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The Great Escape

Scripture: Acts 16:16-34

If there is one virtue on which we can all agree, I believe it is freedom: freedom of speech & freedom of religion. Freedom is a blessed treasure of academia – the freedom to think, teach, & publish. Freedom is also a blessed treasure of the pulpit – the freedom to speak as one feels led by God to speak.

Freedom. Really? Surrounded by our burglar alarms & medicine cabinets & our fears? Fears of heart attack, impotency, insanity, & insolvency. This is freedom?

We Americans have built a society which has given us an unprecedented measure of freedom to its citizens. I am given maximum space to aggressively pursue what I want – as long as I don’t bump into you while you are getting yours. What we call culture is instead a vast supermarket of desire, where citizens are treated as little more than self-interested consumers. I have freedom of choice, but now what do I do with my freedom? We are free, but also terribly lonely, & many are terribly driven. The 9-to-5 job, monthly mortgage payments, over-programmed children, & a dog-eat-dog battle for grades at the university – this is our freedom.

There is freedom, & then there is freedom. One of our problems in this matter of freedom is that we may not even know what true freedom is. Our Scripture tells a story about people in Philippi who were in bondage & people who were free. Now, who in the story is free?

Paul & Silas were going to the place of prayer & were accosted by a slave girl. Because this girl could tell peoples’ fortunes, she made money for her owners, who hired her out to read palms & provide entertainment at business conventions. She was possessed by a demon; mentally unbalanced, we would say. She began following Paul & Silas around, shouting at them & saying things about them. In other words, we have a picture of enslavement – the grip of mental illness, schizophrenia probably; some “demon” that holds its victim in bondage.

Well, Paul eventually has enough of the young woman’s raving & in the name of Christ cures her. Thank God, she is free! Ah but no, she is not free. She is a slave, someone who is not a person but a piece of property. Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul & Silas & dragged them before the officials in the city center. The Philippian chamber of commerce is called into action.

We shouldn’t be surprised. One day Jesus healed a mentally deranged man by casting his demons into a herd of pigs; & for this act of charity he was promptly escorted out of town by the local Pork Dealers Association. At Ephesus, Paul had a big revival & many were converted & it was all wonderful – except for members of Local 184 of the International Brotherhood of Artisans of Silver Shrines to Artemis. They didn’t like it at all.

Here we have a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of demon possession, & now she is free; there ought to be rejoicing! But no, her owners are not 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, & so her owners do what vested interests always do when their interests are threatened.

The girl’s owners say to the judge, “We’re not against a little religion – as long as it’s kept in its place.” But, these people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.

No, we don’t come right out & say that our financial self-interest is threatened; we say that our nation is threatened. “These missionaries are foreigners.” We only buy American!

Besides, they are Jews. And we all know what they are like, money grabbing & materialistic! And if the nationalism & the anti-Semitism fail to work, we will throw in an appeal for old-time religion saying they promote customs that we can’t accept or practice. Nation, race & tradition – all stepping into line behind the dollar.

Then the crowd, you know, democracy in action, falls into line behind the business leaders of the town; & they attack & beat Paul & Silas. Paul & Silas are put into the innermost cell of the town prison & the jailer takes their feet & locks them in iron shackles. The liberators have become the imprisoned! Jesus has helped set a pitiful young woman free, but 2 of Jesus’ followers get jailed in the process. The same Jesus who preached you will know the truth, & the truth will set you free. And you know where he ended up!

So Paul & Silas end up in prison, languishing there. No? The story says: Around midnight Paul & Silas were praying & singing hymns to God, & the other prisoners were listening to them. Now wait a minute! These men in chains, legs locked in shackles are singing, praying, & having a sort of revival in jail!

Then the earth heaves, the prison shakes, the doors fly open & everyone’s chains fall off. The jailer wakes, & when he sees that the doors are open, he is horrified. Knowing what happens to jailers who permit their prisoners to escape he draws his sword & prepares to do the honorable thing for disgraced jailers. It seems that having the key to someone else’s cell does not make you free. Iron bars do not a prison make.

Paul shouts, “Don’t do it! We’re all here, just singing away.” The jailer says, “But you were bound in chains, now you are free to escape.” Paul says, “No, we prisoners are free & you, our jailer, were chained but now you are free to escape.”

And the jailer asks: What must I do to be rescued? What do I have to do to be free? And he was baptized.

So what is freedom? By the end of the story, everyone who at first appeared to be free – the girl’s owners, the judges, the jailer – is a slave. And everyone who at first appeared to be enslaved – the poor girl, Paul & Silas – is free.

A conference was held on women in the church, & someone rose and said, “The federal government has done more for the cause of women in this country than the church ever thought about. At last, because of government help, women are enabled to be on an equal level with men in the workplace.” True. But if you pay much attention to news reports, you know that for the first time in history, the rate of lung cancer among women is as high as it is among men. The rate of hypertension, heart disease, & other stress-related diseases is climbing among women, & some feel that in not too many years the life span of the average American female will have shrunk to that of the average American male.

You’ve come a long way, baby – to get to where you’ve gotten to today? See, there is freedom, & then there is freedom. Earlier, Jesus had said: You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, & the truth will set you free.

The Jews stiffened their necks, held their heads high, & answered, “What is this ‘will make you free’ business?” We are Abraham’s children; we’ve never been anyone’s slaves.

Ah, but they lied. The ones who spoke so pridefully of their freedom spoke with the heel of Caesar upon their necks – former slaves of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, & anyone else big enough to raise an army & blow through town. In truth, they were not free.

So Jesus answered: If the Son makes you free, you really will be free.

At Philippi, we see that there is freedom, & then there is freedom. Jesus, God’s Son, can free you from whatever enslaves you. It might be money, or drugs, or power, or fear of failure, or fear of old age. It may be a threat from without or a threat from within. Whatever it is, I implore you to give it to Jesus. If you remain faithful to Christ’s teaching, you will know the truth, & the truth will set you free. Those chains that bind you can be removed, for if the Son makes you free, you really will be free.

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