Sermon-May 8, 2016- The Rev. Nancy Wittig

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26


Whatever one thinks of prison systems there is little doubt that those in jail are stripped of their power and dignity. Most would agree that running afoul of the law has its consequences.

Now there are many different ways to be imprisoned. Some are imprisoned by alcohol and other drugs, whileothers are imprisoned by fear and loathing of those who are different. Some are afraid of Muslims while others are afraid of Christians. Whatever or whoever the focus of fear targets, all are bound and imprisoned.  Jesus plea and prayer for his disciples is in John’s record of Jesus priestly prayer before his arrest and crucifixion.

“I ask not only on behalf of these (disciples), but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

What Jesus is asking for us modern day disciples is a freedom from the pettiness that separates his followers.  Certainly the story from the Acts of the apostles, this morning, gives us a hint of the unity Jesus desires from his disciples.

A slave girl with the gift of divination, follows Paul and Silas around clearly calling out, “These men are slaves/servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She kept doing this for days finally annoying Paul to the point where he orders the spirit of divination out of her in the name of Jesus Christ.  Now he is in trouble as he has taken away the income of her owners-the first release from bondage.

Paul and Silas crossed the legal line and are brought before the magistrate.  They have caused a civil disturbance by advocating what is not legal in Roman law. Paul and Silas are seen as undermining Roman Order with Jewish customs, and threatening the order of the state. This is the most dangerous of all criminal acts. Jesus was charged in similar ways.  They are flogged and thrown into jail, where they are praying and singing hymns. A mighty earthquake takes place loosening all the chains and opening the prison doors. However, they do not escape but stay in place.  Paul hears the jailer about to take his life for failing to keep the prisoners secure, and assures him they have not escaped. The desperate jailer asks the disciples, ” What must I do to be saved? This is a second bondage to be released from.

The slave owners are right: The Gospel subverts the oppressive order.  Even now we know the Gospel to be subversive.  Paul’s answer to the guard is clear, “in the Lord Jesus Christ”. This is the invitation for the jailer and for everyone to focus on God’s action. It is both simple and not so simple. “To focus on God’s action is not a program of self improvement. It is God reaching out to us in Jesus Christ. Trusting in this truth means we stop trying to save ourselves.

This is a reminder that our small lives are swept up into a great drama which is God’s story.  God’s grace takes Paul and Silas out of the synagogue to the streets, where the girl with a spirit of divination annoys them. Is it not God’s yearning that brings wholeness to the girl, no longer exploited?

Being bound takes many forms, whether by chains or by power.  It is these that are made free whether shackled in duty or in chains, in job or family.  There are many kinds of shackles that keep us bound. The seemingly endless need to be entertained by radio and TV, by our electronic devices 24/7.  Watch the number of folks glued to their phones. You even see families at a restaurant, heads bowed not in prayer but on phones.  Are these not prisons without bars and chains? What are you and I captive of?

“The presence of God’s spirit is the occasion for freedom from ourselves and from others. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”.( 2 Cor. 3:17)

To examine the lives of those transformed by the Gospel message, we see them in movement from subservience to to service.(Landers-Feasting on the Word) The jailer moves from a bondage of duty to be a servant of those who were enemies. He invites the prisoners, Paul and Silas, to his home, where he dresses their wounds and feeds them, and where his family and he are baptized in Jesus’ name-a third release from bondage.

All the varied distinctions we humans assign to ourselves and to others are erased in what God has done and is doing with us.  It is not uncommon for institutions to believe that all our varied distinctions must somehow be the same in order to be one.  Homogenization is not what Jesus is praying for but rather he prays that in believing in Him as the Son of a caring and loving God we may be one. How we enflesh the bones of belief may vary but to believe is what is of importance and is seen in how we live our lives in the world and in the faith community.

Jesus prays for all of us, and in this way we are One.  Belief is more than cognitive information.  Belief means a change of heart to live faithfully by which we live lives that invite others to follow Jesus. Unity among believers is The Oneness that leads the world to believe.  The key descriptive of divine relationships is love. Love is the binding reality of the Godhead. Love is the divine gift to the disciples. Love is the grace through which God seeks to attract the world. Love is the linchpin the Lord prays will be within His followers.

To make this happen, to help this to take place is the work of of The Advocate,The Counselor, The Sustaining One, The Holy Spirit. Come Lord Jesus in you we are One!

What are the prisons you find yourself locked in? Do we have a faith community that will sing hymns and pray together with us? Do we ask for help when we need it?  Are you and I tempted to go it alone? The shackles that bound Paul and Silas had little power as they prayed and sang together inviting others to join in.

The blessings of a Mother Theresa or a Pope Francis, an Albert Schweitzer or a small community of Syrian and Palestinian Christians whatever their tradition is how they invite the world to see Jesus. Even a local group- “God before Guns”, sing and pray and march together, remind us of shackles to be broken.

May we find ways in our lives to invite others to see Jesus by our actions and our love for one another.

The Lord is Risen, Alleluia. AMEN.

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