Freedom is the subject of our scripture lesson for the day. If you look at it carefully, the themes of freedom and enslavement or freedom and imprisonment or freedom and security are woven into every thread of the story. The questions, “Who is free? Who is not?” echo throughout the narrative. “What does freedom mean? Who can be free? Who has the right to take away freedom, and from whom can it be taken away? Can civil society afford the cost of freedom? When is the line between the freedom to practice one’s religion a license to interfere with someone’s economic interests?”
All of which is just to say that issues of gaining or losing freedom and the boundaries around liberty are as current and pressing now as they were 2000 years ago. So let’s look at the story from Acts and see how freedom and what kind of freedom, marked the life of Paul and the early church.
Freedom for a slave girl.
The story opens with a somewhat strange story about a slave girl who follows Paul and Silas around Philippi, declaring everywhere they went “These are servants of the most High God, who bring news of salvation.” On first impression, the thought of this overzealous cheerleader chasing Paul around town is sort of funny. None of us have cheerleaders like this. You might think it would be sort of nice, at least for a while. And the fact that what she says happens to be true makes it better. But, nonetheless, after a few days, it sort of interferes with Paul’s mission. Can you imagine teaching a class where one of the pupils calls out “Great teacher! You’re a real super teacher!” or how would you like to go to be followed around the office, from meeting to meeting, trying to get a report done before deadline, but having one of your co-worker’s teenage daughter following you, shouting, “You’re doing a great job there! You’re really being efficient!” Or, Moms, how about around the house, the loudest child (and you loud children know who you are) shadows you, telling you over and over what a great job you’re doing with the shopping, the disciplining, the laundry. Would you have the patience Paul did? To wait several days, trying to ignore her, until finally, he just got fed up? Finally, Paul had had enough. He has to deal with her.
The girl is possessed of a spirit. I’d tell you what that meant, exactly, except for the fact that I don’t know. We’d probably understand her as mentally ill. Or with a behavior disorder of some sort. Her owners apparently were exploiting her condition, charging for people to listen to her strange outbursts. But as for understanding what was really going on with her, the scripture only gives a clue. The Greek says she had a “pythonic” spirit. Whatever was inside her was wrapped around her soul like a python around a rabbit, squeezing her true life right out of her. . Did she know that she was possessed? There’s no indication that she did. She probably didn’t know any different. This strangling, crushing spirit was just her life.
Which is the thing about this slave girl that makes me wonder about how free I really am. What snakes have I let wrap themselves around my soul that I don’t even admit to myself are there? I was thinking about this poor girl when I heard a story about Oprah – who spoke at a Commencement ceremony this last week. Remembering the girl Paul freed, I want you to hear a piece of what Oprah said: I beseech you to remember what Harriet Tubman spoke concerning her sojourn to bring slaves out of the South. She said that she could have liberated thousands more if she had been able to convince them that they were slaves.
Freedom is a mark of the Easter church. In humility, we might consider the possibility that we are not as free as we would like to think. AT this very moment, we may have a python of pride, greed, envy, guilt, anger . . . wrapped around our hearts. And, like the slave girl, we don’t even know we need to be freed.
But the good news is that the name of Jesus Christ, that Paul invoked to draw the spirit out of the girl, is still as powerful, still as effective, still as mighty as it was back then. Freedom bestowed in the name of Jesus Christ makes one free indeed.
Freedom from crushing, enslaving spirits is the first kind of freedom that marks the church, the second is more lyrical - it is the freedom to sing.
Look again at the story. When the slave girl was freed from her evil spirit, her owners realized that they weren’t going to be making much money off of her anymore. Paul and Silas have interfered with somebody’s money machine. And you and I both know there is no easier way to get in trouble than to mess with somebody’s income. The owners seize Paul and Silas and drag them to court. Now, they don’t say, these guys are interfering with the way we were exploiting our worker. They don’t say, we’re suffering a loss of income because these men did something good for a poor person. No, no, no. When guys like this cause a stink, money is never going to be the issue. It’s always going to be “a way of life” that’s threatened, or disorderly conduct that is objectionable. Remember when we talked about “It’s not about the money?” Well, when freedom and justice cost people some of their fat bankroll, and their financial cushion, it’s not about the money! It’s always about some great principle about to be violated. When you hear stuff like that, you remember this story. And you lay down your last dollar on this sure bet: It is about the money.
And somebody is going to pay. Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten are beaten and thrown into prison before they even have a trial. Their feet are fastened in stocks, which makes it very difficult for the prisoners to sleep. Sleep deprivation is not a new torture. It is an old one.
Midnight comes and Paul and Silas are awake, in pain, and in prison. And they are singing. Songs sung in the darkest hour are the sweetest songs there are. They are freedom songs. Victor Frankel, a doctor who survived Nazi death camps during WWII and went on to author a brilliant book called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” wrote
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
This last of human freedom – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, is the freedom that Paul and Silas demonstrate while they are in chains. It is Christ’s freedom, to suffer but not to give way to bitterness or hate. To meet meanness with forgiveness and answer curses with a prayer.
The amazing thing is that freedom to choose singing and prayer, even in the darkest hour, is one of the characteristics of the God’s Easter people. We are Christ’s followers, and this freedom to sing in the dark is Christ’s gift to each of us. No matter what difficulties, what disappointments, what losses we must face, “How can we keep from singing?” For our faith is in the God who gives us freedom to sing.
Freedom for a slave. Freedom to sing. What other kind of freedom is there in this story? Freedom to save.
As Paul and Silas were singing, there was an earthquake, and the doors of the prison flew open, and the stocks were twisted out of the floor. The prisoners were no longer shackled. They were free – in the simplest way we know: Free to go. They could have stood up and walked out and disappeared into the night. But they didn’t go anywhere. Why?
The answer is amazing. Because they considered what would happen to their jailer. Indeed, the jailer woke up, ran down to check on his prisoners, saw all the doors of the jail, swinging on their hinges – and he figured that he’s prisoners were gone. He’d failed at his job. He’d be disgraced in front of the council. And he figured he’d rather die than be dishonored. So he drew his sword and was about to fall on it, to kill himself, when Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself. We’re all here.”
It was consideration and concern for someone who wasn’t a Christian that made Paul and Silas stay. They stopped to think about the consequences of their actions on an unchurched person. They stopped to consider what was going to happen to him. They stopped to try to see their freedom through his eyes and so, thought they were free to run away, they chose to stay. They chose the greater freedom to impact another person’s life for Christ.
The jailer is so amazed at their kindness that he immediately falls down, begging to know how he can be saved. Because Paul and Silas cared about what their actions meant for the jailer, he and his whole family were saved.
The point here is that how Christians handle our freedom determines other people’s openness to the Gospel. If we look out only for ourselves, using our freedom to run away from trouble and danger, we may escape. But we will not save anyone but ourselves. If the power of God moves in our lives – like a mighty earthquake – but all we do is free ourselves – we are not free indeed.
How Christians act in freedom
How Christians react to freedom
How we, the Easter people, treat our freedom
Impacts the unchurched, unsaved world. It either condemns them to death (the jailer was going to kill himself) of it opens up the way for them to ask, “How can I be saved?”
Do we consider how our freedom impacts others? Do we behave in a way that shows we care about their welfare, as well as our own? Do we ever exercise self-restraint, freely choosing to limit our freedom for the sake of someone else’s? As we do these things, we begin to show that we have true freedom – the freedom to save.
Freedom in Spirit
Freedom to Sing
Freedom to Save.
These are the marks of God’s Easter people. God grant that they become part of our lives.