September 28, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH: FREEDOM
The fourth in a series of six.
The story of the church continues. As I mentioned in the first sermon, I’m trying to be clever with this title for our series. “The Story of the Church” is a double entendre. That’s French for “two meanings”. We’re talking about the story of the first church that we read about in Acts and we’re also talking about the story of this FirstChurch, also known as NampaFirstUnitedMethodistChurch.
So when I say, “The story of the church continues”, I mean two things. I mean the story in Acts continues with this fourth installment in our series. And I mean the story of this church continues. Every day the story of this church continues. It’s a story that is still being written. And we’re all part of that story!
Sometimes churches study Acts looking for a blueprint for them to copy. We romanticize the early church. We make it our utopian ideal. If only we could be like the church we read about in Acts then all our problems would go away and we would be every bit as perfect and wonderful as they were!
I don’t think that’s what God has in mind at all. Every church is different, just as every person is different. God doesn’t want us to all be the same. God doesn’t want you to follow the script of someone else’s life, even someone you admire and want to be like. God wants you to be free to become the best person you can be. And in the same way, God doesn’t want our church to follow the script of another church, even a church we greatly admire. Even the church whose story is told in Acts. God wants us to be free to become the best church we can be. God wants our story to unfold in its own unique and beautiful way.
There’s that old poem about a young person who was stressed out over trying to figure out God’s will for her life. An older person handed this person a rosebud and asked her to unfold it. To force it to become a rose in full bloom. She tried and, of course, all she could do was destroy it. There were little petals scattered all over the floor. The point?
If I cannot unfold a rosebud,
This flower of God’s design,
Then how can I think I have wisdom
To unfold this life of mine?
God’s story for people and for churches unfolds as God wants it to, even when we try to hurry up the process or force it to go our way. Because it’s God’s story, not ours. And, as we’re going to see today, it’s the story of how God has set us free.
Today’s passage is all about freedom. We’ve taken a big leap from last week where Paul is a brand new Christian. Paul is now well on his way with his new mission in life. He’s taking the good news of Jesus on the road, sharing it with everyone he meets. He’s in Philippi as we pick up his story. We’re told he’s accompanied by Silas and Timothy. We can surmise he is also accompanied by someone else. Luke, the author of Luke and Acts must also be with him. Because the passage we read begins, “As we were going to the place of prayer . . . ” (16:16). Today’s scripture is a first-hand account from someone who was really there!
And notice another word in that same verse. “As we were going to the place of prayer . . . ” Their connection with God in prayer continues to be what keeps them going.
It’s on their way to this place of prayer that they meet a “slave girl”. She was someone else’s property. She’s not even given a name. It’s as if she isn’t worth enough to bother with her name. Actually she was valuable to her owners because she was a fortune teller. She could see things others couldn’t see. The reason was that she was possessed by a demon. When she would speak, it was really the demon speaking through her. So she was kind of like a walking ATM for her owners. She made them very rich.
Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke are on their way to their place of prayer, she sees them, and the demon speaking through her says, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (16:17). What she says is spot on true. What the demon says, that is. And this didn’t happen just once. It says this went on for a number of days (16:18). God’s truth was being proclaimed by a demon!
It may have been a curious novelty at first. But it got old in a hurry. We’re told that “Paul was annoyed”. Whether it’s more his annoyance at the demon or more his compassion for this poor girl, you can decide. But he speaks directly to the demon, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (16:18). That’s all it took. The demon was gone. The girl was free.
And everyone was happy except the owners of the girl. For they had lost their nifty little income stream. I find this interesting. The girl has been set free. But her owners are now the ones who are shown to be enslaved. She was enslaved to that demon. They are enslaved to their money.
It’s a paradox. We imagine that money makes us free. We speak of financial freedom as our great goal in life. But if we aren’t careful, in pursuit of that goal, we can turn ourselves into money worshipers. Money can become our master. Money is a wonderful servant. But it’s a terrible master. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters . . . you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
The best thing possible happens to this demon-possessed girl, and for those who profess to care about her, it’s the worst thing possible that has just happened. Because they don’t really care about her. They just care about the money she can make for them. And they are therefore shown to be more enslaved than she was.
So we have a girl set free and her owners who are not at all free and, as a result, those who have set this girl free lose their freedom! Paul and Silas are locked up in prison. The owners of the slave girl see to that. First, they are beaten. Then they are locked up, but not just with the general prison population. They are taken to an “inner prison” — maximum security — and leg irons were used to make she they weren’t going anywhere. Apparently word had gotten out that these Christians had a nasty habit of escaping.
It’s midnight and they were still awake. I wonder if they were still awake because it was impossible to sleep with those leg irons on. So what were they doing at midnight to pass the time in this horrible situation in which they now found themselves? They were praying. They were singing hymns to God. And we’re told the other prisoners were listening. This whole prison has become a house of worship!
This isn’t necessarily a script for Christians to follow today. Christians still can and do get locked up for their faith. I think of Said Abedini in Iran. It happens in this country, too. Imprisonment isn’t necessarily supposed to be part of our story. It might be. But there’s a lesson here for us that has a universal application.
How do we respond when something goes wrong? Do we complain? Do we get bitter? Do we get discouraged? Do we get negative? Do we question our faith? The next time something goes wrong in your life, the next time something goes wrong in our life together here at church, let’s remember Paul and Silas, up at midnight praying and singing hymns to God.
Then comes the surprise. We talked about surprises last week. Our God is a God of surprises, and this is a big one. There is an earthquake. It must have been a big one. Because it was strong enough to open the prison doors and even to release those leg irons that were holding Paul and Silas. This was good news for the prisoners. But it was bad news for the jailer. It was his job to keep the prisoners in prison. He was now in very serious trouble. So serious he decided to take his own life. He took out his sword and then he heard the voice of Paul: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (16:28).
Why didn’t they go? I’ve always thought that was strange. God does this miracle to set them free. God does it all. It is quite amazing. A custom-designed earthquake, strong enough to free them but not strong enough to injure them. (Though there is a reference to their “wounds” in 16:33.) All that’s left for them is to climb over the rubble and walk out. But they don’t do it. They stay put. Doesn’t that strike you as strange?
I’ve thought about this and here’s what I’ve come up with: They didn’t leave the prison because they were already free. They were freer in prison than most people who live outside prison walls. God had set them free before that earthquake hit. And now they were in a perfect position to share the freedom that was theirs in Jesus Christ with someone who thought he was free but really wasn’t. The jailer.
First, they save his life when he is about to commit suicide. And second, they go a big step further, introducing him to the life “that is life indeed” (I Timothy 6:19). They introduce him to Jesus.
In fact, they introduce his whole family to Jesus. The jailer and his whole family gets baptized. Then they all share in a celebratory meal.
That’s how the passage we read ends. The next verse begins, “But when it was day . . . ” You see, all this action took place between midnight and daybreak. Starting with the earthquake at midnight and ending with the feast just before dawn. And in between multiple baptisms and an entire family becoming Christians. No one got to bed that night! There is a saying, “Nothing good happens after 2 am.” This was an exception.
So let’s take our tally on freedom in this part of “the story of the church”: We have a demon-possessed slave girl who was not free but who is set free. We have her money-hungry owners who thought they were free but once their money-making ability is interfered with, it becomes apparent that they aren’t free at all. We have Paul and Silas who, even when they are locked up, are still free. And we have the jailer and his family. They thought they were free, but now that they are slaves to Jesus, they know a freedom they didn’t know existed.
And that’s true today, too. A lot of people outside the church looking in, wonder why we have relinquished our freedom. What’s that saying? “When you join a church, your income goes down 10% and you no longer have Sundays off.” Who would choose that?
A lot of people outside the church looking in think we must have lost our minds. We have all these rules about what we can’t do and what we have to do. We have some time off and we use it to go on a mission trip. We put others ahead of ourselves. We let some invisible being control our lives and decide for us how we are going to live. What’s up with all that??
A lot of people outside the church looking in think they are free and we are not. And they’ve used that freedom to make choices and develop habits that are more constraining than a maximum security cell, leg irons included.
True freedom “is a delicate and subtle gift, easily perverted and often squandered” (Eugene Peterson). True freedom is found in Jesus Christ. Christians are the freest people alive. Christians are free to say prayers and sing hymns when the worst thing imaginable has just happened. Christians are free to love and give and serve. Free to be bold and unafraid. For the worst that can happen is that we will die and go to heaven.
When Paul wrote a letter to this church at Philippi, he was in prison once again. He wrote from prison a letter to this church that now included a jailer and his family: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21).
Only a free man could write those words. That’s the freedom that is available to us in Jesus Christ. That’s the freedom we’ve seen time and again in this amazing story we’ve been reading. The story of the church. May it be the story of this church. May it be the story of our lives.
Dear God, we get these glimpses throughout your Word and throughout this Book of Acts of what is possible in you. We confess that we have not yet claimed what you have told us is ours in you. We have viewed your promises from afar, we’ve reached out for them now and then, but we have shied away from embracing those promises fully. And therefore we are less free than we might be. We are less alive than we might be. We are less available to you than we might be. So God our prayer today is the prayer of that old hymn: “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.” In Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.