Big Church Week Five: "Jailhouse Rock"

This week I am preaching the fifth installment of the sermon series, "Big Church" a study in the book of Acts.  The basic premise of this sermon series is that Jesus did not establish an institution, he established a movement.  Unfortunately, his followers over the years didn't get that memo because the Church in all of her tarnished glory is most definitely an institution.  Which is why, in my opinion, that so many people have given up on the Church.

But I think there's another way---and I am not alone.  There is a growing number of people who are waking up to the fact that Jesus did not create a mission for the Church, he created a church for His mission.  The mission, you see, was established long before the Church.  And it's high time we figured this out and got down to the business of moving the Movement Jesus founded.

This week we will be studying one of the more familiar stories in the book of Acts---the story of Paul & Silas in the Philippian jail from Acts 16:16-34.

16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. 19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
Let's break this down a bit...

The whole story begins when Paul heals a slave girl who is possessed with the "Spirit of Python"---a spirit of divination, the ability to tell the future.  The slave girl accosts Paul and Silas every day as they go to prayer and finally Paul gets so annoyed he heals her.  Why Paul didn't take pity on her the first time she accosted them is not clear, but he finally does heal her and her masters are suddenly left without their meal ticket.

A word about the translation "The Spirit of Python" is probably in order.  This is a clue that she is connected to the cult of Apollo Palatinus, the sun god and the god most closely connected with Caesar Augustus---who did very little to disuade people from making the connection.  Augustus---and subsequent Caesars---was often known as the "son of the most high."  So you can see that something funky is going on when the slave girl keeps declaring that Paul and Silas are servants of the "Most High God."

The owners then go on to accuse Paul and Silas not of theft, or damage to property, but sedition.  Their accusations take on a nationalistic tone and also are steeped in anti-Semitic fervor.  You might find the same kind of language in the anti-Semitic laws and propaganda of the Nazis in Germany.

The magistrates of the city order that Paul and Silas be summarily stripped naked and flogged publicly.  This process was known as coercitio, the word we get coercion from and was a way that the Romans would get evidence from suspects and to make an example of them to others who might be tempted to commit similar offenses.  It was a punishment meant for non-Roman citizens and so Paul would have been exempt from it had he exerted his rights.  He didn't do so, it seems---or at the very least if he did they ignored it.

Then Paul and Silas are thrown into prison---but even that wasn't good enough for these enemies of the state.  They are thrown into the center of the prison which was a space reserved for the worst criminals, who were often put there to die.  They are put into stocks which would have stretched their cut and bleeding limbs and back in horrible ways.

Then they start singing and praising God.  Some scholars believe that they may have sung Psalms like Psalm 102:19-20:

“The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Or maybe Psalm 79:11
May the groans of the prisoners come before you; with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die. 
And they may have concluded with Psalm 107:10, 13-16
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains, He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.
Then the jailhouse rocks. Literally.

The jail comes apart crashing all around the prisoners and freeing them all from their bonds, including Paul and Silas.  When this happens the jailer comes running in and is about to commit suicide.  He knows that if any prisoners escape under his watch his life is forfeit.  That's how the Romans worked.  Suicide was preferable to disgrace.  It appears from the text that he believes he might be the object of divine retribution for the way he treated Paul and Silas, who now appear to actually be servants of "The Most High God."

But the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are all still present and accounted for despite the fact that they could have taken off and run to freedom.

Then the jailer asks an incredible question:  "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

This is really a question for the ages, isn't it?  A better translation of this question is, "Gentlemen, will you please tell me how I can get out of this mess?"  I know that when I was growing up, the preachers who used this passage of Scripture in their sermons read a whole lot into the motives behind this question.

The bottom line is this:  This jailer knew nothing of Jesus, of Heaven or Hell.  He knew that something incredible had happened, that his life was in danger and that he needed rescue and deliverance.

Here's the cool part of the story...  No matter what his intention, the answer to the question is the same:  "Believe in the Lord Jesus..."

N.T. Wright wrote about this moment, "Believe in the Lord Jesus is always the answer to the question of how to be rescued at whatever level and whatever sense..."  When Jesus is declared as Lord of your life---all of the ways that you find yourself caught, captured, imprisoned, in dire straits... seem to lose their power.

When Paul answers the jailer in the way that he does it's not a changing of the subject---it's a deepening of it.  He doesn't avoid the answer to the jailer's specific question, but he does take the question deeper answering what has been described as "world-deep, heart-deep, God deep questions," that lie underneath the jailer's specific need for deliverance.

And this question---the one that is at the heart of this story---is simply this:

Where do I find true freedom? 

We need a little clarification at this point.  This desire for true freedom, which I believe lives in the hearts of every human being, is not about:

Getting in touch with your "inner self..."
Committing yourself to a life of worship prayer and good works...

It's not even about believing particular theories or doctrines, although lots of Christians try to tell you differently.

True freedom is found quite simply in the moments when we realize and confess that Jesus is Lord, that our belief in his Lordship is not only a saving belief---it's the key to liberty.

The Movement of the Church moves when people are set free with these words:  Jesus is Lord.

What does this freedom look like?  Not what you'd expect, I can assure you.

Think about the story we just read for a moment... and more specifically think about the people in the story.

Because Paul declares that Jesus is Lord, the slave girl is set free from her slavery to a false god, and an idolatrous belief system that trapped her and enslaved her.

But she was still a slave wasn't she?  That didn't change.

Paul and Silas are free in Christ, this much is evident.  They believe that Jesus is Lord and it's this belief that results in behavior that lands them in prison after being cruelly flogged.

Doesn't seem really all that fair, does it?

And what about all of the prisoners in the jail?  The whole place falls apart, their chains are loosed, they could totally make a break for it and find some freedom---maybe catch a camel train to Egypt or something---join the Syrian Foreign Legion, or the People's Front of Judea (Monty Python joke),,,

But they don't go anywhere... they stay right there in the jail.

Weird, right?

And then there is the jailer who is in charge of the jail.  He was feeling pretty good about himself before the earthquake.  His life may have not been perfect by any means but at least, he could tell himself, he wasn't as bad off as the poor buggers in his jail...

Until his whole life falls apart and he realizes that what he thought was freedom is really a prison.

Theologian and preacher Will Willimon tells the story of a talk that he did at a large denominational meeting about the state of gender equality in the Church.  An angry woman arose and began to rail at Willimon declaring that it was the government and not the Church that had been at the forefront of every move toward gender equality.  She continued to indict the Church while she touted all of the progress that had been made on behalf of women by the government toward equal pay, equal rights, etc.

She had a point, to be sure.

Then Willimon related how just that week he'd read a study that lung cancer, heart disease, hypertension and stress related issues among women were the same as men for the first time in history.

Sometimes our versions of freedom aren't all that... well, free.

So here's a big hairy question.  What is holding you captive today?  To which some of you might reply, "What? Are you serious?  I am held captive by no one, and nothing!  So there!"  Or something to that effect.

Okay.  How do you feel about your job?  Do you find yourself thinking about work all of the time---either because you love what you do, or you don't.  Maybe you come home and can't wait for some peace and quiet so you can start doing work again.  Or maybe you come home and sit around stewing and stressed because you are miserable about having to return to your job in the morning.

Maybe you are held captive by an addiction.  And here's where it gets tricky because we always hold up certain kinds of addictions and condemn those, but let a whole bunch of other things go without so much as a second glance.  But let's say for the sake of argument that maybe you are addicted to some pretty devastating things---like alcohol, drugs or pornography.  It feels a lot like being in prison sometimes doesn't it?

There are other addictions, though.  Maybe your drug of choice is the food that you eat in mass quantities---so much so that you feel trapped in your own body. Or maybe you are addicted to the rush that comes from shopping.  Every single one of these addictions produces the same kind of chemical reaction in your brain as taking drugs... so yeah.

Maybe you are held captive by your need for entertainment, your constant need for stimulation, noise, action, you name it.  You've been held captive by this for so long that you have no idea what it's like to simply be still and hear your own thoughts---which is why you stepped into that prison to begin with, let's be honest.

There's other prisons to be sure---prisons of self-indulgence, bad relationships, self-destructive behavior, information...

And every one of these prisons is created by none other than you... and me.  Yet we walk around believing the lie that we are free, truly free, outside of the sort of freedom that comes from Jesus Christ....
The sort of freedom that brings deliverance to our souls, peace to our troubled minds, and hope for our breaking hearts.

A friend of mine told me the following story about his journey out of an addiction to crack cocaine.  His life was out of control, he was miles away from his family and hopelessly addicted---trapped in a prison of his own making.  He'd fled from home to be free, to be loosed from the constraints of his God-fearing family.

He called his mother on Mother's Day and remembers listening to her crying and praying for him on the phone.  He remembers telling her not to worry, that he was doing fine, that everything was under control---and he also remembers smoking from a nasty crack pipe while he was telling her all these things.

When he hung up the phone he collapsed in agony, weeping and crying out to God to help him.  He'd never felt so low in his life, so trapped, so imprisoned.

But something stirred in his heart then.  He knew that the only way out of the prison he'd built was if he gave his heart, his body, his everything to Christ.  To declare that "Jesus is Lord," for the first time in his life.

Years have past since that moment and now my friend finds himself happily married with two beautiful children---playing and leading worship in the praise band at his church.

And guess what?

Now he fells free.  Because Jesus is Lord.

The Movement of the Church moves when people are set free with these words:  Jesus is Lord.

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