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Homily by Rev. Peter Walker

Easter 7, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 16, 2010

Acts 16: 16–34


If there is one virtue, or value, on which we can probably all join hands, it is freedom:

freedom of speech, freedom of religion;
freedom to live as we choose to live,
freedom to pursue the life we choose to pursue.

Freedom is the blessed treasure of academia –

freedom to think, teach and publish.

Freedom is the blessed treasure of the voter –

freedom to mark the box as we choose.

Freedom is also the blessed treasure of any Australian person of faith –

freedom to worship, in the way we long for.



Surrounded by burglar alarms and medicine cabinets; surrounded by “be alert but not alarmed” – fenced off public buildings, and fenced off private homes. And surrounded by our private fears.

We live in a society with an unmatched measure of freedom for its citizens, and so much choice. We live, says the NT scholar William Willimon, “in a vast supermarket of desire” where citizens are, on the whole, continually fulfilling the role of consumer.

We have freedom, but what can we do with it? We are free, but also terribly lonely, or terribly driven, or both. This is our freedom?

This chapter of Acts tells a series of stories about people in Philippi who were captives and people in Philippi who were free, and leaves dangling before us the question: who in this story is truly free? It reminds us that there is freedom, and there is freedom.


Before we move just a little more deeply into this idea, may I say just a word or two about the book called The Acts of the Apostles.

Some time between AD 70 and AD 100, somewhere within the Mediterranean world, the Acts of the Apostles was written. We know it was by the same creative theologian who wrote the Gospel of Luke (there is very little doubt about that) although Acts may not have been written at the same time.

When you read Acts, you immediately realise that you are reading a story – in fact, a collection of stories. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote once that the church is a “story-formed community”. I quite like that phrase. And in The Acts of the Apostles we find the stories that tell us about the very early church.

They are stories about the relationship between Christians and Jews – about insiders and outsiders; about people of different faiths. They are stories about issues relating to the Christian’s place within the modern state; stories about problems with prayer; and a host of other dilemmas which press upon us, just as they pressed upon those of Paul’s and Luke’s vintage. The stories in Acts are, in more ways than one, our stories too.

It is a difficult task to see our lives truthfully and to find our way in the journey of faith. On the whole, we feel our lives to be pretty fragile, and in the absence of a story in which to frame them a story that makes sense, life is tough.

We are people who frame our stories within the bigger story of Jesus Christ - the story that gives our lives meaning – and so too did the people we are reading about here in Acts. Jesus did not come bringing an interesting new philosophy of life. He came calling people to a new way of living and dying. These are stories of ones who have done just that - people who have taken up Jesus’ new way. And so, as we try and live that way too, our stories are joined to Paul, and Silas, and Lydia, and all those we read about in these pages.


In our reading today from chapter 16, Paul and Silas were going to a place of prayer in Philippi, and were accosted by a slave girl. Because the girl could tell people’s fortunes she made money for her owners, who hired her out to read palms in the market places.

She was possessed by a demon, emotionally and perhaps mentally unstable, we might say today. She took to following Paul and Silas around; shouting at them and saying things about them. Here is a picture of enslavement; the grip of mental illness – or some kind of ‘demon’, as they would name it in the ancient world - which holds this girl in bondage.

Soon, Paul has had enough of her raving and, in the name of Christ, he cures her. Thank God, she is free!

But, no, she is not free. She is a slave. She is someone who is not a person, but a piece of property:

“When her owner’s saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the market place before the rulers”. (Acts 16.19)

Here is a young woman, chained for her whole life to the hell of a demon in her spirit, and now she is free. There ought to be rejoicing. But there is not. Her owners are not free enough to do that.

It is fine to help the poor a little, and to give a hand out occasionally; but this is altogether another matter! Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here, and so her owners do what vested interests tend always to do when their interests are threatened. The girls owners say to the judge: We’re not against a little religion – as long as it is kept in its place! Or in words more precise to the text:

“These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate practices that are not lawful for us Romans to accept or to practice.” (Acts 16. 20,21)

They do not come right out and say that it is their financial interests that are threatened – the charges are veiled in a kind of nationalism: These missionaries are foreigners! Worse, they are Jews. Get rid of them.

We haven’t, mind you, seen evidence of any such advocacy – all we have seen is a young girl made well. Nation, race, and tradition all being called into line behind the economic interest.

With Paul and Silas before the judges in the market place. the gathered crowd begin to play a part. They would seem, we can assume from what we know about crowds or “mobs”, to have been whipped into a bit of a frenzy by this public hearing.

We read that they now attack and beat Paul and Silas; and that the two captives are put into the back cell of the town prison and the jailer takes their feet and locks them in iron shackles. The liberators become the imprisoned.

Paul and Silas end up in prison, languishing, but that is not the end of the story. Though it is hard to assess what really happened, what came next had certainly become a famous tale when Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles. It’s historicity or otherwise does not inhibit it’s power to draw forth the deep truthfulness of this chapter: Having the keys to someone else’s cell (or life) does not make you free. And iron bars do not a prisoner make!

The earth heaves, we are told, the prison shakes, and Paul and Silas’ chains fell off. They are free.

The gaoler is horrified. Knowing what happens to gaoler who allow their prisoners to escape, he draws his sword with the intention of doing the honourable thing.

But Paul shouts in a loud voice:

“Do not harm yourself” (Acts 16. 28).
Don’t do it.We are all here, singing.
But you were bound in chains and now are free to escape!
Paul says, ‘you are wrong’...
we prisoners have always been free, and it is you, our gaoler, who was in chains.

And thus we learn that the gaoler asks: “What must I do to become free?


It is a masterful piece of writing. By the end of the chapter, everyone who at first appeared to be free, the girls owner’s, the judges, the crowd, the jailer, is a slave. And everyone who first appeared to be enslaved, the disturbed girl, Paul and Silas, is free.

There is freedom. And then there is freedom.

We have come a long way in our freedoms, but do we truly know what is means to be free?

A generation earlier, Jesus had held a conversation with his followers, which Luke is reminding us of here. Jesus said to his disciples:

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and it is the truth that will make you free” (John 8. 31).

But his followers stiffened their necks and said, “What’s all this ‘truth will make you free’ business? We are descendents of Abraham and enslaved to no one!”

Jesus came back at them and said:

“If the Son makes you free, will you then be free indeed”. (John 8. 36)

What is our freedom? Are you free?

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