This narrative is action-packed. It includes an exorcism, a mob scene, a kangaroo court, a flogging, a prison-cell, a midnight hymn sing in a prison-church, an earthquake, an altar call, a conversion, a baptism – concluding with new friends gathered around the table sharing food and hospitality in the name of Jesus.
This is Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. They are outside of Phillipi – preaching and teaching about Jesus. The passage starts with an unnamed slave girl who is doubly imprisoned: she is forced into slavery, AND a spirit of divination possesses her. Her owners exploit her for the money she brings in. She has no power, status, or freedom. What a contrast to Lydia, the independent businesswoman. This slave girl follows Paul & Silas around, shouting: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Paul gets annoyed. Without the slave girl’s consent he casts out the spirit of divination in the name of Jesus.
We don’t know what happened to her after she was no longer useful to her owners? Was she cast away? Did she become a follower of Jesus? I want to imagine that Lydia took her in as part of her household and treated her with kindness. I want to imagine that the young girl became part of the 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.
But we do know what happened to Paul and Silas. Preaching Jesus won’t necessarily get you in trouble. But messing with people who profit off of enslaving others – messing with an exploitative economic system & local customs – well, that can get you beaten and thrown into jail. With their lucrative income stream cut off, they gather civic leaders to make sure they all understood the economic impact that Paul & Silas had on their lives. “We didn’t have trouble here until these outside agitators came and started disturbing our way of life!” Shackled by their own greed, the business owners could not see beyond their selfishness. Greed was their form of captivity. Paul & Silas are sent to prison. As a risk-taker and truth-teller in the name of Jesus, Paul got thrown into one prison after another. His missionary journeys could be called Paul’s prison-tours.
The nameless jailer dutifully responded to the orders given him after Paul & Silas were beaten. He was also a slave to an unjust system – the Roman prison system. He was obedient to the orders given to him and threw Paul & Silas into a cell. What would you do if you were in a grungy prison cell, with your feet shackled? Lament in your suffering? Fall into a depressed heap? Cry out Why God? or Please, God HELP! But instead of acknowledging the reality of their grim situation, Paul & Silas instead see their prison cell as a a place to stay for the night, a place of worship for singing & praying to God. You can imagine them singing the African American spiritual: Singing & praying with my mind stayed on Jesus. Paul & Silas offer praise to God for the privilege of being God’s servants in the face of injustice.
At midnight an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison opening the prison doors. You would think everyone would scatter ASAP. This is an escape story without any escape. Paul & Silas notice that the jailer is about to take his life. The punishment for a jailer losing prisoners in the Roman system is execution. He thinks death by his own sword is a better alternative than than facing death by those who hold power over him. But Paul shouts: “Hey, don’t hurt yourself, we are all here. Come worship and join our midnight hymn-sing.” Paul understood that if the open door for him meant a closed door for another, the door was closed to both of them. There are many stories of doors and opportunities being opened for some people, and they turn around and slam the door shut on the next person, hindering others from the same opportunities they experienced. AND yet we hear other stories like Paul demonstrating compassion that moves beyond individual opportunity and freedom. Paul’s freedom would not come at the expense of another human being’s life. Paul saw his liberation interwoven with others. Opening doors for someone else means seeing the sacredness, and worth of another human being’s life – mutual love of self and neighbor.
As people of faith, we are called to open doors for others in a world that closes them. This scripture teaches that we cannot truly be free if our neighbors live in fear of losing their livelihood or even their lives.
What is our personal and collective responsibility to speak out against unjust systems? How many nameless people are there who tragically resemble the slave girl? Children caught in the sex trade industry? Child laborers in sweat shops? Child soldiers fighting in wars? When do we speak out against systems that use people as commodities even if our actions attract those who would seek to keep us silent? Dr. MLK Jr.: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Just like Paul & Silas, we are compelled to be instruments of God’s liberation for the most vulnerable.
The jailer who had imprisoned them experiences a transformation through God’s grace. He washes Paul & Silas’ wounds. He invites them into his home and feeds them. In this table fellowship, all are free. In Christ there’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, master nor slave. The jailer is now free from confining others, and the prisoners, are free from being held. The jailer’s story has changed because he has imagined a new way of being, a new system that breaks chains of oppression, because of the compassion he has received and then is able to offer. They tell stories, they laugh, they break bread together in a eucharistic meal with the whole household rejoicing that night.
“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.” Paul refuses to let those in power forget what they had done. He called for a public apology holding them accountable for their unjust actions. He utilizes Jesus’ teaching of a nonviolent third way that shames the oppressor into doing justice: “They have beaten us in public, 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.”
When the police hear that they were Roman citizens; they apologize. After leaving the prison, Paul & Silas return to the hospitality of Lydia’s home.
God’s story of liberation is one in which prisoners and jailers are both released from the systems of oppression, and one freed person opens the door to help the next. May we be the place where chains are broken and folks are free to tell their stories. And we all join in a midnight hymn sing to praise God in the midst of whatever trials & tribulation we find ourselves in.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi when he was imprisoned again – Phil 4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again—rejoice! Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
If you follow the words of the hymn we are going to sing, it is almost as if it was written for Paul’s prison tours. Listen to these words from “How can I keep from singing?”
My life flows on in endless song; Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul— How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?