Narrative Lectionary Reflection
April 22, 2018
Towards the end of June, African Americans in places throughout the United States take part in Juneteenth. This is the holiday commemorating President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that said that slaves in the then Confederacy were free. The message didn’t get to some slaves until 1865, some two years after the proclaimation. People who definitely were not free, all of the sudden found out that they were. The chains that bound them, the overseers that watched them like a hawk, no longer had any power over them. They were now free.
Our text today is about freedom and slavery. The main part of Acts 16 is when Paul and Silas are in jail singing songs to God. How were they able to sing their hearts out when they lost their freedom?
Paul and Silas end up in prison and there were reasons that this happened. Their faith got then in the slammer. But even though they lost their freedom, they are free.
The whole theme of today’s text is about freedom. Some who seem to be without freedom are free, while those that seem free are not really free.
One note: the text for today starts at verse 16, but we are going to start at verse 11. Both the Narrative Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary bypass the story of Lydia, a selller of purple cloth who becomes a believer. Because she is a woman and because we so often look over texts concerning women, we will start with Lydia before we move on to the “main text.”
With that, today, we learn about Paul, Silas and freedom.
Engaging the Text
29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
Several years have past since Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. He has changed his name to Paul. He started his ministry with a partner, Barnabas. A disagreement caused them to go their separate ways and Paul continued his ministry with Silas. Chapter 16 opens with them meeting Timothy who would follow them along in their journeys. Later, Paul has a dream where a man tells him to come to Macedonia, which is what Paul and Silas do. One of the first people they meet in Macedonia is Lydia, a seller of purple cloth. She becomes the first convert in Macedonia, though God’s work. Lydia’s conversion matters for several reasons. First, she is a woman. In the book of Luke (which is written by the author of Acts), Jesus talked to women and they were the first evangelists, telling the disciples that Jesus had risen. So Paul talking to Lydia is keeping in the tradition. The early church could be considered radical in how the treated women, with a measure of equality that wasn’t seen in the wider culture. She is also a businesswoman which was probably not very common in that culture. This Gentile woman was converted, baptized and let Paul and Silas stay at her place for a while.
So, why does Lydia matter? Paul and Silas were sent to Macedonia and when they are there, the first few days were quiet. Then a few ironies happened. First, a man called Paul to Macedonia, but the person who becomes the first convert is a woman. Second, Lydia came from a region that the Holy Spirit told Paul to not go to. Finally, verse 14 notes that “the Lord enabled her to hear Paul’s message.” No matter how good Paul was in speech or rhetoric, it was only through God that Lydia’s heart was opened. Her heart was open not just to accept God, but to open her house to Paul and Silas. That’s a reminder when we think our churches have to be places that dazzle people instead of places that allow for God to work. When we recieve God’s freedom, that should open our heart making us free to serve others in need.
We next see Paul and Silas finding a place to pray. A woman starts following them. She is considered to have some kind of spirit and in her state she screams, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” Scripture says she does this for several days.
If you are hearing this no matter where you go in town, when you are shopping or even having dinner, you would tend to get testy. After Paul heard this day in and day out, Paul got annoyed. He looks at this woman and commands, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” With that, the spirit left her.
This woman had been bound by a spirit, doing something that she might have not wanted to do. She was now Free. But freedom always comes at a price, and that price was the lost of money by her owners. The people who owned her were upset, because they have lost precious income. The owners grab Paul and Silas and place them before the ruling authorities. “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” These businessmen who felt they had lost freedom to make money, resorted to racism to keep the Jewish visitors in their place. The local authorities arrest Paul and Silas, have them flogged and placed in jail. Paul and Silas had freedom to go from place to place, but now they aren’t able to go anywhere,confined to a jail cell.
But were they no longer free? On one level, no they weren’t free. Their feet were chained with stocks. However the scripture tells us that Paul and Silas were sitting in a jail cell unable to move about and still singing songs of praise to God. This is not unlike the many “Freedom Songs” sung by protestors during the Civil Rights movement. Even though millions of African Americans were not free to vote or even move about, they were free in their souls and could sing songs giving praise to God and hope for a better future.
An earthquake strikes the jail and the jail cell doors open up. We learn the jailer is ready to kill himself. Why? He thought all of the prisoners escaped. Because if the prisoners escaped then there was a fear that he could suffer the same fate. He was about to lose his freedom and he’d rather take his life than have to suffer the fate of his supervisors. Just as he is about to fatally stab himself, Paul yells out to not harm himself, because everyone was in the jail. The jailer comes to Paul’s cell and he asks something strange: “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?” Some versions say “saved,” but here we see the word “rescued,” which means the jailer saw himself as someone that was not free. Seeing the freedom Paul and Silas showed even while in chains was something that he wanted and needed. The passage ends with the jailer and his whole family becoming saved.
There is an episode from the 60s television show the “Twlight Zone” that has always been with me. A couple wake up one morning in a strange house. They were at a party the night before and the wife drove home and then they find themselves at this odd place. No one is in the house. They go outside and the neighborhood was also void of people. They go to a park, where a woman tries to pet a squirrel that falls to the ground. The husband realizes its a fake, not real. He leans on the tree and it falls over, showing that it was also fake. They hear the sounds of a train and they run to grab the train. They celebrate that they are leaving this strange place, but then they discover the train went in circles. At the end of the episode, we learn that the two people were grabbed by aliens to be part of their little girl’s play set. Two people who were free, find out that they are now in a prison.
“Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again,” Paul says in Galatians. We see in this chapter that even when life might take our freedom, we are free in Christ, free to love others and free to bring healing.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.