No One Is Really Free

A year or two ago there was a clergy wellness focus at the annual diocesan clergy conference. We were encouraged to have our spouses also be part of the Mayo Clinic wellness system. Suzie did this. But in order for her to get into the system, she was given my Personal Access Code.

Next month, I will be going to CREDO II. It was about 10 years ago that I first went to CREDO. CREDO focuses on clergy wellness in the areas of physical health, vocational health, spiritual health, and financial health. As part of my preparation for the conference I needed a physical exam and blood work and add those results to the Mayo Clinic wellness system.

It wouldn’t let me in. My Personal Access Code does not match my date of birth. I even tried to use Suzie’s date of birth – no dice. A series of emails with two different people at the Mayo Clinic did not resolve the problem. Their system is not flexible enough to resolve the possible confusion over the Personal Access Code. web

Once upon a time, I wrote computer code. There is an honest attempt to foresee every eventuality, but that doesn’t always work. The people (we called them users) who use the programs are the ones who write the specifications of what they need. We would write code to meet their needs. If they didn’t think of something then a problem is created. Still, I can’t believe the Mayo Clinic can’t issue me a new code. That does not need a computer to do.

As technology effects our lives more and more, we become more enslaved to technology. It doesn’t matter if it is technology we bring into our homes or technology that others have that confront us when we go about our daily lives. The simple act of making a purchase confronts us with ever evolving and ever more complex technology. The church no longer relies on monks making copies of scripture and other documents, we use computers and copiers!

I used a word processor and a Bible software package to put together this sermon. I am speaking into a microphone. We are more and more enslaved to technology. Even more than 20 years ago, it was said that if the phone company (that was when there was only one phone company) gave up their computers, in order to stay in business, they would need to hire every single person in the country.

We talk about being a free people, but how free are we really? Any relationship we have requires us to give up some of our freedom. So we are actually slaves of many things. Today’s Acts reading is about slaves.

Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy are in Philippi, which was in Greece. When Philippi was conquered by, Alexander the Great’s father, Phillip of Macedonia, he named the town after himself. This is where Octavian and Mark Antony defeated Cassius and Brutus and with it, Republican Rome. Mark Antony’s veterans were settled at Philippi. Later Octavian, by this time Emperor Augustus, settled Roman farmers there and made it a Roman city.

Jews were tolerated at Philippi, but also discouraged. So there was no town synagogue. What few Jews who were there, mainly women, met for prayer outside of the city.

Paul and Slave GirlNow that the scene is set, on one day Paul’s group are on their way to the place of prayer outside the city. It was then that they met a slave-girl who was something of a fortune teller. This fortune teller kept pestering them and yelling out that they were the slaves of God who proclaim a way of salvation. This went on for days, like a younger sibling who obnoxiously tags along where ever you go and won’t shut up.

There are some interesting dichotomies here. The girl is a slave to her owners and possibly a slave to a spirit of divination. The slave girl has no control over what she is or where she may go. Perhaps a slave knows a slave when she sees one. For that is what she calls Paul’s band of disciples, slaves of God.

Finally, Paul had had enough. It is not clear why Paul is irritated. Perhaps Paul wants to be in control of his message without some slave girl going on about who he is and what his message is. Paul orders the spirit inside to leave in the name of Jesus Christ. And it did.

This action deprived the poor slave girl’s owners of income and they were ticked. These owners grabbed Paul and Silas and took them to the authorities. Except it wasn’t in the marketplace as our translations would indicate, but rather it was in the town forum. Paul and Silas were not accused of driving out the slave girl’s spirit of divination. The owners were too smart for that, because such an admission might put them in jail instead. The Romans were not keen on the spiritual arts.

Instead, Paul and Silas were accused of being Jews. And since they are Jews, they are promoting Jewish customs that are not lawful in a Roman city. They are outside agitators. Since the owners call themselves Romans, they are likely descended from Antony’s veterans. Remember the Philippians were not too keen about having Jews around. When the crowd hears the accusation, they join in the attack.

So the town magistrates had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into jail. It doesn’t seem that Paul and Silas were afforded the opportunity to defend themselves and they don’t seem to have advocated for themselves. They were put in the worst part of the dark, dank jail and placed in stocks. They were thirsty. They were hungry. Their bodies ached from the beatings they received. They probably needed medical care.

So, how did they respond to this dark predicament? They started singing hymns and songs. They were praising God!

Then the earthquake happened. It was so violent that all the cell doors and shackles were unlocked. That was quite an earthquake. It was also powerful enough to wake the jailer. That was quite an earthquake. The jailer saw the cell doors all opened and would rather kill himself than face the magistrates over a jailbreak he had nothing to do about. Such was Roman justice.

But before he could follow through with his suicide, Paul tells him to stop. All the prisoners are still in the jail, probably wondering if they are still intact from the earthquake. The jailer gets some kind of torch to verify what Paul had said and it was true. The jailer had a sense that something special happened there, that the hand of God was present in that place.

The jailer must have been familiar with Paul and Silas’ activities and their message of salvation. Because without hesitating, he trembles before Paul and Silas and asks what he must do to be saved. They reply that all the jailer need do is to believe in Jesus, which is what the slave girl was saying. Having everyone still in the jail has saved the jailer’s life and this story seems to imply that Paul and Silas had something to do about it, though it never stated that way.

On no one’s authority but his own, the jailer releases Paul and Silas. They talked about Jesus to the jailer and his household. Paul and Silas had their wounds treated and they baptized the entire household. Then they ate, presumably, breakfast. There was much rejoicing in that house that day.

There are a lot of slaves in this story. The slave girl is an obvious one. The girl’s owners are enslaved by greed and revenge. The magistrates are enslaved by the crowd, ignoring justice. The jailer is enslaved by a system that punishes for natural occurrences. And as the slave girl says, Paul and Silas are slaves of the “Most High God.”

Yet Paul and Silas do not even try to bring the slave girl into the household of Christ. Was there a social prejudice that enslaved Paul and Silas from ministering to her like they did to their jailer? Do they not realize that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world? Later in Galatians Paul writes about no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, for we are all united in Christ.

This text begs the question, “What about the girl?” For us it asks, “What about me?” Do I have perceptions that need to be saved? Do I have behaviors that need to be saved? “What do I have that is left undone?”

Text: Acts 16:16–34


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