Binding the Oppressor and Freeing the Bound

Drew’s sermon from May 12th, 2013. The text for the sermon was Acts 16:16-40. You should also listen to the song, below.

Binding the Oppressor and Freeing the Bound

As Paul and Silas are walking down to the river to pray with the women who meet there, they notice that she is following them again. They thought she had gotten tired last night, trudging slowly behind them, voice raw from shouting, finally leaving after they went home to sleep. But here she was again this morning, just as she had been the past few days, though a little worse for wear. Her voice was raspier, breathing heavier, but there she was behind them, saying “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It was a true statement, though it could be interpreted in too many ways for it to be useful. The people of Philippi thought that Zeus was the most high God, people in Syria thought Baal, people in Rome, Jupiter. So even if Most High was a term used at times by the Prophets for the God, no passerby in Philippi would know which “Most High God” she was referring too.

But that wasn’t the problem. Paul was thrown out of Iconium, had been stoned by the people of Lystra, and had a thorn in his flesh that he begged for God to relieve. He could deal with the vaguely syncretistic proclamations of a possessed slave girl. The problem was that she was exhausted. She had no control over herself, and the screaming had taken its toll on her. Her eyes had lost their light, and her body swayed listlessly as she trudged on behind them.

The scene was too much for Paul. He was troubled by it, Luke tells us, though one wonders why it failed to trouble him sooner. But finally, he turns and says to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And she is free. We do not know any more than that, she disappears from the story after that. My hope, my prayer for her, and all those like her in our world, is that they find rest and freedom from the powers that oppress them, both physical and spiritual.

Of course this rest of hers comes at someone else’s expense. The ones who have been profiting off of her labor will now have to find a new way to make their money. As far as they’re concerned, Paul has not cast out an evil spirit, Paul has irreparably damaged a valuable piece of their property.

These men are the villains of our story. But like any good villain, they are more like us than we want to admit. Consider a man whose wife has gone back to work, or school, or some other community or political involvement that has her out of the house. He comes home from work, at five o’clock, as he usually does, only to realize that he now has to cook his own dinner, as she usually does. He is upset, and with reason. He has lost something. But he’ll bite his tongue because he knows that what he has lost is nothing compared to what has been gained.

These men, however, do not have this man’s perspective. They are not willing to make themselves low so that another can be lifted up. This is sin. Sin at its heart is selfishness, it is the choice of our own selves over someone else, our own desires over God’s. But these villains do not deserve our hatred, only pity, with maybe a little bit of sympathy. We too have lost perspective before. And we know as well as they do that sin is a harsher master than any other we will face. Sin forces us to live in fear and rage, it denies our humanity as we seek to deny the humanity of others.

Slaves to their anger, they are powerless against the name of Jesus, which freed the slave girl from the spirit. But that does not mean they have no power, for the powers and principalities of the world are nothing if not ingenious in their struggle to fight against the one who would free us. The owners drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates. They trump up charges, they appeal to the basest instincts of the people. Everyone acts in fear. The owners are afraid of their future, the people are afraid of outsiders, the magistrates are afraid of the people, and the jailor is afraid of the magistrates. Everyone acts in fear, except for Paul and Silas, that is. Paul and Silas are unafraid.

In their fear and anger the powers that be have brought the machine to bear on Paul and Silas. They bring pain, they bring humiliation, they bring confinement and darkness. But their reliance on the tools of terror is their weakness. For Paul and Silas have been freed from fear through their knowledge of Christ’s love. As it is written, perfect love casts out fear. And thus this big system of domination, this machine of control, can do nothing to Paul and Silas. They will not be controlled by fear or shame, or pain, and the powers that be have nothing else to work with.

Luke tells us that Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns all night. We don’t really know what hymns that they sung, we can only guess at what parts of the Bible might have once been pieces of hymns, or what ancient tunes may once have held those words. But if you’re willing to imagine with me, let me suggest Ella’s Song, by Sweet Honey on the Rock. It seems appropriate, and goes like this:

            We who believe in freedom cannot rest…

           We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Several of the prisoners have wandered over to listen to these men in jail singing about freedom.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest

            We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.  

A low rumble reverberates in the air, as a man with a deep voice joins in the song, the volume of the song grows as others join their voices with Paul and Silas

  We who believe in freedom cannot rest

            We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

A deeper rumble fills the room, one no human voice can make, as the very walls begin to shake.

        We who believe in freedom cannot rest

            We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

The sound of singing is drowned out by the noise of crashing rock, clanging bars and chains. The prisoners watch in shock as their shackles fall off, and the doors of their cells fall open.

In any case, their bonds are loosed, the doors that held them have been opened, the jailor who keeps them has frozen in panic. Now is the time to make their daring escape. But they go nowhere.

Because unlike the slave owners, unlike the magistrates, unlike the jailer, Paul and Silas are already free. They have nothing to run from.

The jailer, however, is still a prisoner to fear. He turns his sword on himself. But Paul yells for him to stop. No one, Paul, Silas, or the other prisoners has gone. The jailer has been saved. But he asks anyway, “What must I do to become saved?” He sees that there are deeper forces at work than the ones that currently govern his life.  The answer is simple. As these men saved you by not moving to save themselves, you must follow the example of the Lord Jesus, who willingly made himself a slave that we might be free.  He cared for us more than he cared for himself, and so you must do also.

They broke bread together, and he washed the disciples in water, and they baptized him in water and the Holy Spirit. When morning came, the magistrates tried to discretely free the apostles, but Paul refuses to be hidden. He claims his rights as a Roman citizen, and once again the magistrates cower in fear. They come and apologize to the men they flogged and imprisoned.

William Willimon, preacher and scholar, noticed something interesting about this story. He says everyone in the story who appears to be free, the girl’s owners, the magistrates, the jailer, is shown by the story to be enslaved. And everyone who seems to be enslaved, the poor girl, Paul, and Silas, by the end of the story, is free.

This is what the Gospel does.  The Gospel stops death and restores life. The Gospel binds the strong who would enslave, and frees those who have been enslaved. The Gospel has the power to free us (and all captives), and though the powers that the principalities will throw everything they can to keep us in captivity, if we put our trust in God we will remain free.

We must go out, like Paul and Silas, and proclaim this freedom, and resist the powers that oppress and terrorize, until all captives have been set free, and none are bound by oppression and violence, sin and anger. We must go and proclaim, we must bind oppressors and free the oppressed, until the day of the Lord comes and all captives are released, all the oppressed go free. And then, we who believe in freedom can finally rest.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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