May 29, 2022 Reflection and Worship Link

Life After Death Living as an Easter People

Believe and Be Saved

Scripture Reading: Acts 16: 16-34

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This morning we have for our consideration a well- known legend of the early church.  I call it a legend because it’s one of those stories from the bible that at minimum contains a fair amount of exaggeration and at most never actually happened at all.  But as I always say, the fact that the story might not be literally true, doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in the story.  This is story that in part is meant is meant to point out the way that the leaders of the early church, the church that began to take shape in the first century after Jesus’ death, saw their ministry as a continuation of his. They saw their mission as one that was meant to shake up the foundations of injustice bringing healing and new life to many.  It’s a story that invites us to believe in a life-changing power that has the capacity to break through the bonds of injustice, open prison door and truly set us free.

The story goes that Paul and Silas, two of the first apostles, were visiting the city of Philippi in order to strengthen and encourage the church that was forming there.  Every day they travelled from their lodging to the place of prayer.  One day a slave girl, who was a fortune teller, started hounding them and exposing them as slaves of God. She repeated this pattern day after day until Paul got so annoyed with her that he turned around and commanded the spirit that was in her to come out and the girl was healed.

We might be tempted to enter into a discussion about whether or not the ability to predict the future or fortune tell, is something one needs to be healed from, but that would just distract us from the jucier bits of this anecdote which have to do with the way the slave girl’s owners react when they find out their source of income, her capacity to fortune tell, has now been taken away.

They are infuriated.  They drag Paul and Silas off to the authorities who strip them and beat them and throw them into jail making sure they are put in the deepest cell available.

All of this serves as a fine illustration that in 1st century Phillipi, as in 21st century North America, if you really want to stir up trouble all you need to do is threaten their source of income.  It’s why politicians have a hard time passing financially costly legislation to protect our planet.  It’s why we saw a certain amount of push back around public health orders that impacted livelihoods. It’s why we had a freedom convoy.

So the irony of this story about the slave girl who is set free of her fortune telling spirit is that her owners are the ones who are left enslaved, bound up in a system that oppresses some for the sake of others, caught up in their fear about losing their status, if they lose their income.  They are trapped in a world where looking out for number one ensures that number one will be taken care of first.

In many ways the fears of these 1st century slave owners are not so different from our fears, the places they get trapped in, not so different from the places we get trapped in: fears about image, self-perception and status, control, getting ahead and whether or not we will have enough. The very same things that kept them up at night, keep us up at night.

Speaking of the night, let’s turn our attention now away from the slave girl and her owners and to the scene that unfolds the evening after Paul and Silas have been thrown into jail. Here we will find another character who even though he has the keys to the prison is also locked up inside his fear.

The time is midnight and Paul and Silas beaten and bound are now deep inside the jail.  They are praying and singing hymns surrounded by other prisoners when suddenly a violent earthquake begins to shake the foundations of the building. (Note the echo of Matthew’s version of the resurrection that also has an earthquake) The prison doors are flung wide open and the inmates chains are unfastened falling to the floor.

When the jailer who seems to have fallen asleep on the job is awakened, he is so terrified by what he sees, prison doors swinging on their hinges and chains thrown all around, his first reaction is to pull out his sword to kill himself.

His first thought is that he has failed at his job.  He was supposed to keep an eye on the prisoners but somehow they have sprung themselves free.  Surely he will be fired, maybe even locked in the stocks himself.  There will be no food for his family, nothing but shame to live on, so he may as well get it over with and put himself out of his misery.  

Now what I find so interesting about this jailer is that he hasn’t even checked to see if the prisoners have actually escaped.  He just assumes they have gone.  He sees the open doors to the cells and he prepares to take his own life based on nothing more than a fearful thought.  The fear of what someone might or might not do to him because of something that may or may not have happened.

Many of us here at Mount Seymour have learned how to do The Work of Byron Katie with the help of facilitator Caitlin Frost.  It’s a simple process that helps us question our limiting beliefs and stressful thoughts by asking four questions:  Is it true this thought that you are holding?  Can you absolutely know that it’s true?  How do you react, what happens when you believe this thought?  Who would you be without this thought?  Turn this thought around.

Often, when we do this process, we discover that the stressful thoughts we have are more based in fear than in reality. We believe our fearful thoughts more than we believe reality.

I’ve always loved what author Yann Martel says about fear in his award winning novel Life of Pi. “Fear is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always.”

In our story today, the jailer only has to think that the prisoners he was charged with guarding have fled the jail to conjure up enough fear to make him want to take his life.  He doesn’t stop to ask himself if his fears are true.  How often do we do the same thing?

American theologian Frederick Buechner talks about the prisons we create out of our own lives through the thoughts and feelings we hold hostage inside ourselves, about the memories we have that are too painful to deal with; or the addiction  that we can’t seem to kick; or the sense of inadequacy we conceal and so on  and so forth.  Eventually, he says, we become our own jailers and our own worst enemies.

That certainly appears to be true of the jailer in this morning’s story and its true for many of us as well. But in a shocking turn of events in our story, the jailer discovers that contrary to what he had initially thought when he saw the prison doors swinging in the wind, the prisoners had not escaped.  His worst fears were not to be realized and thankfully he was saved before he took his life.

“Don’t harm yourself” Paul calls out in a loud voice “we’re haven’t left.  We are all here.”   Paul and Silas know that if a door opened for them meant a door closed for another, the door was really closed to them all.  They knew the truth that my freedom is bound up in yours.

The story ends with the jailer taking Paul and Silas home to meet his family and professing his faith in Jesus Christ and getting baptized.  And in another interesting twist of events, the authorities apologize to Paul and Silas for having thrown them in jail.

The conclusion we might want to draw from all of this is that getting baptized and becoming a Christian will set us free and put all our fears to rest.  But anyone who has hung out for very long with us baptized, so-called Christians know this simply isn’t the case. We can run off a list of fears and anxieties just as easily as anyone who has never darkened the door of a church.  A truer statement would be that although many of us are baptized Christians, we function as atheists. We falter in our trust, we waiver in our commitment to walking the way of Jesus, we fail to notice that the prison doors behind which we cower and hide are not locked up as tightly as we imagine them to be and in so doing we keep ourselves bound and tied and we entangle others with us.

That’s why we need one another, to sing hymns of freedom to and for each other, to keep the ancient and mysterious stories about resurrection alive, to witness to the ways we ourselves have experienced freedom, to pray for and with each other, and sometimes to hand each other the keys. 

The life-changing power that enabled Jesus to live a life of justice and of freedom, the power that sets us free, is accessible to us all. That is what the season of Easter, which is actually a way of life, invites us to believe in.  It’s what heals us and sets us free.  The doors have already been opened.  There is no need for us to fear.