Acts 16:16-40

“The foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened.”

“One thing which I like about living in New York,” he said, “as opposed to where you live, is the freedom. Here there is freedom to live the lifestyle I choose — to eat where I want and to dress as I like. Freedom.”
Then he closed his door behind us. He locked the latch, turned the deadbolt, inserted the chain, and switched on the electronic alarm, telling me, “Don’t dare open that door without switching off the alarm or it will all break loose and the cops may shoot you dead.”
If there is one virtue on which we can all join hands it is freedom. We Americans may disagree on taxes, national defense, policy in Central America, and whether the crust is better at Pizza Hut or Pizza Inn but we all agree that freedom is good. Freedom of Religion. Freedom of choice.
I have something called a “Freedom Phone.” Most calls on this telephone sound as if they are being made in Moscow but I don’t mind. How wonderful to be free to receive calls while standing in the street in front of my house!
“And the truth shall make you free,” was carved in big letters over the entrance to our High School. Veritas Vos Liberabit. I thought it was something that the principle thought up, a sign like, “No Smoking in the Boys’ Restroom.” But no, it’s in the Bible.
And while we sometimes played loose with the truth at my High School, my how we clung to our freedom. Freedom — that blessed quest of adolescence! Freedom to have the car to go where I want and to do what I want. Freedom not to account for comings and goings to Mamma and Daddy.
Freedom — the blessed treasure of academia. Here at Duke, “The Basset Affair” was a landmark case for academic freedom in this country — freedom to think, teach, and publish. Freedom of the pulpit — freedom to speak as I feel led by God to speak.
Academic freedom? Free to rehash my yellowed, old notes rather than to prepare for class. Freedom from accountability for the medocrity of my lectures is what it too often means.
Freedom of the pulpit? Do I need it when preaching is mellifluous repetition of the sweet, conventional cliches of yesterday, sugar-coated with pop-psychology to make them go down easier?
Freedom? Surrounded by our burglar alarms and medicine cabinets, our fears — heart attack, impotency, insanity, insolvency — this is freedom?
We Americans have built a society which has given an unprecedented measure of freedom to its citizens. I am given maximum space aggressively to pursue what I want as long as I don’t bump into you while you are getting yours — a vast supermarket of desire where citizens are little more than consumers. I’ve got freedom of choice, but now what do I choose? We are free, but also terribly lonely, terribly driven. The nine-to-five job, monthly mortgage payments, over-programmed kids, dog-eat-dog contest for grades at the university — this is our freedom.
You see, there is freedom, and then there is freedom. And our problem, in this matter of freedom, is that we may not even know what true freedom is.
The Book of Acts tells wonderful stories. Luke, master-artist, tells a story, then lets you make up your own mind. Today’s lesson from Acts tells some stories about people who were in bondage and people who were free. Listen and tell me who in this story is free.
Paul and Silas were going to church one day and were accosted by a slave girl. Because this girl could tell peoples’ fortunes, her owners made lots of money hiring her out to read palms, provide entertainment at business conventions. She was possessed by a demon (mentally unbalanced, we would say). She took to following Paul and Silas around, shouting at them, saying things about them.
Here is a picture of enslavement. If you have suffered through the torment of mental illness, if someone whom you love is in the grip of schizophrenia or terrible depression, you could tell us about bondage. It is as if something has you, something you can’t shake, some dark, uncontrollable force which you are powerless to hold back.
Paul has enough of the young woman’s raving and, in the name of Christ, cures her. Thank God, she is free!
But no, she is not free, because she is a slave, someone who is not a person but a piece of property, owned by someone else. And some of you, back in your own roots and family tree, had great-grandparents who were bought and sold. A slave — can there be a more vivid image of human bondage?
Luke says, “When her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers.” Let’s hear it for the business community!
One day Jesus healed a mentally-deranged man by casting his demons into some swine (Luke 8:37). For this act of charity, Jesus was promptly escorted out of town by the local Pork Dealers Association.
Later, at a place called Ephesus, Paul had a big revival and many were converted and it was all wonderful — except for the members of Local 184 of the International Brotherhood of Artisans of Silver Shrines to Artemis. They didn’t like it at all.
A student of mine at the Divinity School led a crusade of his church to clean up his community. Good! Clean up the town, throw out the dirty books and the beer joints, make it a better place for children and families. No, bad. How was he to know that one of his prominent church members owned the convenience store on the corner across from the high school?
My friend, John Killinger was pastor of Lynchburg’s First Presbyterian. In a sermon, John criticized Jerry Falwell. None of his church members attended Falwell’s church and none of them agreed with his theology but, to John’s chagrin, he learned on Monday morning how many of his church members had loaned Liberty Baptist money or had large accounts with Falwell’s enterprises.
Here is a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of mental illness and she is free. There ought to be rejoicing. But no, her owners are not free to do that. It was fine to give a dollar to the Mental Health Association drive last fall but this is another matter. Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here, so her owners do what the vested ones always do when their interests are threatened.
Oh, we don’t come right out and say that God is interfering with business. We’re not so dumb. No, we hire a public relations firm who teaches us how to talk in front of a camera and how to answer reporters and put a good face on the corporation.
You have seen the ads, “Gee dad, I’m going to get to work for “X” chemical company (you know the company Dad, the one that made napalm back in Viet Nam days) and I’m going to get to grow food to feed hungry people.”
And the girl’s owners say to the judge, “We’re not against a little religion — as long as it is kept in its place. But these Jews are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to practice.”
No, we don’t come right out and say that our financial self-interest is threatened, we say that our nation is threatened. “These missionaries are foreigners.” Buy American!
Besides, they are Jews. And we all know what they are like. Money grabbing, materialistic. Not like us Gentiles.
And if the nationalism and the anti-semitism doesn’t work, well throw in an appeal for old time religion saying, “They advocate customs that it is not lawful for us to practice.” Nation, race, tradition — all stepping into line behind the dollar.
Then the crowd — democracy in action — falls into line behind the town’s business leaders. They attack and beat Paul and Silas.
Paul and Silas are put into the back cell of the town prison and the jailer locks them in the stocks. The liberators have become the imprisoned. Jesus has helped set a pitiful young woman free but two of Jesus’ people get jailed in the process.
The one who came preaching, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” … well, you know where he ended up.
So Paul and Silas end up in prison, languishing there. No, that’s not the way the story goes. The story says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, …” Wait, these men in chains, legs locked in the stocks are singing, praying, having some kind of a rally, there, in jail?
A few years ago, we were honored by a visit by Bishop Emilio de Carvalho, Methodist Bishop of Angola. What is it like to be the church in a Marxist country, we wanted to know. Is the new Marxist government supportive of the church? we asked.
“No,” the Bishop responded, “but we don’t ask it to be supportive.”
“Have there been tensions,” we asked.
“Yes,” said the Bishop.
“Not long ago the government decreed that we would disband all women’s organizations in the church.”
“Oh my, what did you do?” we asked.
“Oh, the women kept meeting. The government is not yet strong enough to do much about it.”
“But what will you do when the government becomes stronger?”
“Well,” he said, “we shall keep meeting. The government does what it needs to do. The church does what it needs to do. If we go to jail for being the church, we shall go to jail. Jail is a wonderful place for Christian evangelism.
“Our church made some of its most dramatic gains during the revolution when so many of us were in jail. In jail, you have everyone there, in one place. You have time to preach and teach. Sure, twenty of our Methodist pastors were killed during the revolution, but we came out of jail a much larger and stronger church.”
And, as if seeing the drift of our questions, Bishop Carvalho said, “Don’t worry about the church in Angola, God is doing fine by us. Frankly, I would find it much more difficult to be a pastor in Evanston, Illinois. Here, there is so much, so many things, it must be hard to be the church here.”
The earth heaves, the prison shakes, the doors fly open and everyone’s chains fall off. The jailer wakes and when he sees that the doors are open, is horrified. Knowing what happens to jailers who permit their prisoners to escape, he draws his sword and prepares to do the honorable thing for disgraced jailers.
Just having the key to someone else’s cell doesn’t make you free. Iron bars do not a prison make.
Paul shouts, “Don’t do it. We’re all here, just singing.”
The jailer says, “But you were bound in chains, now you were free to escape.”
Paul says, “No we prisoners are free to stay and you, our jailer, are chained to your sword but now you can be free to escape.”
And the jailer asks, “What do I have to do to be saved? Prisoners, what do I have to do to be free?” And he was baptized.
What is freedom? By the end of Luke’s story, everyone who at first appeared to be free — the owners, the judges, the jailer — are shown to be slaves. And everyone who first appeared to be enslaved — the poor girl, Paul and Silas — are free.
Jesus does things like that to people.
Who pulls your strings?
Speaking at a conference on women in the church, someone rose and said, “The federal government has done more for the cause of women in this country than the church ever thought about. At last, because of government help, women are enabled to be on an equal level with men in the workplace.”
And I had just heard, on the radio, that for the first time in history, the rate of lung cancer among women is as high as it is among men. The rate of hypertension, heart disease, and other stress-related diseases is climbing among women and some feel that, in not too many years, the lifespan of the average American woman shall have shrunk to that of the average American man.
You’ve come a long way, to get where you got to today?
There is freedom and then there is freedom. Earlier, Jesus had said, “If you continue in my word, you are my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31).
They stiffened their necks, held their heads high and answered, “What is this ‘will-make-you-free’ business? We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?”
They lied. The ones who spoke so pridefully of their freedom spoke with the heel of Caesar upon their necks, slaves of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and now Rome, anybody big enough to raise an army and blow through town. In truth, they were not free. Their boasts of freedom were but the rattling of their chains.
And Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free” (John 8:36).

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