"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."
Week before last, I spent consecutive days on opposite sides of Mangum Street. Wednesday was an early release for the school system, so we took the kids to a Durham Bulls game. 4-week-old Wilson slept soundly, we sat in the outfield in the sunshine. The breeze blew over folks mostly like us, with the privilege of time and a few extra bucks to spend because we really did need an extra funnel cake.
The next morning I put my wallet and keys in a bin to go through metal detectors across the street in the sparkling new justice center that houses the County Courthouse and Sheriff’s Department. Taylor and I were there to accompany a friend, we’ll call her Lucy, to a hearing with a magistrate. A few colleagues have formed a Circle of Support, a program through Genesis Home that pairs up a formerly homeless resident with a support team, to walk with a family as they climb their way back. It has been both an infuriating and powerful season, being frustrated with Lucy sometimes, frustrated for her other times. Her manager at the restaurant where she works has been cutting her hours – something she can’t do anything about – so she didn’t have enough money to pay her rent. Others helped, she fell behind, the landlord hastily filed an eviction notice. We learned as much as we could about the proceedings and went, that morning, into the hushed halls where the courtrooms begin. The wheels of justice turned. As Lucy pulled her chair up to the defendant’s table, the seal of the state of North Carolina staring down, I wondered: What would it be like if the foundations of this whole place were shaken, doors open, people freed, unleashed upon Durham? What would they find?
The thing is, in Philippi, they stayed. Who knows if the other prisoners were like Paul and Silas, products of a corrupt system that uses jail as a place to stick people we don’t know what to do with, the poor, the mentally ill. I imagine many had done horrible things. But these disciples simply interrupted commerce. One day, Luke says, we – Paul, Silas, "Luke" and Lydia, who had been converted in the previous chapter – are heading towards the place of prayer, a makeshift synagogue for Jews visiting the Roman Philippi.1 They come upon a slave girl who had what Luke calls a "spirit of divination," literally in the Greek a pythian spirit, from python, the mythical serpent slain by Apollo. This would call to mind to Luke’s readers the Oracle at Delphi, a place of great prophetic authority.2 Whatever this slave-girl was saying, it must have been accurate enough, because she brought her owners considerable profit.
We know how the world works. This slave girl sees something others don’t, but also kept chasing them around. It drove Paul crazy, he casts the spirit out. But, and Luke’s language is wonderful, when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged before the magistrate. They didn’t get in trouble for preaching the gospel; they got in trouble for costing powerful people money. Will Willimon is great on this text. He writes, "Here is a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of demon possession, and now she is free; there ought to be rejoicing. But no, her owners aren’t free enough to do that. It was fine to give a dollar to the Mental Health Association drive last fall, but this is another matter. Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here," he writes, "and so her owners do what the vested interests always do when their interests are threaten. The girl’s owners say to the judge, ‘We’re not against a little religion – as long as it is kept in its place.’"3 These disciples are ‘disturbing the peace’, ‘advocating the wrong customs’. They are beaten, dragged into the innermost cell, feet in the stocks. As secure as you can get.
But what the jailer doesn’t realize, what the businessmen and the magistrates don’t understand, is that God is shaking the foundations. Late at night, Paul and Silas filled the darkness with singing. Walls that were usually silent, or filled with snores or groans, guilt and anger, listened. And right then, mid-verse, rumbling, walls shaking, rocks loosened, terror…and then….in an instant, the doors were flung open. All of them. As the buildings settled into silence again, everyone’s chains fell off. But no one moved. The jailer, true to stereotype and sleeping on the job, woke up with his own fear. You don’t allow people to go free without consequences, and he stood, tears flowing, sword poised at his throat. Paul shouts…. "Do not do it!" We are here. We are all here. Lights! Lights! He calls out, falls down trembling before these men. He grasps their hands, taking them outside, looks them in the eye: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus." They told him the story, he cleaned their wounds, and the entire family was baptized. They shared a holy meal together. They were free.
Luke knows – what I think he is trying to communicate to us in this amazing story – is how strong the foundations are. It’s not that the interests of this world have a problem with the gospel, or with the church, as long as we keep to ourselves. As long as we sing pleasant songs, and confine ourselves to folks ‘spiritual lives.’ We’ll sit and have peace with Jesus, and things will be fine. But the powers of greed and oppression and violence are strong. You can feed someone a meal, but don’t dare ask questions about how they got that way. But, as my friend Joe Clifford from my preaching group asks, "What happens when the ministry of the church is bad for business? What happens when the gospel that frees us from our slavery to consumerism threatens somebody’s paycheck? What happens when God shakes the foundations upon which our world is built?"
Because deep down I think we all, those who make decisions in government, corporate titans, doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, down to the lowly jailer….I think we all want to be free. Even when we are folks like us, most of us with a decent amount of power in the eyes of the world, I still think, in the midst of a long day, frustrated, wondering if what we are doing really matters, we all become that jailer. We do our job, we plug through the day, but deep down, we wonder: is this it? Is this all? We feel trapped by life and circumstances, pain and suffering, by bodies that won’t do what we want them to do, spirits that feel bored or numb. The foundations feel so strong. And we forget, the good news, the best news of this text, is that we are free. We feel so bound when, as Paul and Silas say to the jailer, through Jesus the Christ, we are free. YOU are free.
The question for us is, what are you free FOR? What would it be like if you got up in the morning tomorrow and acted as if you believed Jesus Christ was alive and the foundations were coming down? What would you do? I imagine folks in the financial industry walking into meetings and saying, I don’t care about the bottom line, these policies don’t value all people and they don’t protect the poor. I imagine parents, feeling extraordinary pressure to mold their children into model citizens with perfect resumes, free to listen to those kids, to see what might be best for them, for the neighborhoods in which they are raised. I imagine us investing in our schools, especially our public schools, full of all kind of kids in need of love. I imagine folks who work in real estate asking questions about affordable housing, which this community desperately needs. The magistrate we encountered Thursday before last saw through the landlord’s lies and evasions, and made space for someone without power to actually receive equal treatment in the eyes of the law. That magistrate, for a moment, at least, was free.
"… the jailer discovers it," my friend Joe writes again. "He takes his former prisoners home, bandages their wounds, sets food before them and celebrates. Hospitality, generosity, healing, feeding, these are the ways of those who believe on Jesus, who build their lives on the foundation embodied in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To do so is to know true freedom, freedom to love our enemies, freedom to bless those who persecute us, freedom to sing hymns in the face of hardship, freedom to welcome the stranger in the name of Christ. This is the freedom of the gospel. That’s what it means to be free."4
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), footnote on page 1901.
2. From the Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford’s paper on this text for the 2013 meeting of The Well, Baltimore.
3. William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988), p 139.
4. From Joe’s great paper as well.