Christ Lutheran Community Church
June 2, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Slaves to Christ"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26
In a few weeks, our nation will celebrate Independence Day and the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Although it has taken us centuries to realize that all Americans are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nevertheless, we love our freedom. Our founding document is the Declaration of Independence. Our national shrines include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the Statue of Liberty.
So, given our love of freedom and since we are getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, how wonderful that we have this story from Acts to consider. It’s all about freedom. The story begins with the introduction of a slave, a young woman who is actually suffering from two forms of bondage: 1) she’s under the control of a spirit that possesses her; 2) and she’s a slave to human masters who have found a way to exploit her spiritual bondage for a profit.
Those masters in this story seem so cruel, trying to profit from the demonic possession of a woman. But are they really any different from cigarette manufacturers, who profit from our slavery to nicotine addiction? Or what about gun manufacturers who profit from our slavery to fear? And, unfortunately, literal slavery didn’t disappear when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It is estimated that 27 million people throughout the world live as slaves, producing 32 billion dollars in profits for the people who enslave them. There is big money to be made in slavery, today, just as there was in 1860, just as there was in the Roman Empire.
But this poor woman isn’t the only slave in the story: Paul is identified by her as a “Slave of the Most High God.” You would think that Paul would be annoyed with this designation; no one wants to be called a slave. But, in fact, Paul uses this term to describe himself all the time. In almost all of his letters he refers to himself as a slave of Christ. It’s hard for us freedom loving American Christians to comprehend how Paul could not only use that term, but actually take pride and joy in his slavery to Christ.
So this spirit-possessed woman continues to follow Paul and Silas around for days, shouting at the top of her lungs, “These men are slaves of the most-high God who proclaim to us the way of salvation!” It’s curious why Paul didn’t do something about it right away. Maybe he was grateful for the free publicity. But finally his irritation is too much, and he commands the spirit “in the name of Jesus Christ” to come out of her. The spirit departs and the woman is freed, at least from her spiritual oppressor. Her human masters are still very much around and they are not at all happy about the fact that their source of income has been destroyed. They are good, law-abiding, Roman citizens trying to eke out an honest living and Paul, bleeding-heart liberal Paul, has let altruism get in the way of business.
The owners of the slave-girl are never identified as slaves themselves, but I hope you will see how they, too, suffer from bondage. They are in bondage to wealth and willing to sacrifice all human compassion, all human empathy, to keep this master favorably disposed toward them. Perhaps their slavery is the most insidious and tragic of them all, because they don’t even realize it. Again, one doesn’t have to try too hard to think of contemporary examples of this slavery to wealth; all of us are affected by it.
Rather than permit Paul and Silas to undermine free enterprise, that is the free enterprise of the slave-owners, the people of Phillipi throw them into prison. Their hands and feet are placed into stocks. The prison is like a tomb… a stinky cell with no windows and unremitting darkness. But just as God would not allow the tomb to contain Christ, so God acts to free Paul and Silas. An earthquake breaks open the prison doors and unlocks the shackles that restrain them.
This story is a kind of resurrection, but really the resurrection of Paul and Silas had begun years earlier. It began when they were joined with Christ in the waters of baptism. In Christ, they had already died, so no human fear could control them. Since Christ was now living in them, no prison, no shackles, no tomb, could deprive them of inner freedom and life. They demonstrate their freedom by singing hymns in the darkness of the prison cell. Since Christ is living in them, nothing can take away their joy.
The liberation of Paul and Silas is not the end of the story, however. After the earthquake, we would expect Paul and Silas to escape as fast as possible – certainly the jailer did. But here we learn something more about the freedom we have in Christ. There’s freedom from; and then there is freedom for. It’s one thing to be freed from our inner compulsions or our external oppressors. But the freedom that Paul and Silas live out is a freedom for. What matters is their freedom to live out their calling in Christ; to serve Christ as Christ has served them.
So when the Philippian jailer decides to commit suicide rather than endure the harsh punishment that would await him for allowing the prisoners to escape, Paul and Silas are moved by compassion to save him. They show him the way of freedom in Christ.
This story in Acts ends with a beautiful image of washing: the jailer washes the wounds of Paul and Silas… wounds he himself may have inflicted; and Paul and Silas wash the jailer in the waters of baptism, washing away his guilt, giving him the sign of the freedom that is ours in Christ. The prison, a place of fear, and violence, and bondage, has become a sanctuary. Enemies are reconciled to become brothers in Christ.
The same Christ who lived in Paul and Silas, lives in you. The freedom, the life, and the joy that Paul and Silas had, are yours also. In Jesus Christ, you are free whether you live out that freedom or not. The goal of the gospel is freedom and we are called to be the instruments through which the gospel accomplishes this goal.
Christ Lutheran Community Church