At first glance, these two passages don’t seem to relate well to each other. But I think they have a lot to teach us – especially here and now. In Acts, we are seeing some of the earliest stages in the growth of the church in the Gentile world. And this section is really applicable to us in the 21st century West, because at the end of the day it’s full of imagery and depictions of slavery. Count them up!
There is a slave girl – she is property of human masters, who use her for their own financial gain. This is the age old tale of human trafficking – and it’s one we should remember is still with us today, even here in the rural south west of the UK, with genuine slaves working for agricultural gangs, or in nail parlours and beauty salons, or in the sex trade. People taken, or tricked, into working against their will for someone else’s gain.
But if we look deeper, she herself is doubly enslaved, not only to her human owners, but also to a darker power. Perhaps an evil spirit, perhaps what we would now call a form of mental illness – it doesn’t really matter, what’s important is that she is not the mistress of her fate in the world, because of her human owners, but she is not even the captain of her soul, which is in bondage to a darker force still. This is a type of slavery that many of us recognise, either because we have had mental health problems, or because we recognise it in friends and family. And there seems to be an epidemic of mental illness at the moment: we are certainly seeing it in education and in the professions.
Moving on in the passage, Paul and Silas are imprisoned, chained, and locked away by the city authorities. The passage specifically tells us that their feet are chained, even though they are in a locked room. And this is utterly unmerited – both unjust and, as it emerges later in this chapter, completely illegal under Roman law. Not for nothing does Paul complain bitterly in 1 Thessalonians that he was “treated outrageously in Philippi”.
There’s another example here that is more subtle. In fact, I hadn’t really picked up on it myself until I reread the passage while preparing this talk. The jailer himself. He is a slave to The System; he is so afraid that his charges might have escaped that he is going to kill himself – out of shame, and out of fear that he will lose his place in the world – or even be punished himself. How many of us are enslaved like this, if we’re really honest? How many of us are in thrall to our job, our work, even our voluntary commitments, to the point that they cease to be a source of joy for us and become shackles in themselves?
One thing that strikes me with most types of slavery is that the person who is enslaved is powerless: they feel alone, isolated, unable to reach out for help. This may or may not be true, but they feel that it is, that any reaching out would bring down worse on them.
Perhaps the person who is forcibly trafficked or put to work fears their tormentor. Will they be beaten? Will their family suffer? Will they be killed?
Maybe the person with mental illness fears the consequences of asking for help. Will everyone laugh? Will they lose their job, their home, their family? Perhaps it’s even more subtle – they genuinely believe that people would be better off without them, and fear telling people because of the harm it would do the people they tell.
The person imprisoned might fear other prisoners, the guards, even perhaps the public outside, so much that they dare not reach out because to do so would be to show weakness.
And I suspect that the person enslaved by their responsibilities fears the shame of not meeting them – perhaps even more fears the loss of identity if those responsibilities are taken away. But that makes them alone too, in many ways – feeling that no-one will understand, and that admitting that they are trapped will result in loss of the responsibilities they care so much for.
Enslavement and loneliness are both chains that bind us. But that’s where these two passages come together in glorious harmony.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is praying with the eleven, immediately before journeying to Gethsemene, where he knows he will be arrested, tried, and put to death. He is praying for them, but also for all of us – all believers.
He prays that the believers should be one – united with each other. Sadly, we don’t see that in the world at the moment, with different Christians laying into each other over political and theological disputes. But beyond all the surface froth, we all acclaim the same Lord, we all follow the same Christ, we all profess the same hope: everything else is secondary. We should be united, so that the world can believe that God sent Christ, who in turn sent us.
But above all we are united with God – as the Father, the Son and the Spirit are three persons, united in one Godhead, so Jesus prays for us to be loved by the Father as much as he is, filled with the Spirit as he is, united with him. That can be hard to take, especially on a dark or difficult day, when God seems far away. But in verse 23 – “that they may become completely one” – Jesus promises that we are on a journey to unity, and that one bad day doesn’t break it; Jesus is risen, and we are promised new life with him.
There’s one other depiction of slavery in this passage from Acts, that doesn’t fit the pattern of the others I’ve discussed, but it’s one that the slave girl – or her spiritual captor – recognises in Paul and Silas. She calls them the “slaves of the Most High God”. Take a moment to think about that image. Some other translations put this as “servants”, but if we read the earlier passages, “Slaves” seems a good fit: in verses 6 and 7, Paul and Silas are prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching in Asia, and from entering Bithynia, even though in both cases they want to.
Paul and Silas are also are in a state of spiritual servitude: but in their case, it is freely and gladly entered into. They have bound themselves to God, and they trust completely in Him. Even when imprisoned, still they pray and still they sing! Why? Because they know one ultimate fact, that changes the way we see the universe. It is easy to forget it, and we have to relearn it regularly, but it is, I believe, the key to all those locks and chains that trap us.
We are not alone.
Our fellow believers, the church, that great cloud of witnesses before us and after us, the whole host of heaven, and above all, God himself, are with us. And all those chains will crumble to dust in the face of that. We aren’t promised an easy walk through this life. But even if we can’t feel it, we can know we are never alone, we are never forsaken, we are never forgotten.
“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.” When Jesus died, there was a great earthquake. And when he rose on Easter Day, everyone’s chains were broken.
Whatever the chains that bind us, if we put our hope in Christ, and bind ourselves to follow him, those chains cease to have any meaning beyond this world. Our bodies may be enslaved, maybe even our minds: but our souls belong to God, and he will never abandon us.
So even in the worst times, like Paul and Silas, we should take heart, embrace the inner peace that God gives us – and embrace the strength to rescue those around us. Those in physical captivity; those in spiritual captivity; those like the poor jailer, enslaved by their own responsibilities; and those bound in chains of loneliness. As Isaiah says, Jesus came to “set the captives free”, to break those chains, and give us all peace in that freedom from the chains that bind.