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Paul & Silas: Open Prison Doors

Preached: August 11, 2013
Scripture: Excerpts from Acts 16

This narrative from Acts 16 is action-packed. It includes: an exorcism, a mob scene, a kangaroo court, a flogging, a prison-cell, a prison-church, an earthquake, an altar call, a conversion, a baptism – concluding with new friends gathered around a dining table sharing good food and hospitality in the name of Jesus.

The passage starts with an unnamed slave woman who is doubly imprisoned: she is a slave to human masters, AND to the evil spirit possessing her. She was owned and used as a commodity. A small, profitable business producing an income stream for her owners. She is a woman of no power, status, or freedom. Yet she speaks truth about Paul, following them around town, providing free advertising for Paul’s ministry. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Paul is annoyed, and in the end, he cannot tolerate it any more. And so, in Jesus’ name, Paul sets the girl free from the evil spirit. The story leaves the girl’s future to our imagination. What happened to her when she was no longer useful to her owners? Was she cast away? Did she become a follower of Jesus? When scripture doesn’t flesh out the rest of the story, our imaginations do some creative midrash work. I want to imagine that Lydia, (the woman who dyed purple cloth from earlier in Acts 16) took in that slave girl and treated her with kindness. I want to imagine that perhaps Lydia gave the girl humane work. I want to imagine that the young girl became part of that group of wise women who went down to the river to pray each day. I want to imagine that the girl lived a new life in Jesus.

How many nameless young girls and boys are there who tragically resemble this slave girl? Child slaves caught in the sex trade industry? Child laborers in sweat shops? Child soldiers fighting in wars? Can we allow the stories of modern day children break our hearts – even a crack. Perhaps even enough to get involved and work against oppression, in whatever forms it presents itself? To risk the anger of the oppressors?

The girl’s owners were outraged. They were shareholders of the girl. Their lucrative income stream had been cut off. They gathered the civic leaders to make sure they all understood the economic impact that Paul and Silas had on their lives. They accuse Paul and Silas of “threatening the community’s way of life and customs.” Shackled by their own greed, the business owners could not see beyond their selfishness. Greed was their own version of captivity. Despite their innocence, Paul and Silas are sent to prison. As a risk-taker and truth-teller, Paul often got hauled into one prison after another. HIs missionary journeys could better be called “Paul’s Prison Tours”.

The nameless jailer dutifully responded to the orders given him after Paul and Silas were beaten. He threw them into the cell and shackled their feet. He was also a slave to the Roman penal system – obedient to the responsibilities given him.

Paul and Silas sing praise to God. The Psalms are full of both poems of praise & lament. I could well imagine that I would choose a lament over my suffering, not a song of praise. But no, they offer praise for the privilege of being God’s servants in the face of injustice. There is something about lifting one’s voice in song to remind us of God’s faithfulness – such as Great is Thy Faithfulness or “It is Well with My Soul”. Another song about singing praise in the midst of suffering is:  “How can I keep from Singing”

1.  My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn That hails a new creation:
Chorus: No storm can shake my inmost calm While to that Rock, I’m clinging,
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?
2.  Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul— How can I keep from singing?
3.  While though the tempest loudly roars; I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness gather round! Songs in the night it giveth:
4.  In Prison cell and dungeon vile; our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled; How can I keep from singing?

About midnight as they are calling on the presence of God, there was a great earthquake shaking the foundations of the prison unfastening the shackles of everyone in the prison and opening all the prison doors. You would think everyone would scatter ASAP. But Paul and Silas show that though the door opens for them, it closes for another.

According to Roman law, the Philippian jailer was responsible for Paul, Silas, and the rest of the prisoners. So when the jailer woke and saw the prison doors were open, he knew at that moment his life was at stake. Terrified of what would happen to him when his superiors discovered he lost the prisoners, the jailer was ready to fall on his sword. That’s when Paul cries out, “Do not harm yourself for we are all here.
Paul understood that if the open door for him meant a closed door for another, the door was really closed to both of them. Paul exhibits compassion that moves beyond individualistic wants and comforts–even individual freedom.

This is an escape story without an escape. Paul and Silas don’t leave. Being God’s servants does not mean escape from the dangerous places, but means the opportunity to be the voice and the hands of Christ there.

Think about your journey in life – how did you get to where you are now? Did you get to where you are solely because of your good looks, or perhaps it was your charm, or maybe it was your hard work ethic, or your depth of intelligence. Yes, all of those things are true. But what else is true? At some point, doors opened for you – either your family, your teachers, your connections. I know various doors opened for me at different points in my life – the last one was being appointed to be your pastor. 🙂

Human temptation – once the door is opened for us, people will often turn around and close the door on the next person, hindering others from the same opportunities which were opened for us. This makes us feel safe.

As people of faith, we are constantly called to open doors for someone else in a world that closes them. This scripture teaches us that we cannot be free if we know neighbors around the world are in fear of losing their livelihood or even their lives.

Paul stood for what he believed, and because of the system he was thrown into prison. But Paul’s freedom would not come at the expense of another human being’s life. Paul saw his liberation interwoven with that of a fellow worker. Opening doors for someone else means seeing the beauty, sacredness, and worth of another human being’s life even as we see the beauty, sacredness, and worth of our own life.

Paul did not walk out of the prison quietly as asked. Rather Paul refused to let people in power forget what they had done. He called for a public apology making them accountable for their unjust actions.

I want to end by talking about complacency and being complicit. As a consumer I often look for the least expensive prices. Whether it be clothes, or food, or whatever. There is actually scientific evidence that shows that we get an endorphin rush when we get what we think is a bargain. But what I am continuing to learn is that, very often, cheaper prices for the consumer often means cheaper wages for the worker under our current economic system. Being aware of this and educating myself about alternatives such as supporting companies that pay a living wage instead of going for the cheapest deal. Seeking ways to implement livable wages for workers.

What is our personal and collective responsibility to speak out against unjust labor systems. When do we speak out against systems that use people as commodities even if our actions will shake up the authorities?
There comes a time when silence is betrayal – Dr. MLK Jr.

Just like Paul, we are mandated to be instruments of God’s liberation for the most vulnerable persons. It can have perilous consequences. When our conviction moves to real action, people take notice. When we move from sending a few dollars to the charity to standing up against unjust treatment of others, people notice.