Open Doors

Acts 16:16-34
7th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

We have been reading from the Book of Acts, stories of the spread of the Christian faith in the early years of the Church. This past Thursday was Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter, the day the church remembers the doors of heaven opening to Jesus. He departs but leaves his Spirit with us. Next Sunday we open the door to celebrate the arrival of that Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And today, today we read about the power of that Spirit at work in the lives of Paul, Silas, a slave girl, and a jailer and his family.

Notice that everyone in this story has the doors opened for them. By the power of the Holy Spirit they are more free at the end of the story than at the beginning.

Paul says to the Galatians, "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery... For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (5:1,13-14)

As we read this passage I want to you think about all the characters and decide who is really free. Perhaps as we take a closer look at these stories of bondage and freedom in the city of Philippi, we will understand the true meaning of freedom. Then all the doors of life will be open to us, no matter our circumstances.

Acts 16:16-34
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 About midnight Paul and 26 Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Paul and Silas opened the door of freedom for a young girl. She was a slave to both a demonic spirit and to the men who abused her mental illness for personal financial gain. The spirit itself is evil but the message of the spirit (what the girl is saying) is remarkably truthful. At first it seems that Paul is annoyed with the girl, but maybe he is more disturbed by the injustice done to her. Paul in the power of Christ’s Spirit exercises power over the evil spirit. The girl is freed from her illness, but those with who were making money off her sickness are angry. Kind of reminds of me of the girl from Palmetto and of many young teen girls who are pulled off the street into prostitution rings. Pimps and others who make money by abusing others are never happy when the people they abuse are free and healthy again.

So they seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace to complain to the governing officials. Their accusation is very indirect. They are not open and honest enough to say "These men ruined our fortune-telling business by healing our slave." Instead they make broad, sweeping accusations. “They are disturbing the city.” Then they label them with a racial term. “ These Jews are advocating unlawful customs. These people are too religious.” They accuse Paul and Silas because of nation, race, and religion when the real issue is money.

And then notice how the crowd joins in. Of course, we won't have people, especially Jews, disturbing our Roman city. They're different from us. And they're getting a little pushy with their religion. And the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and beaten with rods. The jailer is ordered to keep them securely and so he put them in the maximum security cell and chained them to the wall.

If the story stopped there, it would be a desperate situation both for Paul and Silas, and for their missionary work in the Roman world. Indeed it would be a miserable conclusion for all of us trapped in terrible situations, for all people trapped in injustice. But it doesn’t end that way. Instead of being angry, frustrated, discouraged about landing in prison, Paul and Silas start singing. They should be moaning and groaning because they had been stripped and whipped, but instead they are singing and praying deep into the night. They have faith that God will be take care of them despite the terrible circumstances in which they find themselves.

It’s like the freedom marchers in South Africa who despite being gunned down, kept singing, Siyahamba, kukanyen, kwenkos. It’s like the Estonians, who through a massive singing revolution were empowerede to open the door to freedom from Russian control. It’s like a friend of mine, who was separated from her husband who had been unfaithful. Every time she thought bad thoughts about him, she would distract herself with singing. It’s like surrounding those whom we dearly love who are dying with music. We sing ourselves through the grief. Can you sing on the dark nights of the soul?

Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite priest. His poem, Dark Night of the Soul, narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God.

Whether an inner journey toward ultimate union with God or an outward journey of standing courageously by God’s grace toward those who would mistreat you and others, these are difficult pathways, where it seems doors are always closing. But even when doors are closed, we know that by the power of God they will open at the right time, in God’s time.

One commentator says, “Whenever the gospel meets resistance, such as imprisonment by the authorities, it is vindicated. The more severe the resistance, the more spectacular the vindication. In today's text, even the inner prison and leg stocks are inadequate to hold God's messengers.” (Preaching the Common Lectionary) And notice that even the foundations of the prison were shaken, that not just one but all the doors were opened. Not just Paul and Silas’ chains, but everyone's chains were unfastened. The gospel opens doors for everyone in captivity not just those who pray and sing.

But open doors are not good for jailers whose jobs depend upon keeping them locked. The jailer knows he’s in trouble. The only honorable thing for a jailer in the first century who loses his prisoners is kill himself. You see, having a key to someone else’s cell doesn't not make you free.

He is ready to take his own life when Paul shouts to him something unbelievable. To think that with chains unfastened and doors wide open, the prisoners have remained in their cells! The jailer did not understand that the apostles were free even when the doors were locked. The jailer doesn't realize that he is about to be released from his own prison of failure.

Fearing for his job and his life, the jailer pleads with Paul and Silas, "How can I save my neck?" In other words, "How can I be free to live?" His question is uttered from one perspective and heard at another. For they answer him, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you with your household will be saved." And they went on to explain to him and to his family what that means. And so together the household of the jailer throw open the door Christ by baptized as Christians.

At one level, this is the story of an imprisonment and a miraculous release or "salvation" of God's messengers. At another level, it is the story of the miraculous release or "salvation" of a jailer in his own prison. There is freedom defined by the world and then there is freedom, defined by God Are you free? Really free?

Can you sing even when you’re stuck behind closed doors? You don’t have to sing beautifully but with fervor and faith even in the minor keys on the somber days. Can you praise God when you don’t know which way to go? Don’t know how to pay your bills? Work on the budget but don’t forget to sing. Can you sing God’s praise even when you are helpless to help your child, except by prayer? Can you sing God’s praise when the life you’ve known for many years is ending – someone is leaving? Can you sing defiantly even when you’ve been wrongly accused and mistreated? Can you sing God’s praise no matter where you are or what bad circumstance comes your way? If you can, then no bars, no prison, no situation can hold you in or get you down. Because all the doors are open and you are truly free, free to sing in joy, in discouragement, or in grief, trusting God to care for you, no matter what. Keep singing and watch for the chains that bind you to fall off.

(Singing His Eye is on the Sparrow – “I sing because I’m happy! I sing because I’m free. For His Eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”)