A sermon, based on Acts 16.16-34, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019
During this Eastertide season, our first Bible reading for each Sunday, usually from the Hebrew scripture, is a passage from The Book of Acts; the longer title, The Book of the Acts of the Apostles. As disciples, they had come to Jesus to learn of the kingdom of God. After Jesus’ resurrection and his bestowing on them the Holy Spirit, they became apostles, sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Hence, it makes sense in the Easter season to read of the exploits of the apostles whose faithfulness and success is manifestly incarnate in us; we who, two millennia later and halfway around the world from where they preached, gather in the name of Jesus.
The theme of today’s passage runs like a striking, searing thread through the tapestry of human living: Bondage.
Paul and Silas are followed, hassled by a girl caught in the physical bondage of slavery and the spiritual bondage of divination. Perhaps because of her spiritual bondage she was sold into slavery; her owners gaining wealth through her supernatural ability to tell fortunes; to see things that others cannot see. And she sees clearly who Paul and Silas are. “These men are slaves of the Most High God!”(1) (Perhaps a case can be made that the issue isn’t whether one is in spiritual bondage, but rather to what or to whom!) Paul, annoyed at her pestering presence, in the name of Jesus, liberates her from her spiritual bondage. (Perhaps a case can be made that we need to be careful when, where, and for what purpose we utter the name of Jesus!)
Soon, Paul and Silas are in physical bondage. The slave girl’s owners, deprived of their source of income, are enraged, accusing the apostles of disturbing the peace, bodily assaulting them, dragging them before the legal authorities, who order them to be beaten and imprisoned.
But not for long! Their prayers and songs in praise to God result in an earthquake that literally shakes the prison foundations, opens the doors of their cells, loosens their shackles, setting free all of the prisoners.
The jailer, assuming a prison break, in political bondage to his superiors who would consider him having failed to do his duty and in the emotional bondage of fear of punishment, contemplates suicide.
The jailer, informed by Paul of the stunning revelation that there is no jail break, for all the prisoners are still in prison, with his household believes in Jesus and is baptized.
Reflecting on this stylized story, with its over-the-top dramatic elements and the unresolved matter of the slave girl, who, though freed from the spirit of divination remains enslaved, I hear a call to us to ask: In what ways are we in bondage and how do we attain the liberty of life in Jesus, which is Easter’s promise?
For, I believe, all of us are in bondage to something…
Principally, our mortal flesh. Yes, through our physical nature, we have life in this world, know ourselves and are known by others. Yet we, by that very reality, are bound to our bodies, which always are susceptible to illness and injury, until in death our spirits, that eternal element of our being, are set free…
And, whilst in this life, we are bound by our fleshly necessities (sometimes, excesses!) in food and drink, our desire for care and comfort, and our inescapable encounters with the emotional extremes of joy and sorrow, delight and anger, fulfillment and resentment…
And how many of us know the experience of being bound by bitter memories of wrongs we have done and good we have not done and the wrongs done unto us and the good not done unto us – all such remembrances oft arising in our consciousness unbidden and, no matter, when they arise always are undesired?
None of us, in this life, is wholly free of bondage; physical and emotional, social and spiritual.
Though real such bondage is, it need not control us. For it is not and never can be the last word of our lives. That word hath been spoken and is spoken by the Word of God whose name is Jesus who, though led in bondage to the cross of his crucifixion, was raised from the dead. By faith, trusting in this truth, there is nothing that can bind us forever!
(1) In much the same way, Luke, the author of both the Gospel according to St. Luke and The Acts of the Apostles, portrays the Gerasene demoniac’s accurate characterization of Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” (Luke 8.28).
Paul Casts Out Spirit from Slave Girl, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Note: Rembrandt portrays the exorcised spirit as a small, tailed creature arising from the slave girl’s mouth.
Paul and Silas in Prison, James Thornhill (1675-1734). Note: Thornhill depicts that moment when the jailer, kneeling before Paul and Silas, asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”