Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26
Perhaps some of you are familiar with this quote. It comes from C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem With Pain, and he writes, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” What better quote today to go along with our reading from Acts, where Paul and the other prisoners are put in shackles. Yet, as we discover in this story, they are not the true prisoners at all.
Indeed, this entire excerpt from the book of Acts is laced with double meanings. It is not only simply a record of Paul’s history, of the church’s victories, a listing of miracles, or a record of early converts to the church. Although Acts certainly is all of these things, it is much more than the simple sum of its parts. If we simply skim over this account as a history, we lose much of its meaning. This has been true all along for the Gospel of Luke, where the author takes great care to set the narrative of Jesus’ life in the context of greater history. Since The Acts of the Apostles is really just part two of the Gospel of Luke, it makes sense that the author continues this practice here.
To unwrap the parallel meaning from its necessary historical context, we can take a deeper look at the characters and power structures present in this story.
In this week’s readings, we see Paul taking the message of Christ to more gentiles, this time in the Roman colony of Phillipi. Taking the gospel message of Jesus Christ to all that would hear, regardless of nationality, creed, or circumstance is Paul’s greater purpose in his travels. There are no exceptions. Paul preaches the good news to all who will have him and anyone willing to listen.
At this point in our account, Paul has already won converts for Christ in the city of Phillipi, a Roman colony in what is now present-day Greece. This city was about as Roman as one could find without actually traveling to Rome itself. Some time after the first conversions in the city, Paul and Silas come upon a slave girl. This slave girl possesses a Pythian spirit of divination, considered to be the mark of and a blessing from the Roman god, Apollo. This girl’s gifts follow in the tradition of the oracles of Delphi. The text suggests that the girl follows Paul and Silas for some time, repeatedly claiming that, “these men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Paul casts out her demon, removing the girl’s gift, and thus her only agency, or her only small claim to power, as a slave. The slave girl’s cameo in this story is brief. After the removal of her “demon” we see no more of her. I wonder then, how this “healing” affected her. We hear no more of her, so she most likely did not become a convert. We see no celebration of her exorcism, not even by herself. As a lover of character driven stories, I find it unfortunate that this slave girl serves only as a narrative hinge. I would love more of her story after her encounter with Paul.
Regardless, this encounter spurs Paul to exactly the place that God wants him to be; in prison. In casting out the “demon”, Paul has made a statement of the superiority of his God over the gods of the Romans, who are deeply woven into the cultural and political identity of these people. He has also dared to threaten the owners’ profits. Paul and Silas are thrown into prison because they dared to challenge the system of money and gold.
While we may have difficulty wrapping our minds around a “demon possession” or powers of diving the future, corrupt systems certainly are within our mental grasp. We can completely understand a corrupt system that devalues human lives at the expense of a greater profit margin. We can completely understand the evils of slavery, even as it still exists today. Follow in the footsteps of Paul, and you might find yourself in just as much trouble.
There are echoes of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection in this story. Paul and Silas are drug through the city, whipped, stripped of their clothes. After their flogging they are imprisoned and thrown in the inner chamber. After an earthquake, the prison is shaken apart, as are, mysteriously, their shackles. They are free.
But Paul and Silas have been free in Christ all along. There is no need for them to escape, and so they do not. Instead, the focus of the narrative shifts to the prison guard. He fears what will happen to him if his political prisoners escape. He decides it is better for him to face death than to face the punishment that surely awaits him if his prisoners make a break for it. The shadow of the Roman Empire looms large here, for something beyond the guard’s control to determine a punishment so severe that he would prefer to take his own life rather than face the Empire. The guard is in a prison of his empire’s own making, a prison of his own employment, and a prison of his own dread. It is locked from the inside with the keys he holds in his own hands.
And so the guard then asks a simple but consequential question of Paul and Silas: “What must I do to be saved?” What might the Roman guard have meant by this? Did he simply want protection from authorities above him who might hold him accountable for a prison break? Did he view Paul and Silas as “divine men” with great power who might grant him some gift? Perhaps he did not fully understand what he was asking, but in his grasping for answers, many of us can relate. The sense that life has spun out of control often characterizes the questions we ask of God.
The guard’s question is complex, but the answer is clear. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Beyond a surface historical account of conversion, this is a story of so much more. It is a critique of a system that allowed slave owners to exploit a young girl, of a city that would flog and imprison someone for helping the downtrodden. It is a critique of a system of punitive violence where a prison guard would fear for his own life over an earthquake far beyond his own control.
This is a divine statement about what God thinks of the prisons of our own construction. They will be shaken apart. They will not be able to contain the good news that everyone is deeply loved by God – even Roman guards; even slaves; even those of us with our own demons.
We can choose to unlock this prison we have trapped ourselves in. For it is locked from the inside. And on the outside God is calling to us to not be afraid, to step out, to stand up. To see people as God sees, and love as God loves, to risk as God risks. To make known the good news that the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world, shaking it, remaking it.
To remake us.
To set the captives free.
The power of the resurrection, the in breaking of the kingdom of God in our midst, cannot be stopped; not by crosses, not by tombs, not even by prisons.