June 2, 2019
Talkin’ about freedom – J. Barry Vaughn – June 2, 2019
In today’s reading from Acts we have three interlocking stories that play out in three scenes.
In the first scene we see an unnamed woman who was possessed by an evil spirit. The author describes her as a “slave.” Her status as a slave, a human being who was at least theoretically “owned” by someone else is paralleled by her spiritual enslavement by a demon.
Now keep in mind that the Greek word doulos can be translated as either “slave” or “servant,” but in the first century world there were no servants as we know them. Anyone performing a menial task was a slave, that is they were someone who had lost their freedom either by being taken prisoner in war or who had lost their freedom because of debt or committing a crime or something like that. You could not pay freeborn persons to perform the menial tasks that slaves performed.
What is interesting to me is that the slave woman identifies Paul and Silas as SLAVES of “the Most High God.” And in a real sense, she was correct.
In the modern world we think of religion as an optional category of life. We say to someone, “What are your interests?” And they say, “Oh, I like snow skiing, going to the beach, watching movies, and… oh, yeah… I’m also an Episcopalian.” But they could just as easily say that they were a Buddhist or a Wiccan or a Jehovah’s Witness. We often and easily change our religious identities. They are just about as disposable as Kleenex.
But that was not true in the first century. In the first century, your religious identity was more or less fixed at birth. A Jew was a Jew. A Roman was a Roman. A Greek was a Greek. And by the way, Roman wasn’t just a political identification. To be a Roman was to worship the gods of Rome. The same was true of Greeks and Persians.
So when Paul appealed to people to be baptized, he was asking a lot of them. They were giving up something central to their identity. And when the slave woman identified Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God,” she was right.
When we are baptized, we are not just adopting one religious identity among others, we are giving up ourselves to “the Most High God.” We are being adopted into a new family, really a new race of people.
One of the most effective early opponents of Christianity was a Greek philosopher named Celsus. In the late second century, Celsus asked, “Who are these Christians? Where do they come from?” His point was that Christians were not a “people,” such as Romans or Greeks or Persians or even the Jews. (He didn’t like the Jews very much, either!)
The Egyptian Christian theologian, Origen, answered Celsus by saying that Christians are a people without a country, but they are located in every country in the world. But that was startlingly new idea in the ancient world.
What interests me so much about today’s story from Acts is that a woman who was a slave economically speaking, identified Paul and Silas as spiritual slaves, as men who had freely given themselves to the “Most High God.” And then these “slaves of the Most High God” bestowed freedom on the slave woman by freeing her from the spirit that possessed her.
That’s a fairly long summary of the first scene. Now on to the second scene.
In the second scene, the so-called owners of the slave woman were beside themselves. Their livelihood had been taken away. In other words, they were in danger of becoming slaves themselves if they could not come up with a new way of making a living. So they bring Paul and Silas before the authorities. Instead of charging Paul and Silas with stealing from them (which is really what they had done), they charge Paul and Silas with a much more serious crime: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
Note that the charge was two-fold: First, Paul and Silas were disturbing the peace. Second, they were “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
That is very important, because very soon it would become the basis for widespread persecution of Christians. Christians would be regarded as undermining the very foundations of the Roman Empire by “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
The foundation of the Roman Empire was the good will of the gods, and that could only be maintained by sacrificing to the gods and performing other rituals. By denying the very existence of the Roman gods, Christians were undermining the very foundation of the Roman Empire.
So, the authorities of the city of Philippi (where all this was taking place) had Paul and Silas flogged and thrown in jail.
Do you see what has happened? By freeing the slave woman from possession by an evil spirit, Paul and Silas have now lost their physical freedom. She is free, but Paul and Silas are in a jail cell. They are not just in any jail cell; the author tells us that they are “in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”
Now to the third scene.
Although Paul and Silas are in prison, in the innermost cell, and are confined in the stocks, they are undaunted. They are singing hymns and praying.
It reminds me of stories of civil rights protestors in the 1960s who held prayer meetings and sang freedom songs after they had been arrested. The real prisoners were their jailers who were locked in prisons of hatred and prejudice.
And while Paul and Silas were singing, God sent a mighty earthquake that unlocked all the doors of the jail.
The jailer was beside himself. The author says that “he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
Now the author speeds up the action and leaves a lot for us to imagine, but apparently the jailer recognized the truth of the slave woman’s statement that Paul and Silas were “slaves of the Most High God,” because he asks them, “What must I do to be saved?’
Paul and Silas tell him that he must believe in the Lord Jesus and be baptized, and so he is. We know that the jailer’s conversion is sincere because of what he does next: He washes their wounds. Normally, that is the kind of menial task that would only be performed by a slave, but in performing it, the jailer demonstrates that, in fact, he has become a slave, that is, a slave in the same sense that Paul and Silas were slaves. Like them, the jailer is also “a slave of the Most High God.”
And we have come full circle. We began with the story of a woman who was enslaved economically and also enslaved spiritually. And we end with the story of a supposedly free man, the jailer, who gives up his freedom to become a “slave of the Most High God.”
This story from Acts leaves me with several questions:
First, what is freedom and who is really free?
A fundamental idea of the American system is that everyone is born free in a political and economic sense. As the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As far as it goes, the Declaration of Independence is correct. But what about spiritual freedom? It is all too easy for us to lose our spiritual freedom. For example, a person who becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs has lost his or her spiritual freedom. As Twelve Step programs say, they need the intervention of a Higher Power to regain their spiritual freedom.
What the Christian faith promises and what baptism gives us is spiritual freedom. When we give ourselves to God in baptism, God gives us spiritual freedom, that is, the freedom to be the people God created us to be. And as the story of Paul and Silas show us, no prison can hold those who are “slaves of the Most High God.”
Our world is not that different from the world of Acts. Sisters and brothers, we live in a city that profits from people who come here to overindulge in addictive substances. And addiction is just another name for possession.
Now, make no mistake: I hate it when people call Las Vegas “Sin City.” I think there’s a lot more sin in Washington and Wall Street than in Las Vegas. But Las Vegas is a place where people come to consume too much alcohol and food, to name only a couple of the addictive substances that are on the menu here.
In other words, there are people in our world like the slave woman’s owners. They profit from possession, because at the end of the day, there’s really no difference between addiction and possession. Both are ways that people lose their freedom.
Our task is to call out the demonic powers that take away people’s freedom, whether those powers are addictive substances or prejudices. And when we take up that calling, we will face opposition. We may even be put in jail.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called out the demonic forces of prejudice and segregation, he was put in jail and ultimately, he was killed. But even when he was in jail, Dr. King was one of the freest people in the world, because he served the Most High God.
What I want you to take away from this story from Acts is that God offers us freedom – freedom from addiction, freedom from oppressive systems, freedom from depression and anxiety. If you have been baptized, then you, too, are a slave of the Most High God. But you are also now and forever truly free. Amen.