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Sermon, "Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas," Acts 16:16-40

Sermon 7/15/18
Acts 16:16-40

Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas

Of the many folks we hear about who end up in prison in the Bible, the apostle Paul probably spends the most time there. As I mentioned last week, some of the epistles in the Bible, the letters, are letters that were written by Paul while in prison. Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians were all written by Paul while he was in prison, although we’re not always sure which of Paul’s multiple times in prison is the setting for each letter. It’s not surprising that he ends up in jail so frequently. He’s a Jewish man, preaching about this person Jesus Christ, and wherever he goes, he’s sharing a message that is in stark contrast to those who hear him. Many of his fellow Jewish leaders don’t appreciate his understanding of Judaism and how he speaks about Jesus as someone who both fulfills and transcends the law, and the Gentiles - the non-Jews to whom Paul preached most often don’t understand his or appreciate his Jewish identity or why because of Jesus they should become a part of this faith tradition. Everywhere, people find Paul’s words or practices upsetting, and so everywhere, he’s getting into trouble with the authorities in town, sometimes beaten, sometimes being called on to defend himself, sometimes ending up in prison. Eventually, although we don’t know Paul’s fate specifically, it is believed Paul was beheaded by the Emperor of Rome, Nero, famous for his persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. 

I knew, then, that I wanted to include Paul in this series on Voices from Prison, since I believe his experiences in prison shape his faith and his understanding of the freedom we experience in Christ significantly. His letters are littered with the language of captive, imprisoned, and freedom, and he both calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and speaks about how Christ sets us free. So what does Paul experience in prison that shapes his understanding of faith? Today we turn to a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, the gospel-writer, to delve into one of Paul’s trips to prison.  

The beginning of chapter 16 of Acts tells us that Paul and Silas and a group of other disciples in the early church are visiting Philippi to share the gospel there. Philippi is the community to whom Paul writes the letter that we know in our Bible as Philippians. At the beginning of the chapter, they meet a woman named Lydia, a business woman, a cloth dealer, and she and her whole household are baptized after learning about Jesus. Lydia urges the missionaries to stay at her home - she’s a woman of some wealth and can provide for everyone - and she persuades them. When our text for today begins, the apostles are using her house as a home-base, and from there each day heading out to preach and share the gospel with others. As they’re doing this each day, they encounter a girl who is a slave who brings her owners a lot of money by telling people’s fortunes, because, we read, she has a “spirit of divination.” When she sees Paul and the others, she starts to follow them and yell out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She does this every day. Like many who have what the scriptures call “unclean spirit” or are in some way “possessed by spirits,” she’s not saying anything that’s not true. But her following Paul and the gang around also doesn’t seem to be helping them find the nice introduction to talking about Jesus that they’re hoping for. Paul, Acts tells us, is “very much annoyed.” And so prompted apparently by his annoyance rather than a desire to heal the girl, Paul orders the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And it does. 
And suddenly, this slave girl has lost her money-making capacity for her owners. It doesn’t sit well with them. They seize Paul and Silas, drag them to the local magistrates, and accuse them: “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.” The crowds join in with the accusations, and the local authorities have them stripped, beaten and flogged, and thrown in prison. The prison guard puts them in the innermost cell and fastens their feet in stocks. Prisons in biblical times were not nice places at all. “Prison time” wasn’t a typical sentence - prison was merely a holding place for those awaiting trial, and sometimes release, but often another punishment, or execution. Prisons were overcrowded. They were dark, and the inner cells, which Acts is careful to note to us is where Paul and Silas are held, would usually be entirely dark. Chains to bind prisoners were heavy, iron chains, which were particularly painful to bodies that had just been beaten and flogged. Hygiene was pretty lacking. Food was minimal - most prisoners had to rely on visitors to sustain them with food and drink of any substance. Many prisoners would be kept together in one cell. It’s a dreadful situation.* 

          Somehow, though, Paul and Silas find the strength to spend their time in prison praying and singing hymns. It’s midnight, and the text says that other prisoners are listening to them. Imagine them all in the stifling darkness, but Paul and Silas are lifting up words of hope. Suddenly, there’s an earthquake. The quaking causes the doors of the prison to be opened, and the chains of all the prisoners to fall off. The jailer wakes, sees the chaos, and gets ready to take his own life, despairing at the complete failure of his job. But Paul and Silas have not escaped - and neither have any other prisoners, for whatever reasons they might have been there. Paul speaks to prevent the jailer from hurting himself, and the jailer rushes in with lights, falls down before Paul and Silas, and asks what he must do to be saved. Apparently, he knows enough about what Paul and Silas have been arrested for to know they seem to have some compelling message to share. 

           Paul and Silas tell the jailer about Jesus. They share the good news of God’s grace not just with him, but with the whole household. And the jailer and his family decide to be baptized and to become Jesus-followers without delay. They feed Paul and Silas, and care for their wounds, and keep them in the house instead of the prison. When morning comes, the authorities send word to release Paul and Silas, and send them away. You’d think they’d rejoice at this news, but Paul instead responds: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” He wants some accountability for the way they’ve been treated, for what we might call the lack of due process they’ve endured. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him special rights, and his words grab the attention of the authorities, who indeed come and apologize. Still, they want Paul and Silas out of town now. So Paul and Silas are officially freed. They say their farewells to Lydia and the other Christians there, and leave town. 

There are so many layers of imprisonment and freedom in this passage. It’s about more than just Paul and Silas. First, there’s the slave girl. She is not free - she is a slave, and she’s bound up by this spirit that has especially made her a pawn of her masters. Something makes her call out to Paul and Silas day after day, shouting for anyone who will listen that these people have a message of salvation. Notice that we don’t hear anything else about her after Paul releases her from the spirit. We only know that Paul’s actions in her left her owners very, very angry. Paul didn’t seem to be motivated in healing her by a desire to help her, did he? He just wanted her to be quiet, I think! But Paul’s actions, though they free her from a spirit that apparently consumed her life, did nothing to free her from her slavery. Instead, they make her worthless to her owners. I’ve heard people use the phrase “freedom isn’t free.” We talk about this when we’re weighing the costs of “freedom,” and noting that rarely does what we name freedom come without some kind of price. Freedom has consequences. Paul acts on this girl’s life and bestows on her one kind of freedom. It is not for her benefit, unfortunately. Sometimes, when we’re “freeing” others with whatever actions we think are best, we’re not thinking about the consequences. When it comes to working to fight against injustice, against harm to others, against oppression, against wrongdoing, how can we make sure that what we think of as a gift of freedom to others is actually setting them free? I hope Paul had a chance to think of that slave girl, and wonder how her life unfolded after his actions. 

There is, of course, the imprisonment and freedom of Paul and Silas. They’re beaten and bound and in prison, and yet they possess within themselves a well of faith that they draw on that leaves them seeming free, even though they are in physical chains. Their trust in God leaves them with a deep contentment. They seem free from worry about their fate. I don’t mean to say that they don’t care if they live or die. I believe Paul had many plans about all the people with whom he wanted to share the gospel. I mean that he’s not anxious for the future. He’s with God when he’s in prison or out of prison. He’s a disciple of Jesus in prison or out of prison. There’s no external forces that seem to shake Paul and Silas’s faith. They’re singing and praying in prison. Even when the doors are unlocked for them by the earthquake, and their chains are loosened, they don’t rush to escape. This, I think, is the freedom in Christ that Paul talks about. His faith makes him secure in whatever he experiences. I just finished reading Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown last week, and she returns in her book again and again to a statement from Dr. Maya Angelou from a 1973 TV interview. Angelou said, “You are only free when you realize that you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (5) I love that. I think Paul and Silas embody that. They belong to Christ - to no place, and every place. The cost of their freedom in Christ is high. Eventually, Paul pays with his life. But the reward is great. Paul wouldn’t trade his experiences for anything, after experiencing new life in Christ, after accepting God’s unwavering, unconditional love and grace. 

And then there is the jailer. He’s the one that seems to have the most freedom in this story. He’s no slave girl, and he’s not locked up like Paul and Silas. And yet, when the earthquake happens, we immediately see how bound this man is. He exists in a system that makes it seem like taking his own life is the only possible solution. He exists in a system that would apparently punish him for the escape of prisoners even though it would have been due to circumstances completely beyond his control. He seems free, but he’s bound, chained to this punitive system that means his life can come crashing down around him with one unexpected earthquake. He has power, but he knows his power is tenuous and can be snatched away at any second. He should be calm and in control, but it is Paul and Silas who have to comfort him. Power and status, wealth and position - these things give us the illusion of freedom. But the hidden costs are deeply soul-crushing, meaning this man, this jailer feels his life is worthless without his position. How easily we can become chained by these external things that promise to give us value, promise us freedom, and leave us feeling more bound than ever! 

         When we talk about freedom, I want us to ask ourselves two questions: Free from what and free for what? Christ offers us new life, and sets us free. But I want us to know what we’re being set free from. What is binding you up? What has you chained? What has your soul imprisoned? What are you so reliant on that if it came crashing down you’d think your life was no longer of value? Christ sets us free from sin, free from the power of that which seeks to separate us from God, free from the endless quest to earn the love that God has already offered us. How does your faith make it so external chains can’t prevent you from singing hymns and witnessing to your faith, because you know who you are, who you serve, who loves you? How can Jesus set you free? 

         And what will Jesus set you free for? In our traditional United Methodist communion liturgy, there’s a prayer of confession that precedes the sharing of communion, one that you’ll find adaptations of in many Christian traditions. I invite you to share in it with me (UMH page 12): “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I am so struck by this phrase: Free us for joyful obedience. Paul and Silas were free to serve God with their whole hearts and their whole lives. We are too. We’re free to joyfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re free to do God’s will, follow God’s way, embrace God’s love, love our neighbors, and hear - with compassion, not annoyance - the cries of the needy. We’re free in a way that gives life - true, abundant life.  The price is high. The reward is great. In Christ Jesus, we have been set free. Let’s live like people who know it. Amen. 

*Insights and information on first-century prisons found here: Derrick G. Jeter,, and here in these class note: Simón Apablazam,


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