Acts 16:16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. *******************************************************************************************************************************************************
Last week we saw Paul live out the consequences of living his call. He healed a slave girl, and he and Silas were thrown into prison. We blamed Paul's tardy response to the girl's condition on his own zeal to build a church. Perhaps he was so busy going about building a church, he had forgotten the importance of kingdom building. (See Part 1) However, there are some other possible other reasons for not helping her immediately. One could have been that Paul knew the consequences of his actions- he wasn't stupid-the Roman government had been allowing Jews to live as a state within a state-they had their own laws, their own tax system, their own judicial system... until recently, that is. when Jews began including non-Jews (Gentiles) in their religion-they were no longer considered an ethnic minority. And they began to fall under the same rules of government as anyone else. One of those laws was 'no new religious ideas to be presented to the people'- and that was precisely what the Christ believing Jews had done. There was constant arguing about what being a Jew really meant- who was a Jew and who was not? And problems in Rome had escalated to the point where this new sect, who would soon be called 'Christians,' were outlawed. Philippi was a province of Rome- and although they had not outlawed Christianity- there were rumors already of what was going on in Rome. The magistrates were going to do what they had to in order to keep peace.
When Paul healed the slave girl, when he made it so that she could no longer perform for her owners, she became valueless to her owners. He hadn't destroyed their property- but Paul (well, God, through Paul) had taken away the spirit of divination, and therefore her money making ability. Her owners were understandably furious- but as there was no law against lessening value of property on the books, the owners, went to the magistrate- ( they were probably politically connected) and they built a case against Paul and Silas, using the new law in Rome as a basis for their argument. “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews ( the actual word in Greek means "Jews from the beginning" or, "Jews from birth") and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans (notice they site what is going on in Rome) to adopt or observe.” And the magistrate has them flogged- (severe beating). And after they are stripped and beaten, raw and bloody, they are put into the stocks, and the jailer puts them in the innermost cell. First century prisons then had three areas- the outer cells where there was light and fresh air, the inner cells which were for more hardened criminals with no windows, it was damp and dark, rodent and insect infested due to dampness. Third area was the dungeon. The dungeon was the lower level of the prison, set aside mostly for torture and for criminals facing execution. Paul and Silas were placed in the middle level- with hardened criminals.
As night falls, and the Jailer has everyone locked down securely, he returns to his post. But his plans for a quiet night are soured- because from the innermost cell, he hears singing... Paul and Silas have struck up a hymn... lets stop here...
Look at their situation. In prison- for what they thought was long and indefinite sentence- beaten raw and bloody- in pitch black- lord knows what was crawling lord knows where on their flesh- and from all accounts, they ended up there for doing what was right in the sight of God! Being obedient to the call of Christ on their life had landed them in a dark and hopeless situation. Yet they sang.
Have you been there? Have you been in a situation that was so dark, and you've been beaten so badly that you've felt there was no way out? Life can be so hard sometimes and depression falls so deep; we could have been hurt so badly and stripped down to where we have nothing left... and we are raw and bloody... and we find ourselves, whether someone put us there, or we put ourselves there... in the innermost cell... and every night as darkness falls, we're tortured by our situation.... "how did I get here? Why is he doing this to me? How will I find the money? Why do I stay in this relationship? How much longer did the doctor say?... Yet they sang... Yet they sang!
We don't know the song they sang. We assume it was a psalm of some kind, and while you could argue that it must have been a lament psalm like one of those "How Long o Lord" psalms, I believe it was a psalm of praise. One that boasts of God's strength and might- one that proclaims God's healing power- one that speaks of God setting things right and shaking the very foundations of the earth! A psalm of thanksgiving- not for their situation, but for God's power to bring about justice and salvation and freedom despite their situation. They sang of the change that they were now a part of...
And that song was their sermon- that song was their testimony, and the other prisoners who were listening were moved by the testimony of Paul and Silas... That's powerful! In fact, it went beyond powerful- it was earth shaking- and the prison doors were opened, and the chains that held them, in fact, the chains that held all the prisoners fell off! As an aside... I know, we are 21st century intellectual, educated people- and we scoff at the earthquake and make it metaphorical and discount the power of what may have actually happened- but even in our most cynical jaded minds... is it conceivable to you, that the power of praise in your life is strong enough to shake you to freedom? Is it even a remote possibility that whatever prison you've found yourself in, that has tortured you and rendered you powerless could be overcome by praise? I will say unashamedly that I believe there is power in praising God that transforms... that can shine light on your darkest hour- because once you add God to any situation, all of a sudden you are not alone- and there is freedom in that.
But that's not the end of this story. After the chains fall off and the prison doors open, the jailer is sure he's going to have a riot on his hands, and if the prisoners who he has beaten and regularly mistreated don't kill him, the government will hold him responsible, so he decides to just take his life on his own. But as he draws his sword, he hears Paul shout out from the innermost cell, "Don't do it! We're all still here... we're not going anywhere, and we're not going to hurt you."
The jailer calls for the lights- (maybe in our language, a light bulb goes off) and he runs to Paul and Silas and tells them, "Whatever it is you guys have, I want it.... what do I have to do to have salvation?" And the jailer, is changed forever, right on the spot!
And the jailer washed their wounds and took them to his house... This same jailer who beat them senseless, locked them raw and bloody in the stocks... was now washing their wounds!
So I have one final question. When do we let the ones who have hurt us, wash our wounds? When do we let the ones who have caused us so much pain, close enough to us that they can actually help us heal? What does that even look like?
Because I know it's so much easier to just walk away from the ones who hurt us. It's easier to write them off and wipe your brow and say, "Thank God they aren't in my life anymore! They were poison to me! They made my life hell!" And sometimes that is very true... certainly in Paul's case. It would have been very easy for him to just walk away- God had freed him- he was blessed- and he embraced the gift... But there was one more step. Part of Paul living out his freedom- part of Paul becoming the best version of himself- was in the ministry of reconciliation.
(And here is where my congregation always says (under their breath of course) "Oh not that again! Does it always have to come down to healing and reconciliation?"
Actually, it does. Now I need a short disclaimer here and say that reconciliation doesn't necessarily warrant physical closeness. Sometimes a relationship can be so broken and there are factors like abuse or crime or other things that may cause us (wisely) to never be around that person again.
But many times, someone hurts us, or hurts our feelings, and we just write that person off. It's easier not to engage that person again. In fact, we can carry a grudge so long, sometimes we don't remember the argument- you just remember the hurt.
But if our desire is to walk in love as a people of God; if our journey is true discipleship.... if our destination is to someday become the very best version of ourselves, (all that God has designed for us to be) then reconciliation is our only path. True healing only happens when we dare to reconcile and true freedom only happens when we choose to forgive the ones who have hurt us. Our wounds get washed as we dare allow the one or the ones who have caused us pain back into our space. And like i said, it need not be physical space- we need only allow them entry into our mind space- but what we offer them is a piece of our heart space- even when they don't deserve it.
And yes, washing wounds is a painful process. When we're standing toe to toe with someone who we need to reconcile with, we're guarded... we watch every time they dip that towel into the bucket of water and bring it back to our arm... 'will they hurt us again? Are they sincere? Have they really changed and grown? Will it be different this time?'
Whether we are the ones doing the forgiving, or the ones offering forgiveness it's not easy. But I promise you, it is the one way to our own healing- and our own wholeness. And God will not leave you alone as you go...