Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.

Acts 16:16-34, from The Message

        This was the first time Paul landed in jail, but it would not be the last. And the other apostles had already been down this road, some of them more than once.

        Early on in the life of the church, back when Paul was was doing his best to have Christians locked up and worse, the apostles were arrested and thrown into prison. We don’t know what, or if, they sang behind bars; the story says only that an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and told them to go to the temple and tell people there “the whole message about this life.” The next morning, when the temple police went to bring the apostles to their hearing, they found the doors locked and the guards on duty—but the cells were empty.

        The authorities were “perplexed,” the story says. 1

        Sometime after that, after Stephen had been stoned to death for preaching the gospel and the apostle James had been killed with the sword, Peter was imprisoned again. Taking no chances, King Herod bound Peter with not one, but two, chains, put two soldiers in the cell with him (one on either side) and stationed four squads of soldiers outside the door. There would be no jailbreaks under his watch.

        But nighttime rolled around and, well, you know what that means: An angel of the Lord appeared. A light shone all around. And—I love this part—the angel tapped Peter on the shoulder and said, “Oh Pe-ter. Get up and get dressed and follow me.” His chains fell off, and Peter had followed the angel out of the cell and out into the city before he realized he was not dreaming; he really was free! Being at loose ends, he decided to go to the house of a believer named Mary, where a lot of people had gathered to pray for him. He knocked at the gate; the maid, Rhoda, came to answer and, shocked to see it was Peter, she left him standing there and ran back in to the house, saying, “Guess who?”

        “You’re out of your mind!” the others told her (which, as I recall, is a common New Testament response to women sharing great news). Meanwhile, the story says, Peter kept knocking.

        I could go on (it’s a great story 2), but you get the point: The good news of God’s healing, life-saving grace simply cannot be contained or suppressed—not by death, not by injustice, not by the powerful, not by chains or bars or prison walls. One way or another, the transforming power of God’s Spirit will do its work: liberating us from all that limits, enslaves, entombs, closets, and binds; providing ways of escape from the messes we get ourselves into; delivering us from our brokenness; waking us up; and beckoning us out of our chains and into the light of freedom.

        God calls us to freedom and fullness of life—but not only for ourselves. We are called to freedom and wholeness so that we might also liberate others.

        Jesus said a lot about freedom: Not just how the truth would set us free, but how living in love and trust—caring for one another, turning the other cheek, loving even our enemies, seeking God’s way first—would free us from the oppressive, divisive, demeaning ways of the world and liberate us from worry, striving, and brokenness. Paul went so far as to say that freedom is part of Christ’s very essence. “The Lord is the Spirit,” he told the church in Corinth, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 3

        Who knew, right?

        When is the last time you thought of God and freedom in the same sentence? When is the last time you got up on Sunday morning excited about coming to worship, saying, “I need to get me a little freedom this morning?” When is the last time you felt overwhelmed by your life and overcome by the world and sat down to pray—and found a little freedom, some peace in your heart?

        Well, the slave girl in our story first recognized freedom—“a way of salvation”—in the gospel message of Paul and Silas. She called them slaves—of God!—but she was the one possessed by a spirit and owned by humans. When Paul cast out the spirit, she was twice liberated.

        The jailer was little more than a slave to his Roman employers; if his prisoners escaped, he would be killed. But Paul and Silas treated him with respect and concern, prompting him to say: “Tell me, how do I get out of this mess? What do I have to do to really live, to be truly free and whole?”

        One of the reasons the early church grew and spread so rapidly was that people recognized in the life and teachings of Jesus a way out of the death-dealing ways of the world and a way toward the fullness of life. People who longed for freedom found it, paradoxically, in the teachings of an executed mystic, in a love feast of bread and wine, and in a very different way of life: communities of imperfect, imprisoned, searching, even annoying people who are committed to loving and supporting one another regardless.

        I’ll be the first to concede that the institutional church lost its way, and for hundreds of years operated as an extension of the controlling authority of the powerful. All the world over, agents of the church told entire populations that they had to surrender their own culture to know God. But not even the church could contain the power of the Spirit; not even the most imperialistic missionaries could extinguish the human spirit; even the most repressive fundamentalist churches cannot smother the human hunger for love, redemption, and meaning.

        Where the Spirit is, there is freedom.

        In the Middle Ages, women found it in the church. African American slaves found it. Through long centuries of racism, sexism, homophobia and all kinds of privilege and judgment, countless poor, oppressed, repressed, and discounted people have found freedom in the Spirit—sometimes in spite of the church and sometimes even in the church. They have found their true worth in Jesus; they have discovered their God-given power in the Spirit; in all the human weakness of the church they have been freed to develop and exercise their gifts and callings.

        Have we?

        The jailer in our story knew his way of life was a mess. He knew he needed deliverance.

        Do we?

        Right about now I could take this sermon another direction: I could remind us all of the grave injustice of mass incarceration in our nation, and talk about how falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color. I could exhort us all to get out and do something about it. And that we must.

        But we, too, are called to freedom. And yet most of us are bound by

        something or other—a fear, an unhealed wound, a regret, shame, bitterness, guilt, grief, a lack of forgiveness, a festering anger, an unwillingness to give ourselves away. We may be sitting in a prison cell and not even realize it. We  may be grumbling about the burdens and restrictions on our lives and, all the while, the door leading to new life stands wide open. The chains that bind us will fall off if we would only get up and wake up.

        And so I invite you to consider this morning the places where you are bound, the itches in your soul that need a good scratch, the gifts and passions and loves that long to break forth: all God’s invitations to freedom, wholeness, and fullness of life.

        Well, there are angels hovering round. No, not those angels.

        These are angels of freedom. One of them may tap you on the shoulder and say, “I want to get to know you; please tell me your story over coffee or tea or brunch.” Another angel may tap you on the shoulder and ask you to host Coffee Hour or invite you to participate in some other ministry. Another may hug you and invite you to unburden your soul. Any number of these angels will encourage you to sing your way through the darkest night. And a whole church-full of them will remind you that you—yes, you!—are a beloved child of the Most High God, creator of heaven and earth, that you were created in God’s image, out of love for love, that this is the essence of who you are and the purpose of your life.

Paul and Silas began to shout
The jail door opened, and they walked out
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

1 Check it out here: Acts 5:17-42
2 Read all about it here: Acts 12:1-10
3 2 Corinthians 3:17