“Freedom in Christ” Colchester Federated Church, June 2, 2019, (Acts 16:16-34) Seventh Sunday of Easter

Last Sunday we heard the story of Paul and his friends traveling to Macedonia.  They ended up in Philippi and encountered Lydia—a businesswoman who sold purple cloth.  Lydia was moved by Paul’s message, had her entire household baptized, and invited Paul and his friends to stay in her home as they went about their mission.  This Sunday the story continues.  Paul and his companions remain in Philippi and keep preaching the Gospel.

Though one day, Paul and Silas meet a slave woman who possessed a spirit that enabled her to predict the future.  Because of this spirit, she made a lot of money for her owners as a fortune-teller.  She began to follow them for many days and shouted that they were servants of God and proclaiming a way of salvation.  We hear that this annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned around, looked at the woman, and said to the spirit within her, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!”[1]

The spirit does leave.  But her owners realize that all their future hopes for making money off their fortune-telling slave are now gone as well.  And they are mad about it.  So they grab Paul and Silas and drag them before the legal officials in the center of town.  They accuse them of a crime that the Romans always took seriously—disturbing the peace.  “These people are causing an uproar in our city.  They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.”  Paul and Silas are stripped of their clothing, beaten with rods, and thrown into prison as a result of these accusations made against them.

Then this rather strange story from the Acts of the Apostles gets even more interesting.  Paul and Silas are in prison and they’re praying and singing hymns around midnight.  The other prisoners are listening from their cells and an earthquake shakes the foundation and the doors fly open and everyone’s chains come loose.  The jailer awakes and sees that the doors are open and he’s about to kill himself because can you imagine the consequences he would face as the jailer who let all these people escape when he was supposed to be guarding them?  Paul stops him, “Don’t harm yourself!  We’re all here!”[2]

The jailer falls trembling before Paul and Silas, asking what he must do to be rescued.  And instead of helping him figure out what to explain to the human authorities (the authorities that the jailer inevitably answered to as part of his job), Paul and Silas speak to him about the state of his soul.  Around midnight.  In a prison whose foundations just got shaken.  Paul and Silas tell the jailer that he needs to believe in Jesus.  Just like Lydia, the jailer welcomes them into his home and they immediately baptize this man and his family.  The story ends with the jailer taking care of their wounds and providing hospitality, with his family overjoyed because everyone has come to believe in God.

Another peculiar story.  We can take it literally, we can take it more metaphorically.  But at its heart, it’s another story about the power of faith and the power of community.  A story about seeing the light and being there for people in their moments of distress and despair.  Paul and Silas were there for the woman who was enslaved because she was enslaved on multiple levels.  Paul and Silas were there for the jailer and his family.  Paul literally saved his life and then saved his soul.  The jailer and his family responded to this mercy by being there for Paul and Silas, inviting them into his home and washing their wounds.  We can see that relationships develop across boundaries and across categories of people that weren’t normally crossed at this time.  Remember that Paul’s an outsider, he is a foreigner in a foreign land.  Slave and free.  Jew and Greek.  Male and female.  All these categories that were used to separate people from one another are once again crossed.

It’s also worth noting that there are five different conflict scenes throughout the Acts of the Apostles that result in Paul being arrested and accused of breaking Roman or Jewish law.  It happened here in Philippi (this is the first of his arrests in Acts) and it will happen in Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, and Jerusalem on down the road.  Paul didn’t have an easy time in his ministry.  He got beaten up and thrown into prison throughout his journeys.  And it’s not hard to see why.  Paul frees this enslaved woman in our story from Acts 16, performing an exorcism (as Jesus often did.)  He gets into trouble for ruining her moneymaking value for her owners.  Of course he gets into trouble for that. The story then shows an act of God in breaking those chains that bound the prisoners.  Paul and Silas minister to their jailer in his time of fear, still hurting from their earlier beating.  Paul was often in hot water, in situations that put his life in danger.

In many ways, this text shows that even in the midst of dangerous situations, God desires freedom.  And that we ultimately have freedom in Christ.  When people attempt to live out their Christian faiths and act judgmental or miserable or holier than thou it’s tempting to ask, “Do you think that you’re doing this whole following Christ thing right?”  Because following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ (while not always easy) can bring peace to our souls.  Treating one another as we would want to be treated.  Loving others whether we deem them worthy or not.  Forgiving.  Seeing others with the eyes of Jesus.  All of these ways that we can be in the world as people of faith can transform our lives.  And if there’s no joy that we’re ever experiencing as a Christian and no sense of freedom, then that can give us pause.

While we may have various views about creeds and catechisms (especially given previous experiences we may have from other denominations), there’s a wonderful line about living out our faiths in joy from the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The question is, “What is the chief aim of humanity?”  And the answer the Catechism gives is, “To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”  Glorify.  Enjoy.  That’s what the chief aim of human beings is.  And when we do glorify God and when we do enjoy God—it means that we’re living in a connected way that makes us whole.

It’s worth checking in with ourselves and remembering what’s the point of it all.  Because sometimes we get stuck.  We get stuck in these places where we forget who God created us to be.  We forget what we’re passionate about.  We forget what brings that spark to our lives.  We forget that in Jesus Christ we have freedom.

There’s this feel-good movie about this conundrum called Chef.  And in the movie the chef, Carl Casper, works for an uptight owner at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles.  They get word that a food critic is coming to evaluate the restaurant and Carl has all of these new and innovative ideas for a menu that night.  Food that hasn’t been featured before.  Food full of flavor and creativity.  But the restaurant owner (played by Dustin Hoffman) vetoes the new ideas and encourages Carl to stick to the classics, to play it safe.  The food critic comes and eats the food and writes a nasty review about both the standard, unoriginal food and about the chef who prepared that food.

Carl gets riled up about this and calls out the food critic on Twitter to come back to the restaurant to taste his brand new creative menu.  He wants to push himself and push some boundaries in the kitchen.  But once again, the restaurant owner convinces Carl to play it safe.  And this incident ends with Carl confronting the food critic at his table and scooping up the chocolate lava cake he had made in his bare hand and having a complete and total meltdown that’s filmed by some restaurant goers and goes viral all over the internet.  Carl quits and has no immediate plans for his future as he just walked away from a fancy restaurant and made a fool of himself to the world.

In some ways, his journey back to the chef and the person he truly is inside begins after that meltdown.  Carl goes to Miami and ends up launching a food truck which he, his son, and his former sous chef from the fancy restaurant drive all the way back to L.A.  Visiting cities along the way.  Cooking the food that ignites his passion again.  And feeling freer in that food truck than he had in so long in that restaurant.  The chains that had bound him to conform to what others believed he should be cooking no longer held him back.  Carl embraces his vocation as a chef full of new ideas and passion for what he does.  Honestly if you’re ever in a slump or just having a bad day—watch Chef.  You’re welcome.

Because whether we are contemplating the woman who was enslaved and possessed by a spirit, Paul and Silas, the jailer, or Chef Carl Casper—we can see that freedom doesn’t always look as it appears.  In the words of Rev. David G. Forney (a Presbyterian Pastor), “The irony is that those who seem to be in prison are actually free in Christ, and the jailer, who supposedly has the keys to freedom, is actually the one shackled by his duty.”  We can’t gloss over the fact that the jailer was about to kill himself because he knew that he would be blamed for this prison break.  He was even willing to take his own life because of that.  We can become so focused on our duties (whatever they may be), that we forget that our lives are also about being free in Jesus Christ.  Because we can glorify God and enjoy God forever.

Rev. Forney goes on to ask, “What duties shackle us today?  Is it our jobs, in which we go through the motions but are not generative?  Perhaps it is an insatiable need for entertainment that prompts us to leave the TV, or the computer, or the radio on from the time we wake up till we fall asleep.  What holds us captive?”[3]

That answer isn’t going to be the same for all of us.  Though these are questions worth asking, “What duties shackle us today?” and “What holds us captive?”  No matter our answers, we remember that we do have freedom in Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Acts 16:18, Common English Bible.
[2] Acts 16:28.
[3] David G. Forney, “Pastoral Perspective of Acts 16:16-34” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2, 526.