May 29, 2022

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

“Freedom and Love”

Freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom, freedom is coming,
Oh yes I, yes I know, oh yes I know, oh yes I know,
Freedom is coming, oh yes, I know.

That was the song that kept running through my head as I reflected on our reading from the Book of Acts for this Sunday. What a wonderful text about the power of God to release us from the things that keep us bound and suffering, and bless us with the gift of freedom!

In a few conversations this week, I invited people to read over the story and to identify the ways in which various people were bound or even enslaved, how they were freed from bondage, and to notice what they did with their freedom.

The most obvious example is Paul and Silas. At the beginning of the story, they seem to be free, but their actions with regard to a slave-girl in Philippi lead to a complaint by people of influence, and they are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned in a jail. We imagine their chains and shackles, and are struck by the risk and sacrifice that the early Christian leaders were willing to take on as they spread the gospel to the world.

But rather than despair at their situation, Paul and Silas just keep doing what they’re called to do. They pray and sing songs of praise and talk about the wonders that God has done. And before long, there’s an earthquake – one of the only natural disasters that could accurately be described as an “act of God” – and the doors of the prison are opened, and everyone’s chains are unfastened.

Not just the apostles were set free – but all the prisoners in that jail could have gotten up and walked out through the doors. But they don’t.

They don’t run off and claim their freedom because of the jailer. When he wakes up and sees the prison doors wide open, he draws his sword and is about to kill himself, since he supposes that the prisoners have escaped.

Some of my conversation partners this week noted that the jailer was enslaved also. Though he may seem like the one with the power at first, it quickly becomes clear that he is under a great deal of pressure. If the prisoners escape, he’ll be accountable. One can only imagine what punishment he expected, when we see him about to end his own life rather than face the consequences.

Now, I don’t know about the other prisoners, but it’s pretty clear from the story that Paul and Silas don’t deserve to be in jail. The reason for their arrest is the trumped-up charge of “disturbing the peace” and the main evidence given is that they’re Jews and “they’re not like us.”

It seems rather similar to some of the arrests and violent treatment of Blacks, Indigenous people, and other minorities who are easily assumed to be doing something wrong, leading to disproportionate numbers of arrests and incarcerations, as well as horrifying cases of people actually being killed in interactions with police.

Paul and Silas shouldn’t be in prison. They deserve to be free. But when the jailer sounds like he’s going to end his own life, Paul shouts out in a loud voice: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Their chains are unfastened and the doors are open, but they have chosen to stay in the prison for the sake of the jailer. God has given them freedom, but they are willing to limit that freedom themselves in mercy and love for this jailer, who himself is not really free.

The story goes on to tell about the conversion of the jailer and his whole household. I wonder if, like the prisoners, he was also listening as Paul and Silas were praying and singing despite the difficult situation in which they found themselves. Even though they were physically bound, their hearts and spirits seemed to still be trusting and hoping in God. I wonder if the jailer saw that joy that could not be stifled by persecution and violence, and wanted to know how he also could be truly free.

Of course, a big part of the good news of this story is that the gospel was spreading and the church was growing. The jailer and his family would join Lydia and her household (that we heard about last week) and maybe some of the other prisoners who were listening to the apostles as well – and they would form the core of the new congregation that was coming together in Philippi.

But the part that I really love is not so much how the jailer became a Christian, but how he responded to the gift of grace and freedom that he received from Paul and Silas. Their willingness to stay in the prison saved that jailor’s life. But rather than just accepting that gift and getting them locked back up again, we are told that “he took them and washed their wounds… He brought them up into the house and set food before them…”

Just as Paul and Silas had been ready to sacrifice their own freedom to show love for the jailor, he immediately did the same for them. Undoubtedly, the consequences he initially feared for letting the prisoners escape during an earthquake would apply when he took the prisoners to his house to feed them and give them medical care.

When I think about what Paul and Silas did, and what the jailor did too, it makes me want to go back to the Gospel reading for today as well. In John 17 Jesus is praying for his disciples and all who will come to believe in him through their words. He’s praying for Paul & Silas and the other apostles. He’s praying for people like Lydia and the jailor and their families. He’s praying for us also, and all those throughout history have chosen to follow his Way.

And in the section of Jesus’ prayer that we read this morning Jesus says to God: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus’ desire and hope is that the love of God – the love he experienced in relationship with God his Abba (his Daddy) – would be experienced by his followers, and would live on through us. Jesus prayed that our lives would be full to overflowing with divine love.

And love means that sometimes our own freedom is sacrificed in order to show love and mercy to others. We abide by all kinds of agreed-upon laws like the rules of the road, or sound bylaws, or paying our taxes, all of which limit our freedom, but keep us from harming our neighbours.

We accept even more limits to our freedom during a pandemic in order to show love to vulnerable people and health care workers. We relinquish our “right to bear arms” as the Americans would say, in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people with mental health issues.

And when we truly love someone, we’re willing to go even further – giving even more generously of ourselves, and accommodating the needs of the other, even when it requires a great sacrifice on our part.

Paul, Silas, and the jailer give us some great examples to follow, and invite us to think about the gifts of freedom that we enjoy. Most of us are free to live, and work, and practice our faith without discrimination or persecution. Many of us are free to enjoy life in this country where we live without fear of poverty, hunger, or homelessness. And while wars rage in other parts of the world, and people live precariously on the brink of famine or further devastating disease, we live relatively securely with more freedom than most people could imagine.

It seems to me that our freedom brings with it some responsibility, and we need to be intentional about considering how we respond to it, remembering Jesus’ hope and prayer that we will embody God’s love in the world.

I wonder if you noticed that I skipped over the first part of the story about Paul and Silas. I didn’t even mention the slave-girl who shows up right at the beginning of the passage. Before the apostles are bound in shackles, and before we recognize how the jailer was bound to his harsh rulers, the slave-girl is the first one we encounter who is bound – literally enslaved to other people who make “a great deal of money” from her fortune-telling.

A quick read of the story might leave the impression that the apostles give the slave-girl the gift of freedom too. But there’s something very unsettling about what happens between Paul and the girl. Remember she’s been following them along, crying out along the way, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

She’s right, of course. What she says about the apostles is true, but Paul is very much annoyed. Perhaps he hears some sarcasm or mocking in her voice. Maybe he doesn’t like being called a “slave of God” as if he wasn’t free to choose the life of service and sacrifice that he has accepted. Or it might be that her proclamations actually put the Christians at greater risk of persecution or arrest. Certainly, with her shouting and shouting, it would be difficult to stay under the radar of the authorities who might not appreciate their preaching and teaching.

So “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.’”

That’s good, right? I’m not so sure. Now her owners will be upset, and very likely take it out on her. Without the spirit of divination, she won’t be much use to them. And though that could possibly mean that they’ll let her go, more likely she’ll just end up in some new situation of enslavement, possibly worse than the current one.

And I can’t help but think that the slave-girl was never really freed because the miracle Paul performed was rooted in frustration and annoyance rather than love. I wonder what he would have done if he had come to love her. I wonder how he could have used his God-given power – the greatest of which was the power of love – to really free that girl from her double enslavement.

So, the early Christian leaders didn’t always get it right. They didn’t always listen and learn how best to support others in love. Sometimes they assumed they knew what was best, and sometimes they put their own needs – their own desire for freedom – above others.

And that encourages me when we as church get things wrong too – whether it’s our history with Indigenous Peoples in this land, our blindness to racism, or sexism, or ageism, or ableism in the church, or the times when we choose to look inward and protect ourselves instead of engaging with others and making ourselves vulnerable.

So let’s not give up! After all, Jesus is praying for us “that the love with which God loved him will be in us as well,” indeed, that Christ will be in us as well – loving others through our living and following Jesus’ Way in the world. And when we live in love, choosing risk and sacrifice in love for others, that’s when freedom abounds for us and everyone around us.

Freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom, freedom is coming,
Oh yes I, yes I know, oh yes I know, oh yes I know,
Freedom is coming, oh yes, I know.