Thousands of years ago, our people were enslaved. Once-friendly Egypt got a new pharaoh who saw the sheer number of us, and out of fear, enslaved us. We lost our freedom, and labored under a brutal new regime. We longed for better days. We longed for a return to our homeland, even though our homeland could not have sustained us because of the famine years before. Every night, our cries went out to God. One day, God heard us. God sent us a man by the name of Moses, who dramatically managed to convince Pharaoh to let us go back home. So we quickly packed our things and ran. Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies after us. But when we crossed the Sea of Reeds, and Pharaoh’s army drowned, we celebrated. We were free.
Not long after, the rejoicing stopped. Freedom did not look like what we thought freedom would look like. Freedom was hard. When we were enslaved, we always knew from where our next meal would come. We knew where we would lay our heads at night. We knew the routine. With Moses, we were constantly wandering in the wilderness, wondering where our next meal would come from, searching for water, unsure of what would happen. Nothing in our journey unfolded as we imagined. We thought freedom would mean being able to do whatever we wanted, being free of obligation, and not being constrained by anyone or thing other than ourselves. Pharaoh was admittedly awful, but better the devil you know, right?
Being from a country whose primary value is freedom, sometimes I think we get as confused as our ancestors about what freedom means in the context of being people of faith. Take our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles today. There are both people who are free and people who are not. Those who own the slave-girl 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 category as well. He is a man with a steady, respectable job, who has power over those in prison.
Meanwhile, our story has those who are lacking freedom. The first character we hear about is a slave-girl. In some ways, this nameless slave is a double slave – a slave to her owners who use her for money and a slave to the spirit of divination inside her. Paul and Silas also lose their freedom. They are thrown into jail midway through our story, which clearly puts them in the not-free category. Plus, the slave-girl calls them “slaves of the Most High God.”
Looking at the characters in Acts, we can see how confusing the definition of freedom can be. If freedom is a value in and of itself, then the heroes of our story are the slave owners, magistrates, and the jailer. 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. 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.
Consciously, we know that we should not identify with these three entities. But subconsciously, and in a country that does not distinguish between freedom and freedom in Christ, we find ourselves much more aligned with and, quite frankly, longing for the kind of freedom that these three parties have. 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. We are faithful followers of Christ, but I doubt many of us would take that commitment all the way to jail.
Last week, a friend of mine had that very debate. She is a priest in North Carolina, and she decided to join the weekly protests that has become known as Moral Mondays. Moral Mondays have been happening since 2013, as religious leaders and followers across North Carolina have gathered in peaceful protest of the laws being passed that promote unfair treatment, discrimination, and oppression. Bishop Michael Curry was a frequent protestor and speaker at Moral Mondays before being elected Presiding Bishop. Last week, my friend decided that she needed to join fellow Christians in protest, but she was uncertain about the possibility of being arrested. She knew what was happening in the legislature was unjust, but she also had a family and job to think about. She was unsure about how she could best be of use – by staying long enough to be escorted to jail, or whether her presence at the protest would be enough.
What my friend was on the cusp of understanding is what Paul, Silas, and the slave-girl already know. 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 more free than they seem at first glance. 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.
If Paul, Silas, and the slave-girl are free, guess who the real enslaved ones in our story are. 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 and health for the slave-girl; they only see the consequences for themselves. The magistrates 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]
So how do we avoid living like the complaining Israelites, who were physically free, but not yet spiritually free to live as the Lord our God invited them to live? How do we, in a nation that reveres freedom, avoid being enslaved by the wealth, power, and identity that comes from being free? The jailer asks the same question to Paul and Silas when he asks, “What must I do to be saved?” In the paraphrase of our text, Paul’s answer is simple: Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live.[ii] 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 – of living how we are meant to live. 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.[iii]
In our freedom, we have become enslaved – in varied and sundry ways, but we are all enslaved by something.[iv] Paul, Silas, and the slave-girl invite us into another way. They invite us to live as liberated people who trust in our Lord Jesus Christ. That true freedom may mean we find ourselves shouting out truth in a peaceful rally. That true freedom may mean that we find ourselves praising God when no one else is, sacrificing our own comfort so that someone might find theirs. That true freedom might mean trusting God is acting when we feel like God left the building long ago. When we claim that freedom, then finally, finally, we will begin living as we were meant to live. Amen.
[i] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 526.
[ii] Eugene Patterson, The Message, as found at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+16%3A16-34&version=MSG on May 6, 2016.
[iii] L. Gregory Jones, “Come, Lord Jesus,” Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 16, May 6, 1992, 485.
[iv] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 524.