No Chains on Me
What an incredible earthquake that must have been. Today's reading from the book of Acts presents us with a pretty incredible story. Paul and Silas are minding their own business when suddenly a woman begins to harass them. She follows these two for many days, proclaiming that Paul and Silas were slaves to God. I'm sure the two men didn't mind people making such proclamations, but for days on end with a crazy woman making a big ruckus, well it seems Paul lost his cool.
All this sets up Paul and Silas' imprisonment. The slave that was annoying them is not the important part of this story, it is just the set up to get Paul and Silas thrown into prison. What happens when these two are in prison? Well I like to describe it as the most peculiar earthquake in all of history. Let's review what this earthquake did; it shook the foundations of the prison, it opened all the prison doors, and it unfastened everyone's chains. What this earthquake seemingly did not do however was wake the guard up. Now I think that we have to assume that this guard is just a really heavy sleeper. So when the guard eventually awakens he finds his prison opened up to the world and assumes that all the prisoners have made a run for it. What he finds though is something quite peculiar, the prison may be opened to the world allowing all the prisoners to escape, but they have stayed in the prison.
If you were reading this for the first time and knew nothing of what happened, the logical conclusion to draw would be that God sent the earthquake to free Paul and Silas from their imprisonment. Let's remember what this earthquake did; it opened the prison doors and unfastened the chains of the prisoners. This earthquake seems like it was directed at getting the prisoners freed. The one person who the earthquake seems to leave alone is the sleeping guard, who only wakes up after the fact to find out how miserably he failed in his job. But this is where the plot twist is. We expect Paul and Silas to make an escape, but they and all their fellow prisoners decide to stay in the prison.
The guard, who up to this point has been just an appendage to the story, now takes center stage. He sees that those he was supposed to be guarding did not take advantage of the earthquake or his own napping; rather they sacrificed their own freedom to save him. When the story shifts focus onto the guard, the earthquake is no longer a divine get out of jail free card, it is now a tool that the followers of Jesus can use to convince other people to convert.
We are so used to divine grace and divine power being used to save people from some external threat that it is hard to refocus on what we are learning here. Some of the strongest traditions of our faith are divine miracles used to save people from harm. Think of God leading the people from Egyptian slavery or Daniel being saved when he is thrown in the lions’ den. We have this tradition of God helping us out of a jam. But here we have something different. What we expect to be another example of God helping his followers out when they are in trouble turns into something completely different.
Try to imagine after the ten plagues in Egypt if Moses had turned the fleeing Israelites around and started to try and convert Pharaoh. No, that isn't how the story is supposed to work. The people are in trouble, they pray to God, God does something miraculous, and the people are saved from their toil. That is how this is supposed to work. But Paul and Silas don't work that way. They are not praying for release. Acts tells us that they are up praying and singing, but they cannot be asking for deliverance from prison because when they get the chance they don't leave.
Paul and Silas are not praying for themselves, they are praying for people like the guard, people who don't believe. The earthquake did not come to set the people free from prison; it came to set the guard free. The earthquake was not a divine get out of jail free card, but a tool for ministry. We no longer are worried about the physical safety of the righteous, but the ability of the righteous to do God's work.
The problem with looking at the earthquake here as an act of God meant to free Paul and Silas from imprisonment is that we are focusing on the external rather than the internal. We want to look at the prison as a barrier, as four walls that keep us from being free. But the prison isn't what is holding us back; it isn't the chains that keep us locked up. The true prisons are internal; they are things we set up in our mind. The true prisons are not built out of stone or brick or metal, the true prisons have no bars and no locks, the true prisons are within each of us.
Think about what we learn from Acts. Paul and Silas have been sent to prison. They are locked away, behind closed doors and in chains. I always picture that medieval torture chamber from the movies, where someone is chained up on the wall next to a skeleton. But even in this prison, Paul and Silas are not prisoners, they are still free. They are free enough to pray and sing, and they are free enough to make converts even in the prison. The guard returns not just to find Paul and Silas waiting there for him, but all the prisoners. Paul and Silas, despite being in prison, have been able to get all of the other prisoners to follow along with them. They are free despite their chains!
In Paul's first letter to the Colossians he writes that those who were slaves on earth will be made free in Christ. We find this slave/free talk throughout Paul's letters. In fact Paul's letters were used for centuries to defend slavery as acceptable. There are stories from the children of freed slaves that they were not allowed to read Paul because of the way Paul talked about slavery. Slavery for Paul however had nothing to do with the race based slavery adopted and perfected in the West, slavery was pretty much the inability to have a say over your own body. You became to property of another. There was no consideration of skin color, ethnicity, or ancestry; anyone potentially could become a slave.
The loss of freedom is devastating and Paul and Silas were in just that predicament. They were locked away, chained up so they could not even move freely. But despite this, they remained free. Their bodies may have been in chains, but they were free. They were free in their hearts and in their minds, and that is where it really counts. They were not going to let something like walls and chains imprison them, they were going to remain free despite their predicament.
The barriers to our freedom do not come from our world; the barriers to our freedom come from within each of us. What holds us back? What’s in our minds keeps those walls in place and keeps those chains securely fastened? What earthquake do we need to come along to break down our prisons? Our prisons will come down only when we let them, when we open ourselves to the possibility that we too can be free.
You see, prisons not only keep us in, they keep others out. In my first year in college I had to take a composition class, pretty much teaching you how to write for college. One of the assignments was to write a narrative and one of the young women in the class wrote about going to see her friend in prison, all the checkpoints and searches, all the rules that had to be followed. It made me realize that prisons don't work just one way. Prisons keep people from getting out, but they also keep people from getting in. The prisons we set up inside ourselves work just as much to keep us locked up, as to keep other people from coming in to us.
It took me a little while to figure out where I wanted today's sermon to go. I got hung up on the earthquake, on how interesting it was and how specific it was in the damage it did. Going from there I got into a little rut about how an earthquake, usually something we associate with destruction, is here used for a very different cause. It was from there that I began to wonder, what exactly was this earthquake doing? Why would Paul and Silas remain in prison after they had been set free? It was in pondering this question that I came up with the only answer that seemed to make sense, Paul and Silas were not in prison in the first place! I was reminded of a line from the movie The Great Escape. One of the characters who is trying to escape from the NAZI prison camp tells the man running the camp that the first duty of every prisoner is to try to escape. So why isn't this Paul and Silas' first duty, it can only be because they are not really in prison. Yes, the prison walls may surround them, but they remain free.
This idea of freedom being an internal state is found throughout the scriptures. Psalm 119 reads: "I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws. I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord; do not let me be put to shame. I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” In the Gospel of John Jesus tells people that "If you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Freedom is not something that can be purchased or granted, it is something that can only be gained. Once that freedom is gained, noting in all of creation, not the highest walls nor the heaviest chains will be able to imprison us, because we have the freedom that comes from knowing Christ, freedom that is not bound by earthly things, but by eternal things.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that he was sent to set the prisoners free, to proclaim release to the captives. Let us now take up that task. Let us proclaim release to those that have been imprisoned. Let us work to break down those walls that keep people out. Let us take a stand against a world bound up by walls and chains and locked doors. When the guards that keep us imprisoned awake, let’s show them that in Christ we will always be free. But to do that, we need to free ourselves first, we need to release ourselves from the prisons that we keep ourselves in.
The question to ponder over the coming week is what am I doing to imprison myself? What chains are keeping me down, what walls have I built up to keep me from the rest of the world? This is a difficult question because it asks us to look for something we don't want to look for. It asks us to question what we are doing to keep ourselves separated from others. It isn't a question that has one right answer, but each of us has some chain that can still be undone, some wall that can be broken down. We can all be free, but first we have to recognize that we need to be freed.
When we imprison ourselves, how can we ever hope to lead others to freedom? How could Paul and Silas lead their guard to freedom if they had not already found freedom within themselves? Freedom begins in each of us, that little spark that yearns to be let out of the cage we keep it in. That little ray of hope that shines through the darkness. That voice that cries from within each of our souls, the voice that cries out 'Let me be free!'
Lord, open the doors to the prisons in each of our hearts. Free us and give unto us the torch of light so that we may spread freedom throughout the land. Grant us the peace that comes when we no longer bind ourselves, but shed our chains for a life of freedom in your name, Amen.