In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, in the 10 days between Ascension and Pentecost, in the time where we acknowledge that Jesus is as fully God as he was fully human, and as we wait for the celebration of the beginning of the new community in Christ, the church, in this strange time in our church calendar, we have a strange series of stories in the book of Acts. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of tales where Paul frees a slave-woman from her demons and angers her owners; the owners have Paul and Silas thrown in jail and their jailer begs for the freedom that they know in the midst of their incarceration. It’s an intriguing combination of stories of slavery and freedom, where what we think is slavery and what we think is freedom is turned on their heads.
A woman has the freedom of an unusual gift—the ability to divine the truth—or is that really what the text is saying? This pneuma, this spirit, this pythona, this oracle or perhaps this ventriloquist speaking through its puppet, the slave-girl, is not really a gift of freedom. Someone or something is speaking through this girl and she is not free. Is it her keepers, her owners, the ones who have made her and kept her enslaved? Or is it those who speak through her, the powerful of the city who would be rid of the disruption that Paul and Silas possess? She is not her own person. She is possessed by powers and powerful people. Her cries of apparent knowledge give the illusion of freedom, but she is not free. She is bound into a system that uses women like her as pawns in games played by men who like things just as they are with them in the position of authority.
And Paul releases her. Paul sets her free—from her demons, from her owners for whom she is no longer any use if she will not spout their words, from those who use her to condemn the very people who set her free. Somehow, Paul gives her the freedom to be free; and this gift of freedom comes in the name of Jesus Christ.
But that gift is not given without a cost; and Paul and Silas find themselves the target of a different attack by powerful people—people who no longer hide behind the words of a slave-girl; but who must now show themselves for who they are and declare their interests, their intention to rid themselves of the troublemakers, Paul and Silas.
These powerful people, these could-be slave owners and would-be local authorities have Silas and Paul thrown in jail. These powerful people are trying so hard to show that they are free—by enslaving some and locking others up. It’s a funny kind of freedom that they exhibit, these people who enslave and condemn others.
So Paul and Silas end up in jail. And just when we’re thinking that now Paul and Silas are no longer free, we hear that they are praying and singing to God. What could be freer than that—being in relationship with the living God irrespective of the conditions in which they find themselves? It’s a funny kind of prison into which the powerful people think they have condemned Paul and Silas. For them it is not a place of restriction; but one where they can be free to worship and honour God. What the powerful see as enslavement, Paul and Silas know as freedom. While the powerful are proclaiming their own apparent freedom by condemning Paul and Silas, Paul and Silas are showing just how restricted those would-be freemen are as they worship God in prison.
And the second time that day according to our story, Paul and Silas have the opportunity to open the door to freedom for someone who was in jail—albeit as a jailer, but nonetheless in jail, imprisoned, not free, at the mercy of the behest of the powerful who condemn others to prison. Paul and Silas offer the jailer freedom; and once again that freedom comes in the name of Jesus Christ.
It’s a funny kind of freedom this freedom we have in Christ—the freedom to love God and do what we like, because in loving God, what we like will be the things of God, as God works God’s magic in us, not as puppets of a ventriloquist, but as believers in a reality where everyone matters, and no one should be treated like a slave, or made to do the dirty work of powerful people by keeping those who are really free in jail.
It’s a funny juxtaposition of stories that we hear in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we Christians who are so fond of proclaiming our freedom by dividing ourselves from one another are confronted by the reality that our freedom is not in the ability to do what we like, but in our common calling to love, worship and serve the Triune God. It’s a funny set of stories in this week when we remind ourselves that there is freedom in community, the community of the Spirit. There is freedom in constraints, the constraints of the Gospel. There is hope in proclamation, the proclamation that in Christ all are free as Christ is free—constrained by the wonderful freedom of relationship with God and with each other as the beloved children of God in our own right, not as the puppets or ventriloquist dolls of those who would lord over and control other people even those who belong to God.
It’s an intriguing combination of stories of freedom and slavery where everything we think about slavery and about freedom are turned on their heads and we discover that freedom is not in spouting the words of others, nor in condemning others. Freedom is discovered in God’s recognition of us as beloved children each in our own right; and together, as a diverse and unique, and multi-faceted community who cannot be condemned by others because we know the truth we have in God—that in Christ all are free as Christ is free; in Jesus, we are one because we are in Christ and Christ is in God.
Surely, this is our freedom. This is our salvation. This is our deliverance. And no-one has the power to enslave the children of God!