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. While 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.” She 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.

But 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He 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.

One thing is certain. The Biblical authors named this book appropriately. The Acts of the Apostles illustrate the many acts of the first disciples, and all the many miles they walked to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading is no exception. In 18 verses we have the equivalent of a Cecil B. De Mille production. The action is packed and includes an exorcism, mob scene, kangaroo court, flogging, prison cell, prison worship, act of God/earthquake, altar call, conversion, several baptisms, and it ends with new friends gathered around the table, sharing a meal in the name of our Lord.

What I want to look at is the last part of the story in the passage, specifically the jailer in charge of Paul and Silas.

Paul and Silas were huge risk takers, and their behavior usually landed them behind bars. In fact, Paul’s missionary journeys might best be entitled, Paul’s Prison Ministry. In this passage, Paul and Silas are in jail, and the man in charge of them is a nameless fella. He is simply following the rules of the Roman authorities. After Paul and Silas are flogged, the jailer takes them to their cell and shackles their feet.

Now, while the jailer is sleeping, and on the job mind you, Paul and Silas are praying and singing. Then, all of a sudden, an earthquake happens. It is so strong that the shackles fall off Paul and Silas. Fearing what will happen when the authorities discover he lost two prisoners, the jailer decides it is best to simply fall on his sword. But Paul called out and stopped him saying, “Do not harm yourself; we are all here.”

And then the jailer’s questions become the linchpin to the whole story. “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be set free?”

And the jailer’s questions are ours too. Jesus is who ultimately unshackles all of us. Jesus sets us free. Each of us has our own form of chains or demons or prison cells. It might be anxiety, addiction, doubt or fear. It may be that we cannot forgive ourselves or someone else. It might be that our bank account is where all our security exists. It might be pride, a painful memory, or a mental or physical illness. Each of us has our own story of a demon that might be imprisoning us. We must not be afraid to name what it is and to ask for help.

The question of Paul’s jailer is our question: What must I do to be set free? The answer might shake us to our foundation like an earthquake.

We don’t know the jailer’s name, but we know that when he encountered Jesus, his life was changed. He was shaken and set free. And that can be our narrative too. And this, my friends, is definitely good news.

Melissa +

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne

(Charles Wesley)