Slave and Free

A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian

May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-40
One 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.
While 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.”
She 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.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.
When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.
Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
Suddenly 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.
When 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.
But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He 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.
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.”

And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.”
But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”

The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.
After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

God called Paul and Silas to go to Phillipi. There were people there who need to hear the liberating word of God. So they go. And first they meet a woman named Lydia. She is a successful business woman who operates an upscale fabric trading outfit. She and her household are baptized by Paul and she becomes a leader and important supporter in the early church.

But they next encounter a woman who is the opposite of Lydia. This slave girl is un-named. She has no resources or social standing. But as Paul and Silas walk through the streets of town, she follows behind them, announcing that these men are slaves of the most high God, here to proclaim to you a way of salvation.

Paul does his best to ignore her, but we’re told he gets annoyed and he turns and commands the spirit leave her, freeing her from possession. The men who own her, however, aren’t happy with this interruption of their cash flow. Because this slave girl was a money maker for them. What she was proclaiming about Paul and Silas was true, after all. So maybe she was right at least part of the time.

Some commentators get angry with Paul here because he doesn’t respond to this slave girl in Christian compassion. He doesn’t take her owners to task for her enslavement or subjugation. He doesn’t ask her name. He only exorcises her demons to get her to  stop   talking.

I’m more inclined to cut Paul some slack here. How many of us, after all, stop and ask the name of every homeless person we encounter on the street? How many of us, after all, go out of our way to share Christian compassion with every person who is yelling at us or about us on the street corner?
Perhaps we should. But we don’t. And Paul was human as we are human. We get annoyed.

Perhaps Paul was annoyed because one of the few people who correctly identified Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” happened to be a nameless, demon possessed teenaged girl. Perhaps he was annoyed because he’d been preaching in synagogues and living rooms, and the city leaders want him thrown in jail, refusing to hear the truth. But just seeing him walking down the street, this teenaged slave girl proclaims the truth about him.

One of the other reasons I am willing to cut him some slack is that even though he doesn’t greet her as a sister in Christ and buy her coffee, what he does—the casting out of her possession—has a real impact and consequence in her life. Once she’s no use as a fortune teller, once she stops bringing in money for her owners, she’s no longer the same value as a slave. In some ways, he frees her from captivity. His commanding the demon to depart is, how does she say it, the way this “slave of the Most High God, proclaims to her a way of salvation.”

And that, my friends, can get you in trouble. He could have just turned to the community and before going on his merry way, said, “slavery is wrong. Why do you trouble this poor girl?”

But he didn’t. He liberated her from economic slavery and showed the people that systems of this world that subjugate one person for the benefit of another are not the way God calls us to live.

And they drag Paul and Silas through the marketplace, right down Wall Street, and make an interesting claim. Remember when they arrested Jesus, his crime was making claims that put him in opposition to the Emperor. But here is Paul and Silas’ crime: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

They aren’t in trouble for political subversion. But for threatening the cultural and economic realm. And challenging unjust economic systems, challenging the status quo, threatens people. It allows fear to rise up and overwhelm our rational thinking, enslaving us to a cycle of anxiety.
Yes, the current system has some flaws, fear tells us, but we have figured out what to expect. We are comfortable in our prison of subjugation, and that fear of change leads us to throw in jail anyone who speaks against our enslavement.

Paul was a Roman citizen, who should have had rights, yet he was beaten, given an inadequate hearing, and thrown into the deepest corner of the jail. Needless to say, they didn’t read him his Miranda rights.

Paul and Silas, slaves of the most high God, have just freed the fortune telling slave girl from her possession, and find themselves imprisoned in a jail, where they meet the jailer, who is as much a slave of his situation as they are.

Paul and Silas, we’re told, are carrying on an impromptu worship service at midnight in the jail. And suddenly, there was an earthquake that broke down the walls imprisoning them. The jailer, when he realizes what has happened, is ready to kill himself because if he doesn’t keep the people behind bars, he isn’t serving his master. So By not walking out of the jail, Paul frees the jailer too, even though it is the jailer who holds the keys. Once again, Paul is subverting societal expectations and understandings of slavery and freedom—because what would we do if we were wrongfully imprisoned and then the walls fell down?

I, personally, would get the heck out of there.

The jailer quickly realizes that Paul is operating under a different paradigm than the rest of his inmates. Perhaps the jailer has even heard the cry of the slave girl, about being slaves of the most high God, here to proclaim a way of salvation. In any case, the jailer asks him, “what must I do to be saved?”

In the moment of grace he receives, when his prisoners don’t walk out to worldly freedom, the jailer realizes that he’d rather be a slave of the most high God than be free in a system of economic injustice. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will saved, you and your household.”

That’s the great paradox of the gospel. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

The gospel, the good news proclaimed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is foolishness in the world’s terms. And in God’s kingdom, the terms of the world are revalued, redefined, and messed up.

And Paul proclaims it publicly. Even at the end, when the authorities realize that perhaps they’ve arrested the wrong people, and ask Paul and Silas to just go on their way, Paul refuses. “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”

Because when your freedom comes from being a slave of the most high God, your whole life—the good, the bad, and the ugly— is a public proclamation of the Good News. I hope this story of Paul and Silas gives our courage to live our lives publicly. It seems that too often we are shamed into silence because the world around us tells us that we should just go on with our lives, not bring attention to the realities of our lives.

But the problem with that kind of silence is that it isolates us and it perpetuates a lie. It leaves us as slaves to the notion that everyone is perfect, except us.

For Paul, I imagine that being in jail wouldn’t have made his PR team happy. Because who invites ex-cons over for dinner? Can’t you just hear his people now? “Paul, we’re glad that you love the gospel, but the next time you’re offered a chance to sneak out of jail quietly, could you please, pretty please, do it? We want people to think you are trustworthy and an upstanding member of society.”

There are times to be silent, don’t get me wrong. But they need to be on your terms. Not the city officials in Phillipi. Because when you let the world usher you silently out the back door, when no one is looking, you end up alone.

But when you live your life publicly on God’s terms, you aren’t alone. In this place, especially, we ought to be able to live publicly, to tell our stories and seek support from each other. When people say, “how are you doing?”, we tend to say, “fine”, even when the answer is:
I’m sad.

I’m lonely.

I’m scared.

I’m sick.

I’m depressed.

I’m in debt.

I’m worried.
Our silence keeps in place the cultural norms that say that everyone is okay, that people in church have it all figured out. But we know that’s not true. Slavery to the world tells us to keep up the charade. Freedom in God tells us to be honest about who we are and whose we are.

We can’t know all of the stories of all of the people sitting around us, but I do hope that in this place, at least, we can live our lives, publicly, in the freedom we get when we believe on the Lord Jesus.

Paul and Silas, slaves of the most high God, walked around publicly proclaiming salvation through Jesus Christ. Salvation that tells us that a nameless slave girl is as valuable to the kingdom as Lydia the cloth merchant. Salvation that tells us that we don’t have to be enslaved to the economic, political, or cultural systems of this world. Salvation that allows us to live authentic lives, encouraging the brothers and sisters around us.

What must I do to be saved?, the jailer asks Paul and Silas. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Friends, salvation has come for us. Thanks be to God for the mysterious and inexplicable grace that welcomes offers us this freedom! Amen.

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