In January of 2009, our then diocesan bishop George Councell launched an initiative called the Ministry to the Imprisoned. Having two youth correctional facilities close by, I looked into it, only to find that both were already well served by clergy of our diocese, a gratifying discovery. I’ve been to both our facilities, as a priest and a firefighter (and I did a wedding out at Ward Ave), and I’ve visited the county jail in Monmouth County, but I’ve never been to a prison prison. If prison is worse than jail and jail is worse than juvie, then I’m probably not really cut out for prison ministry; just walking up makes you want to turn and walk away.
I got to thinking about all of this when pondering the stories from the Acts of the Apostles this week. We hear, really, three stories of imprisonment: the poor slave girl, in bondage to both a demon and to her owners, who make money off her spirit’s soothsaying, and Paul and Silas (and probably Luke and others) being imprisoned for setting that poor slave girl of at least one of her bonds.
Unlike last week when a crippled man caught Paul’s attention by being attentive and faithful, this girl caught his attention by following him around screaming. “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” She happened to be correct, which might have made her even more annoying to Paul. Luke tells us that the girl had a python spirit; we’re not exactly sure why Luke called it a python spirit, but one clue is that Python was the name given to the serpent that kept guard at Delphi…and the prophetess at Delphi was termed Pythia.1
So, anyway, “Paul eventually tires of her enslavement and casts the evil spirit right out of the slave girl. Though we can be certain this was a great relief for this girl, Luke doesn’t tell us what happens to her. Luke does, however, tell us what happens to the slave girl’s masters. They sense Paul has snapped off their meal ticket’s psychic antenna. Since this creates a cash flow problem for the slave’s masters, they haul Paul and company off to court. Religion has gotten mixed up with economics in Philippi and, as is often the case, religion loses. After all, the slave girl’s owners accuse Paul and company of disturbing the peace, in other words, of disrupting their profitable business.
“The Philippians, apparently committed capitalists, fall right into line with the masters. To “keep the peace” they attack and batter Paul and Silas. Not content with such vigilante justice, however, the local judges order soldiers to also strip and brutally beat the apostles. They then banish them to the back cell of the city jail. So while God has used Paul and Silas to set a pitiful young woman free, in the process, the authorities have jailed the apostles. The liberators have become the prisoners.”2
Nowadays, it’s easy, almost fashionable, to be held captive by any number of things. We’ve all felt captive to something at some time, right? Addiction in its many forms, Netflix binges, maybe you’ve actually been held captive (we have parishioners who have been). Or perhaps you are held captive by anger, by sorrow, by anxiety, by guilt. We have all, at one time or another, been captive to sin, usually one we really like but eats away at us still – no one is exempt from that.
And one thing we can agree on is that being imprisoned, physically or spiritually, is not particularly pleasant. In today’s story, the Apostles turned their prison stay into a hymnsing. I imagine that Stephen would say that their choice in hymns was so bad that the earth literally shook in protest, but either in protest or by the hand of God, the earth shook, the captives were made free.
Maybe they were free already; free in Christ, so free that even in physical bonds, their chosen response was to sing to the Lord. So free that even the jail warden came to that same freedom, freedom from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil, free from everlasting damnation.
The gift that we, like the Apostles, have received, the gift of grace in Christ Jesus, is clear and evident in this place. Having celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord on Thursday, looking forward to celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit next week, we can sing with the Apostles, sing in our many ways: we can actually sing, though my voice may shake the earth; we can sing out in our good works, big and small; and we can sing out to the Lord in letting others know the joy, peace, and freedom we have found in His holy Name. And this morning, as we have so much to celebrate, let us sing out in prayer for all those held captive here and around the world, that their hearts may be turned to God.