When one reads Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, one can see why this was Paul’s favorite church. The letter begins, “I thank God every time I remember you.” It was in Philippi that Paul met Lydia. She took Paul and Silas into her home and it is believed this is where the church in Philippi originated. But the beginning of the church in Philippi was not without turmoil. Our text this morning describes the way God works even in midst of our most difficult times.
Each time I come to this scripture I am amazed at how each of the components of the story are shackled to a force much greater than themselves. Let’s start with the obvious. Paul and Silas are shackled to God. They had pronounced themselves servants of the most high. When I read the stories of Paul I know that nothing short of God could have been his inspiration. He didn’t start out being the “great missionary”. Truth is he became a missionary because none of the Apostles in Jerusalem trusted him. He had a hunger to preach the gospel but his own community knew him more as a persecutor than a preacher. So Paul headed west to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Each stop along the way he was an outsider trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ. He was jailed, beaten, and dispatched from many towns. But because Paul was shackled to the gospel, he continued to preach.
The next character in our story was a slave shackled to her vision but even more so to her owner. She had the gift of fortune telling, a talent which brought a great deal of money to those who owned her. When she laid eyes on Paul and Silas she screamed, “These men are slaves of God. They are proclaiming a way of salvation.” When Paul first encountered this woman, he must have been greatly encouraged by her pronouncements. Imagine walking into a town, unknown, desiring to gather a crowd so you could sell your product. Where do you begin? How do you get the word out? Suddenly, out of no where, a local celebrity gives you the stamp of approval. This woman’s word was gold. She could see the future, and the future for Philippi was to be preached by these two strangers. Her proclamation instantly raised an audience, making the way easier for the two missionaries.
Throughout the week Paul and Silas continued to appear at the city square. The fortune teller would make her daily pronouncement and the crowds would appear. Only one day, Paul decided he wanted to go solo. According to the scripture Paul became annoyed with the woman. He spoke, not to the woman, but to the spirit that both empowered and shackled her and said, “I order you in the name of Christ to leave this woman.” With that, her ability to tell the future was gone. She was released from her demon, but not from her owners. She was still shackled to men who suddenly lost their cash cow. They were less than amused. One moment she was the next best thing happening and the next she was completely useless. Their BMW had turned into a Ford Pinto and they were not happy. Rather than celebrate the resurrection of a soul, they demanded compensation for their loss. They brought Paul and Silas before the local judge and charged the two missionaries with disturbing the peace and disrupting the local customs. Paul and Silas were flogged and, you guessed it, shackled. They were taken to the local jail and their feet fastened in stocks. They meet the local jailer who, as it turns out, was more shackled than the prisoners being kept under his watch.
In one of the truly great stories in the book of Acts, Paul and Silas decide to have a prayer meeting. It made perfectly good sense. They had a captive audience. They began to pray and sing hymns to God. As the prisoners began listening to Paul and Silas and they began to take an inventory of their lives. Unlike Paul and Silas they could hardly claim to be innocent. They were shackled to their greed, their anger, their selfishness, their ungodliness or whatever it was that landed them in that jail. As Paul and Silas began to pray, the Spirit of God manifested itself in that jail. Prisoners, shackled to their own desires made a commitment to be shackled to God.
I am reminded of the story behind the song, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.” The hymn was composed by Doris Mae Akers when she was the choir director of the Sky Pilot Church in Los Angeles. As was the choir’s custom they would pray together before the service. On that particular morning Akers asked them to pray again because she felt they had not prayed enough. The choir began to pray with a renewed vigor. The prayers began to fill up the whole room to the point that even though they were late for church, Akers was reluctant to stop. She notified the pastor of the “prayer service” taking place outside of the sanctuary. Finally Akers said to the choir, “I hate to leave this room and I know you hate to leave but you know we have to go to service. But there is such a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.”
I believe that is what happened in the Philippi jail on that fateful night. As Paul and Silas continued to pray, their fellow prisoners, observing these two men shackled to their faith, began to pray. Suddenly in the midst of the prayer service an earthquake rocked the jail. The walls collapsed, the doors were thrown wide open and miraculously no one was hurt. Even more amazing was even though the shackles fell from each of the prisoners and they were free to escape, no one left. Now, instead of being shackled by stocks, they were shackled by the “Sweet, sweet spirit of God.” No one moved because they had no place better place to be.
The jailer was not privy to this conversion experience. He had gone to bed just like he went to bed every other night. His jail was full but his jail was also escape proof, which was good because his very life depended on no one escaping. Should there be a jail break, his punishment would range from life imprisonment to death. He went to bed confident that when he awoke everyone would be in their proper place. Of course his jail had never experienced an earthquake.
When the earth stopped moving, the jailer grabbed a torch and ran to the back of the jail. He saw the collapsed walls and the opened doors. He heart sank as he remembered the punishment if anyone escaped. He drew his sword, prepared to take his own life when Paul intervened, “Sir, don’t take your life. We are all here.”
Up to that point in the jailer’s life, he had derived all meaning from his profession. He was as shackled to his job as Paul had been shackled to the stocks. The jailer was utterly amazed. He didn’t know Paul and Silas but he knows the other men. Why hadn’t they escaped? What were they doing in the midst of the rubble holding a prayer meeting? Hadn’t their prayers been answered when the jail collapsed? Men who days before had been miserable scum caring for no one but themselves sat in a circle lifting up each other in prayer. These were cruel men who had done horrible things. These were men whose lives were as twisted as the roads they had traveled. But now these were men whose eyes reflected the radiant light and whose lips sang songs of joy. The jailer looked at the transformed inmates; he looked at Paul and Silas; then uttered a life changing sentence, “What must I do to be saved?”
Make no mistake. The jailer was not asking how he might get to heaven. The jailer wanted to know how his immediate life might be radically transformed. With the exception of Paul and Silas he knew every inmate in that jail. What he saw that night was beyond human reason. He did not know what Paul and Silas were offering, but whatever it was, he was buying. He wanted to be saved from being shackled. He wanted to be saved from his life. He wanted to be saved from his profession, his oppression, his addiction or his emptiness. We know nothing about this man except that night the jailer encountered what God’s sweet spirit had done to his prisoners and without question, he was ready to drink the Kool-Aid.
Paul took the man’s hands, he looked him square in the eye and he said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, believe that Jesus died for you. Believe that God resurrected Jesus for you. Believe that Christ is in the process of saving you. Believe that God will transform you, God will redeem you, God will make you part of God’s own story line. Believe that your life is not the center of the universe but God’s purpose is. Believe in Jesus and shackle yourself to life, rather than death.
I suspect we are all shackled to something. The question is are we shackled to that which gives us life or are we shackled to something which is slowly eating away at our soul? Are we shackled to a weight that drags us under, causing us to use every last ounce of our strength to gasp for air? Or are we shackled to that which fills our lungs with expressions of joy. I would like to think we come here each Sunday because we are shackled to a Sweet Holy Spirit. I would like to think, in this place, the Holy Spirit fill us with love and blessings. I would like to believe when you come here you to be revived, lifted and prepared to confront the other gods that put their claim on you. Like Dylan said, “You got to serve somebody.” Shackle yourself to the one who offers peace for your discontent, and comfort for your soul. Shackle yourself to Jesus, and be free. Amen.