It’s good to be back after an extended time away traveling through Greece and Turkey. And it’s especially exciting for me to be preaching on today’s text from Acts, because the setting for this story is the first archaeological site I got to visit in Greece: Philippi. Just prior to today’s story, Paul and his companions have traveled from present-day Turkey to Greece in response to a vision that Paul had from the Holy Spirit. There, Luke tells us, Paul met a woman named Lydia, a prosperous merchant who was a dealer in purple cloth, and her heart was open to the Word of God that Paul proclaimed, and she became a believer in Jesus. Philippi was a city nestled in a valley; Paul would have taken the Roman road from the port city of Neapolis over some high mountains to get there. Philippi was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia, in the northern part of present-day Greece, and many retired veterans of the Roman army lived there as a reward for their service. This was a place steeped in Roman culture and where most of the people worshiped the Greek and the Roman gods.
When I’ve read this story before, I’ve never quite understood why Paul got so annoyed with the slave girl who was telling everyone that they—that is, Paul and his companions—were proclaiming a way of salvation to the people. After all, you would think that Paul would want all the help he could get. But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. The slave girl who had a spirit of divination was most likely a priestess of Apollo, one of those who received oracles from that god. And the girl’s reference to the Most High God very well could have been a reference not to the one God that Paul and his companions were speaking about, but rather a reference to the Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Paul knew that having that slave girl following them and crying out after them was really not going to help him at all, because then he would be seen as just another messenger of the Greek gods rather than the one God that he was proclaiming. He also probably wanted to free her from her enslavement: not necessarily to her human masters, but more so from her enslavement to the pagan gods. Furthermore, having a demonstration of the power of the one God over the pagan ones could not hurt at all.
And yet, this act of liberation for a slave girl results in physical imprisonment for Paul and Silas. Let’s take a look, first, at the accusation that the owners of the slave girl level at Paul and Silas: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” In the Roman Empire, the emperor was considered divine, and every good member of the Empire was supposed to periodically offer up incense to the emperor and acknowledge that the emperor was lord. The only people that got a pass on this were the Jewish people, because of their belief in one God. But that didn’t mean that non-Jewish people could adopt Jewish customs and stop acknowledging that the emperor was divine. Furthermore, for this new sect of Christianity to say that Jesus is Lord, not the emperor, was downright treason. So we can see that, even though the owners of the slave girl were upset because they had lost their means of making money when Paul drove the spirit out of her, they knew that they had to charge Paul and Silas with political treason in order to get them imprisoned.
So, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail. When you visit Philippi, the tour guides will show you a room underneath the ruins of a church that was supposedly the place where Paul and Silas were imprisoned; that is, however, not true; the archaeologists have determined that the prison was likely in another place and the underground room used for something else entirely. Wherever Paul and Silas were imprisoned, however, Luke tells us that they were witnessing to the other prisoners by praying and singing hymns, when suddenly there was an earthquake. On our trip, we discovered that earthquakes are very common in that area, and that an earthquake is probably what caused most of the buildings in the archaeological site of Philippi to now be in ruins and that settlement abandoned. But it sounds like, in this story, the jailer was not so much frightened by the earthquake itself. Rather, he saw that the doors to the cells were open and he thought that the prisoners had escaped. The honorable thing to do in this culture in this case was to kill yourself, because you had failed the responsibility given to you by your superiors. And suicide was more honorable than being executed for failing your duty. But when Paul and Silas call out to the jailer that they are all still there, the jailer’s response is to ask them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
When someone in a Bible story asks a question like that, this is the question I want to ask: Saved from what? What did the jailer want to be saved from? The obvious answer would be that he wanted to be saved from death by his own hand, but when he saw that the prisoners were all still there, he should have known that he was, indeed, saved from that fate. The Christian answer would be that the jailer wanted to be saved either from his own sins or from hell—but this was a man who, most likely, was steeped in the Greco-Roman culture and simply did not think in those terms. There was no heaven or hell in Greek belief like we think of heaven and hell; after death everyone ended up in the underworld called Hades, which was kind of a shadowy, twilight existence. So what, then, did the jailer want to be saved from?
I’m actually not sure, but why don’t we try this? In this story, there is a lot of playing going on with the idea of freedom and captivity. The slave girl in the story was very obviously captive: captive to her owners, and captive to the spirit of divination that caused her to cry out after Paul and Silas. Then, through the power of Christ, Paul sets her free from her bondage to the spirit of divination, only to have his physical freedom taken away by being thrown into prison. But in prison, Paul and Silas show that, while they are physically being held captive in a jail cell, they are free to sing hymns and pray to God. And when the doors are broken open by the earthquake, they could have walked out and had their physical freedom, but they chose to remain captive in order to save the jailer’s physical life, and then received the opportunity to set the jailer free. What if the jailer wanted to be saved from his captivity to the system that he was enslaved to: to be set free from that system that demanded he kill himself if he failed in his responsibility to keep the prisoners in jail? And what if Paul and Silas told him the good news that, among other things, Jesus had come “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”? That’s directly from Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth, in Luke 4, the Gospel that was written by the same person who wrote Acts. What if the salvation that Paul and Silas proclaimed was not about salvation from sins so that the jailer could go to heaven, but was instead about freedom from a sinful human system so that the jailer could live a full and abundant life in Jesus here on earth?
One of the things that became clear to me on this trip to Greece and Turkey, traipsing around ruin after ruin of old cities and learning about 1st century Greco-Roman society was this: society in the 21st century in the United States is very similar in many ways to society in the 1st century Roman Empire. As the Empire then was hostile towards the budding Christian movement, so too we are surrounded by a culture that has become disenchanted with the church, many times because the institutional church has been so caught up with being right that we have forgotten how to truly love one another and witness to that love of Jesus, causing many people to be hurt and to fall away. And in other cases, it is because the church has focused so much on where we are going in the next world that we have forgotten that the better part of the witness of the Scriptures is telling how Jesus has come as an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven here on this earth and now in this time. Jesus’ call to us is that in loving one another and in doing what is best for one another, salvation has already come and has set us free from the systems that would oppress us here on this earth.
So, how are we doing at witnessing to this Jesus who has come and liberated us from oppression? Are we acting as though we are free, or do we still labor under our bondage? If we were thrown into prison for setting another person free with the good news of Jesus, would we react by singing hymns and praying? Or would we loudly and obnoxiously assert our rights and demand to be let out? And if an earthquake came and knocked our chains off and opened the doors, would we immediately run out, or would we recognize that the welfare of another person might be at risk and stay physically imprisoned for that person? Because being a follower of Jesus does not mean being comfortable and just getting along with the systems that are in place. Being a follower of Jesus means that we believe that Jesus has brought freedom from oppression to us here and now, and we want to proclaim that freedom from oppression to everyone in our neighborhoods. And sometimes that means speaking up against oppressive laws, advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and being willing to give up our physical freedom for the well-being of another person.
The earthquake in Philippi on that long-ago night changed everything for the jailer. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has broken in on our sinful world like an earthquake, and that has changed everything for us—not only with the promise of resurrection in the future, but also for our life here on this earth. So let’s start acting like Jesus has made a difference in our lives. Let’s go out from here and be bold in our witness to others, proclaiming that Jesus’ salvation has come for all of us here and now, and that now is the day when freedom from oppression has come for us and for all humankind. Amen.