Slaves and Prisoners


Acts 16:16-25

Slavery, in all of its various forms, is still very much with us. We like to believe that we live in a modern, enlightened world, where all persons are treated with the dignity and the respect that God created them to have, but that is not at all the case. We live in a very broken and evil world, where millions of people are held against their will and compelled to commit unspeakable acts that destroy both their bodies and their spirits. This is not a world where freedom is cherished or defended. Tyranny exists in every corner of our planet. Earlier this spring I attended a workshop about human trafficking that takes place right here in the State of Maine. This is a problem in our own neighborhood. For all of the disgust that Jeffery Epstein gorged up in our hearts, he is but a bit character in the acts of evil that taint God’s beautiful creation every day. We may be appalled by slavery of every kind, but we have certainly not eliminated it from our society.

Children, especially, are vulnerable to this kind of abuse. And in our passage this morning, we are introduced to a young slave girl who has some amazing talents. She is possessed by a spirit of divination, and can, apparently, predict the future by telling peoples’ fortunes. To her handlers and owners, she is a living, breathing gold mine. I wish that Luke had given us a little bit more information about her. How did she come to be owned by her handlers? Was she an orphan? Was she a runaway? Was she kidnapped? Did her parents sell her into slavery? Are her parents also her handlers? All of these are very real possibilities that could lead to juvenile slavery, not just in the first century, but also now, in the twenty first century. In any event, this young lady is both a slave and a prisoner. She is a slave, because she is a piece of property owned by her handlers, and she is under their control. She is a prisoner because she is possessed and held captive by an evil spirit of divination, that allows her owners to make a fortune off of her ability to tell fortunes. People still look outside of the Scriptures, to other voices, in order to have their fortunes told. There is, apparently, still great interest in hearing wisdom that comes from someplace other than the Creator of the universe.

For reasons that we may never fully fathom, it took the Apostle Paul many days before he actually set this poor slave girl free from her imprisonment by the spirit of divination, and free from the bondage of slavery that her owners kept her in. I can’t judge Paul’s motives, but I can certainly judge my own. This girl is avidly promoting the mission of Paul and his companions. She is telling the absolute truth. She is pretty much the fan club of the mission. If somebody wanted to promote me in the same way that she is promoting the Apostle Paul, I would be delighted! I could go on an ego trip! But after many days of this blatant promotion of Paul’s ministry, Paul is not so much delighted, but instead, he is very much annoyed. And so with the power of the Most High God, Paul, the servant of God, releases this girl from the tyranny and the power of the evil one.

This act of mercy did not go well with the girl’s handlers and keepers. They suddenly come to realize that she is broken. She can’t tell fortunes any more. And this is a huge problem because the owners and keepers have lost what once was a very valuable source of income. And now, because she is broken, she has become useless and worthless to them. She is no longer an asset, she is merely a liability.

What do you suppose became of this slave girl? Luke doesn’t tell tell us. He is silent on the matter. But let us think about what we know about the followers of Jesus, and let us consider what might have become of her in the first century, and of what ought to become of her in the twenty first century.

Let us assume that she will now be abandoned by her keepers. She is broken. They will obviously have no further use for her. Their next concern, after exacting some revenge and retribution, is to lay their hands on another, perhaps different source of income.

But to the followers of Jesus in the community of Philippi, this girl could not have been worthless. She was, after all, a lost child of God; one of Jesus’ little lambs. I am very much convinced that this girl was adopted by the fellowship of believers there in Philippi. It may very well be that Luke assumed that we would automatically know that this is what would have happened, so he doesn’t feel the need to rehearse with us what is the very obvious.

We know that we could not, having witnessed a miracle of that magnitude in our own congregation, simply abandon or ignore this girl. We would make every attempt to reunite her with worthy loved ones, or we would see to it that she was adopted and nurtured and encouraged in some other way. One of us might even adopt her and raise her right here, in this community of faith. We would not abandon her.

In Philippi, this girl must have learned about and discovered, that as a child of God, she had tremendous worth and value. In that place, in the loving environment of the fellowship of believers, we can trust that this girl almost certainly became a follower of Jesus herself, and that she gloried in her new-found freedom. Anything that we can do for children, we ought to be doing.

True freedom can only come when we share our lives in community with others. True freedom comes when we participate in a community of believers where it is safe to share our joys, our sorrows, our hopes, our fears, and our love. True freedom comes when we know that we can be forgiven, no matter what our sins may be. True freedom comes when we are no longer enslaved or held captive by the powers of darkness. True freedom is relationship that nurtures and encourages.

God is always calling us into this kind of relationship. And God invites us, into relationship not only with him, but also with one another. And in this relationship we love, and we serve, and we help, and we participate in shared ministries, and we experience joy unimaginable, and we willingly and gladly call ourselves and each other servants of one another and slaves of Jesus Christ. And we are servants, or slaves, because, and only because we have been set free. Think about that paradox.

Unfortunately much of the rest of the world still does not understand this. Many will still choose to be slaves of someone or some thing other than Jesus Christ. The tragedy of these kinds of people is well told in the lives of the slave girl’s former owners. The former owners witnessed a mind blowing change in this girl’s life. They saw first hand how she was set free. It is possible that they might very well have been set free themselves, had they allowed for that possibility. But, like too many people that we already know, they could not imagine living their lives in any other way. They were imprisoned, and they were their own jailers. In a bizarre and paradoxical twist of fate, they were even slaves to the girl that they thought they were holding captive, because their very lives depended upon her, and the income that she provided for them.

And so what did they do? They attacked the freedom givers. They hauled Paul and his companions before the local constabulary, and accused them of all kinds of trumped up charges, not the least of which was, “These men…are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” Now, of course there wasn’t a bit of that charge that was true, except for the part where they said, “These men…are Jews.”

But a statement like that will get a hearing even today. No one likes outsiders coming in to change that which has always been. Even church members have been known to say things like, “We’ve never done it that way before.” The truth, had it come from these accusers, might well have sounded like this: “These Jews broke our slave girl. And now she can’t tell fortunes anymore. And we are out of a very good source of income.” But truth doesn’t always enter into the picture. It is always easier to deceive than it is to tell the truth. And truth wouldn’t wouldn’t have gotten these guys very far with the authorities. Too often, deception can seem so right and so proper, and so appropriate.

And in this case, deception accomplished its intended purpose. As a result of the trumped up charges, Paul and Silas were stripped of their clothing, and beaten with rods. And then, for good measure, they were given a severe flogging, and tossed into prison. The message is clear: There will be no strange customs advocated by outsiders in this place. We will keep things exactly the way that they are, and we will punish those who think or act otherwise.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it? These servants of God, whom we today admire, ended up in jail because they acted on behalf of God and set someone free. Slaves of Jesus Christ, who knew and understood true freedom, are now incarcerated because they brought the hope and the evidence of freedom to the community of Philippi. But even in prison, these slaves of Jesus were absolutely and totally free. At midnight, bruised and bleeding from their wounds, they decided to have a church service. They were singing and praying and worshiping God with all of the freedom that heaven can provide.

There is no other path in life to choose but this path. Yes, it is slavery, but it is the only slavery in which true freedom can be found. Think on these things.

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