If we were to break out a flip chart today and create two columns – one for those in bondage and one for those who are free – where would our main characters from Acts go? At first glance, our “those in bondage” column might start with the slave-girl. We are not even given her name. She is simply called the slave-girl. And we know from the story that she is a double slave – a slave to her owners who use her for money and a slave to the spirit of divination inside her. Another addition to the “bondage” category might be Paul and Silas. They are thrown into jail midway through our story, which clearly puts them in the bondage category. Plus, the slave-girl calls them “slaves of the Most High God.” The other column in our flip chart is those who are free. We have several for that column. There are those who own the slave-girl. They are free to collect money for someone else’s performance, and they are free to get someone thrown in jail. The judges who throw Paul and Silas into jail are also free – free to choose who is punished and who is not. Finally, we might put the jailer into the free column as well. He is a man with a steady, respectable job, who has power over those in prison. So in the “bondage” column we have the slave girl, Paul, and Silas. And in the “free” column we have the owners, the judges, and the jailer.
Most of us would certainly prefer to be in the “free” column on this chart. The owners of the slave girl obviously have social capital and an income source. They have influence and power, and up until Paul and Silas come along, they have the comforts of wealth. The judges also have a great deal of respect and power in the community. They are charged with keeping order in the community and protecting the community’s way of life. Their roles in the community are admirable and secure. Even the jailer has a clear sense of identity and purpose. He may not have wealth and prestige, but he has a secure job and a sense of clear identity in the community. He has a role that is understood and a vocation that is stable. Meanwhile, the slave-girl is nothing like what we hope for ourselves. Being possessed by a spirit and being owned by another individual do not usually make the top of our lists for happiness and fulfillment. And in no way do we want to be like Paul and Silas, who not only seem to be homeless rebel-rousers, they also are physically brutalized and imprisoned.
The people in the “free” column are the people we most likely follow in our lives. We want to be people with more money, with secure sources of income, and with power and influence. We like independence and not being forced to rely on anyone else. But we get so caught up in longing for these things in life that we sometimes forget the only desire that will make us whole – the desire for a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Even churches get trapped in desiring the wrong kind of freedom. “If we just had as much money as St. Swithin’s, then everything would be fine.” But the truth is that this kind of desire is never fulfilled. Trust me, I have served at St. Swithin’s, and St. Swithin’s has just as many problems and stresses as we do every time budget talks come around.
Of course, like any good Bible story, appearances are not always as they seem. The truth is that although we might put the slave-girl, Paul, and Silas in the “bondage” column, their true home is in the “free” column. The slave-girl already knows the truth that no one else can see – that Jesus is the way to salvation. And when she shouts that long and loudly enough, she is not only freed of her possession, she is free of the bondage of slavery – because her owners can no longer use her as they did before. Even Paul and Silas, who are locked in jail, are in that “free” column. What person, after being brutally whipped and thrown into a cold cell, can be found praying and singing praises to God in the middle of the night? Only someone who is so free of the bondage of this world can be able to praise God in the midst of earthly suffering.
And of course, if those in our “bondage” column are actually in the “free” column, the same is true of those we originally put in the “free” column. Those owners, who seem to have the earthly freedom of wealth, have actually become slaves to their wealth. They are so enslaved to that wealth that when their source of income is freed, they lash out, bringing pain and suffering down upon others. They cannot see the gift of freedom for the slave-girl; they only see the consequences for themselves. The judges are no freer than the owners. They are so enslaved to their rigid rules that they cannot see the inherent injustice that the slave-girl has faced for so many years. Even the jailer is not truly free. He is so caught up in his identity as a jailer that he is willing to take his life for his job. He is ready to kill himself for what he thinks is a failure on his part than to see how this job has taken over his sense of identity.[i]
We do this too. We are enslaved by our economies, our ways of doing things, and our senses of roles. Think about the last party or gathering you attended. What is one of the first questions someone asks to get to know a stranger? “So, what do you do?” We ask this question because our job or our role in society defines us in some way. Several years ago, a friend of mine was going through a real low point in life. She quit her job because she knew the job was not what she was called to do. But she also had no idea what was next. She was bold enough to say “no” to the old job, but was left clueless about what would be her next step. This all happened when she was relatively new to a community, and still had not found a church home. She confided in me that she had stopped looking for a church home because she got so tired of stumbling through an answer at coffee hour when she was repeatedly asked, “So, what do you do?”
So if we are enslaved by our ways of being, how can we get out of our bondage? Our first cue comes from Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas could have easily fled that jail when the earthquake happened. They could have sped past the jailer, and been focused solely on their own self-preservation. But we see that there is a peace in Paul and Silas that comes from true freedom. Instead of weeping and plotting in that cell, they sing and pray to God. Instead of running when the doors fling open, they ensure that the jailer is okay. Instead of demonizing the jailer, they offer him baptism. This is what true freedom looks like.[ii]
How do we get to this true freedom? The jailer gives us the second cue. The jailer asks Paul a simple question, “What must I do to be saved?” In order to be saved, to gain that true sense of freedom, we must ask for help like the jailer asks for help that day. Whether we ask a friend, a stranger, or God, we must ask for help. This is not always easy for us. We will have to risk our pride and we will have to trust others.[iii] But asking for help is that first step in the journey out of the “bondage” column and into the “freedom” column.
Our invitation today is two-fold. First, our invitation is to consider the ways in which we have become enslaved – the ways of being that we have assumed that have created a life of bondage. That recognition leads to our second invitation – the invitation to ask for help, to trust in another to guide us into the freedom that can only come from Christ. When we do those two things, we can know the peace of freedom that we see in scripture today. Amen.
[i] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 526.
[ii] L. Gregory Jones, “Come, Lord Jesus,” Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 16, May 6, 1992, 485.
[iii] Frederick Buechner, as found on http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustrations-jailer on May 7, 2013.