus gives as an alternative to sin-love. We are empowered to love and serve our neighbor through him and the love he so selflessly gives to us. As the same time, we no longer have to be afraid of death. Jesus shows us there is life after death, that death is not an end but a beginning. Jesus frees us from the imprisonment of life in this world. Freedom is just as important to Jesus as it is to us as Americans in the 21st century.
I’d like us to dwell in this concept of freedom this morning but first I’d like to lift up a children’s story that can help us consider the importance of freedom. Freedom may or may not be very important to you but it was important to the characters in today’s reading. My story involves a make-believe town named Tidyland. Tidyland was a lovely, little model world which Paula Perfect had built with her toys. She was always looking after it and making sure that everything stayed perfectly in its place. She kept the red people in the red houses, the green children playing on the swings of the green parks, and the parents talking all day in the town square. It was a sweet and perfect little world, and Paula dreamed that one day she might be able to spend a day in Tidyland. Then, having no idea how, her wish was fulfilled, and she woke up one day in the middle of Tidyland, all dressed in pink, and made of little toy blocks. How wonderful! Everything was just as she had known it! It was really lovely. Paula was completely happy, and after she had gotten over her surprise, she ran to see the swings in the green park. However, before she got there, a giant hand swooped down out of the sky and grabbed her. It took her by the arm and moved her back to where she had started from, next to the pink palace. Paula was a bit shocked by this, but she managed to put it out of her mind, because she caught sight of her beloved red houses, and off she went to take a closer look. But again, the big hand came down and put her back by the pink palace. Then a Princess came out onto one of the palace balconies and spoke to Paula. “Don’t bother. You will never be able to leave the pink zone.” And the Princess explained to her how the big hand never let anyone move about in Tidyland, and that meant that it was the saddest land in the whole world; no one could do what they wanted or go where they wanted.
Paula looked at the faces of all the little people, and she could see that it was true. She realized that the big hand was her own, and that she had always used it to keep everything in Tidyland perfectly in order. “So what’s up?” she asked. “Don’t you all like living in such a lovely, well-organized land?” said Paula. “If we can’t choose what to do or where to go, what’s the point?” they answered her. “If we could only have one day where we were free to go and see other things…don’t you understand?” And sure, Paula soon understood. After a few days without being able to decide anything for herself, nor move away from the pink palace, Paula was feeling very down; so much so that she no longer cared about her lovely little land.
Then, one morning, she woke again in her normal life. The first thing she did was go over to her model world and move the little people about to different places. Now each time she found one out of place, instead of immediately putting it back, she would wait for a day, so the little person would have time to enjoy all of that beautiful world. Often, at home and at school, they had tried to explain to her what freedom meant, and how important it was. Now there was nothing about freedom Paula didn’t understand. To know all about it she only had to remember those sad days she had spent down in Tidyland.
Freedom IS important! God wants us to be free. God sent his Son to die for us and come back to us for our freedom. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke for slavery.” (5:1) It is easy to become imprisoned by yokes of slavery in this world. Just look at the characters in today’s reading. The poor slave-girl, gifted with the ability of divination, found herself enslaved by those who could make a profit from her fortune-telling. Poor Paul and Silas found themselves imprisoned for simply doing their job of sharing Christ which cast out the demon that enabled the slave-girl to perform her divinations. The poor jailer was enslaved and imprisoned by the very people he was tasked with keeping in prison. He couldn’t let them free, especially Paul and Silas, for fear of losing his own life. He no doubt wanted to free Paul and Silas as was seen by his eagerness to be saved by Christ. But he couldn’t because he would have lost his life. All three characters were imprisoned in some way. And Christ broke into their prisons and set them free! Christ freed the slave-girl from the demon. Christ freed Paul and Silas from the prison. Christ freed the jailer from the demands of his job. Christ helped the jailer know his grace and mercy and he was a forever changed man.
God wants us free to worship him with grateful and loving hearts. God wants us free to serve him and our neighbor. And God despises anything that gets in the way of worshipping and serving, most especially sin and our sinful natures. Christ, through his death and resurrection, sets us free from sin and the fear of death so that we can focus on worship and service instead. Christ didn’t set us free so that we can go on sinning in new and different ways. As Peter advises in his first letter, “as servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” (2:16) As faithful believers, we have become servants of God which means we are bound to his expectations of love and kindness and generosity and forgiveness. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he notes, “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:17-18) We are freed in so far as to serve God and neighbor in love and kindness and generosity and forgiveness. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (9:19)
So if freedom was so important to Paul and Silas and the slave-girl and the jailer and Jesus himself, what is keeping us from living freely? What is keeping us from knowing the love of God and sharing that love with those around us? Christ died and rose again to empower us to freely give and freely love. Let us confess whatever prison we’ve found ourselves in and ask Christ to break in and free us from our bondage. Let us rejoice in the freedom illustrated by our risen Lord. By the grace of God, we are free indeed!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.