Breaking Chains (May 10-16)

Sunday, May 16
Seventh Sunday of Easter

Focus Theme
Breaking Chains

Weekly Prayer
Precious Love,your ascended Son promised the gift of holy power. Send your Spirit of revelation and wisdom, that in the blessed freedom of hope, we may witness to the grace of forgiveness and sing songs of joy with the peoples of earth to the One who makes us one body. Amen.

Focus Scripture
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.

All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 16:16-34 with Psalm 97 and
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 and
John 17:20-26

Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey

Focus Questions

1. How does it feel to put yourself in the place of each of these characters in the story?

2. What do we learn about the people in this story who are on the edges of what’s happening?

3. What mission are you on in your church, and what is at the heart of it?

4. When has singing hymns helped to sustain you?

5. Is Paul’s undone work left to later times and cultures, and if so, what is left for us to do, in our own time?

Text for Meditation

Believe on the Lord Jesus, / and you will be saved.

For ideas on how to meditate with the Bible, read our article on Praying With the Bible

The adventures of the apostles continue in this colorful story of exorcism and outrage, mob scenes and courtroom drama, liberation and celebration, with Paul at the center of the action, and God very busy at work in the town of Philippi. In last week’s reading from Acts, we met Lydia, the gentile woman of considerable means who brought herself and her whole household to faith in Jesus Christ, all baptized in the midst of great joy. Paul and his entourage, including Silas, and the narrator (perhaps Luke himself), and others, must have been feeling pretty good about how things were going. They followed their routine of going to “the place of prayer,” perhaps down by the river where they had first met Lydia, or perhaps even to a synagogue.

On his regular trips to the place of prayer, Paul keeps encountering a woman who is very different from Lydia. While Lydia was a woman of position and many possessions, with her own household and a business to run, this other woman, really a young girl, is a person in the street, a slave-girl, a possession herself, owned not only by other humans but held captive by a spirit that appears to give her special powers. Scholars call such people “diviners” who were believed to be able to predict the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss; in the Greek culture, these powers were linked to the god Apollo, whose worship center at Delphi had a snake as his symbol. Paul Walaskay explains that people would come to these people, also called “mantics,” to ask them questions which they would answer while in a trance, speaking “in the spirit of the snake-god.” That may sound a bit exotic to us, but Walaskay tells us that in her own setting, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture.”

The picture Walaskay paints of this young girl differs somewhat from the people tortured by spirits and demons usually encountered (and exorcized) by Jesus. This girl is a lucrative small-business enterprise for the men who own her. Like so many young girls, she is used by others, but her strange public announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries, we suspect, do not bring much income to her owners. “These men,” she cries out, “are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Her wording sounds odd to our ears, because she calls them “slaves,” and refers to a God that is not her own as “the Most High God,” although it was not uncommon for gentiles to call the Jewish God by that name.

“Very much annoyed”

Although some may say that Paul acted out of compassion for the girl, the text plainly says that Paul was “very much annoyed,” so it seems fair to say that this exorcism is almost impulsive. Paul is tired of being heckled by the spirit that possesses her and can recognize who he is, who his God is, and what he has to offer. He’s focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn’t appear to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, ironically, even though she proclaims the truth. Is she too loud, or too repetitious, or is it just too much for the truth to come from such a source?

What is much more puzzling, and much more troubling, is a question several commentators linger on: what about this young girl’s life afterward? Isn’t she still a slave, and isn’t Paul moved to help her beyond freeing her from the spirit that possessed her? Lawrence W. Farris is haunted by this slave girl and the way Paul fails to challenge the system of slavery that holds her bound just as much as the spirit had. Are we asking too much of Paul, a man of his time and culture? Curiously, Farris says that Paul is “implicitly” challenging “the economic system of the day,” but the text doesn’t really indicate that as much as it describes his annoyance at being interrupted, or perhaps heckled. Paul was on a mission, and he didn’t really see the girl or her healing as part of that mission, and certainly not as at the heart of it. What “suffering slave girls” may annoy you on your way and yet draw you back to the heart of God’s call? Would these marginalized people recognize you as a “slave of the Most High God”?

All of us need to be freed

There is another way to approach this text that focuses on the ways we humans are captive to forces more powerful than we are. Farris is eloquent in asking the “unspoken question” in this text: “But what about the girl?” In our turn, he writes, we each ask, “‘But what about me? What is yet to be saved in my perception and behavior?’ Answers abound in this story–from financial idolatry to classism to fear of public opinion to xenophobia to anti-Semitism to legalism–and in every human life, time, and place.” We think that slavery is something from a time long past, at least in most of the world, something from a more unjust culture. But Farris’ questions bring home to us the reality of our own captivities and our need for chains that are broken, for liberation, for grace.

The girl is quickly left behind when the men who own her decide to go after Paul and his companions. The kangaroo court that follows seems to have little to do with the exorcism, when the men make all sorts of accusations against the missionaries. They don’t try to recover the money they lost, Ron Hansen writes: “They don’t want justice; they want revenge.” And they go about it in an ugly way, making what David Tiede calls “a standard anti-Jewish charge”: they were causing trouble with their strange customs and teachings. The charge of disturbing the peace is an easy and vague enough charge to put on “trouble-makers” of every kind, and the 40th anniversary of the May 4 Kent State tragedy is a reminder that this is true in every age.

Wholehearted acceptance of the gospel

We do not know what is in Paul’s heart and mind when he drives the spirit from the girl, but we do know the price he and Silas pay, after the crowd turns on them, and the authorities order them flogged and thrown in the deepest part of the prison, where despair thrives. And yet exactly the opposite happens, as the two men, chained at their ankles and unable to move around, still sing hymns and pray, capturing the rapt attention of all the other prisoners. More excitement ensues when an earthquake hits and the prison is broken open, and Paul and Silas are able, if they wish, to walk free. We don’t know why Paul stays, but he seems to know the price that his jailer will pay: Ron Hansen notes “the difference of Christianity in its refusal to sacrifice anyone, even an ill-regarded slave or a jailor, for gain or expediency.” What happens next is one more illustration of the power of the gospel to transform lives, when the jailer and his family (like Lydia and her household) are baptized into the faith. These are outsiders coming in, responding wholeheartedly to the good news Paul preaches, an inclusive gospel of grace that is summed up so powerfully in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Paul Walaskay does a wonderful job of tying these two texts together: “Our narrator,” he writes, “has skillfully expanded Paul’s groundbreaking statement in Galatians 3:28 into an elegant story. ‘There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the mantic, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the mantic] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer], or female [Lydia, the mantic]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'”

When the jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul answers simply that he should “believe on the Lord Jesus.” This is still a difficult question today, and Paul’s answer presents its own challenges as well. Perhaps we need to spend much more time on what it means to “believe” (and Marcus Borg has written so helpfully on this in books like The Heart of Christianity). However, Ronald Cole-Turner’s reflects on this question in the context of this story and poses this question for each one of us, personally: “What must I do,” he asks, “to be saved from what destroys me? What must I do to be saved from my particular bondage, my oppressive addiction, emptiness, or boredom? There are countless ways to lose our way in this world or to be in bondage, just as there are many different threats from which we need to be saved.” One of the most powerful captivities of our age, besides materialism and militarism, is the way fear can imprison us in our convictions and our desire for security, making us unable to open our hearts and minds to others, to events, to the God who still speaks through them. How amazed the jailer must be, just as he’s about to kill himself, to see that the prisoners are still there! Fear almost leads to death, but compassion leads to his life, and his family’s life, being transformed. Cole-Turner writes that “Believing….means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God’s story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption.”

Singing hymns in prison

One note about Paul and Silas in prison: Richard Landers writes, “Prayer and hymns seem out of place for such a dire setting. We wonder why they are still awake singing at midnight.” And yet, when we think of slavery and, later, the Civil Rights movement in our own country, we remember the power of prayer and song in sustaining a people in their own form of captivity. There is hardly a better, and more appropriate place, for prayer and singing hymns.

Lawrence Farris observes that everyone in this story needs to be freed, not only the slave girl but the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power or maybe for the public peace), the jailer (owned by the empire), and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, who need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking. What’s the surprise that greets us on our way to ministry, the obstacle that has something important to teach us, or better yet, the opportunity that obstacle may offer for us to do something really wonderful for the sake of the gospel? Whether it’s small and personal, for one individual, or big and communal (maybe even global!), like taking down a corrupt system, it is still a call. And we are free to say yes, or to say no and continue on our way.

There is one more note that is irresistible: how can we read this story and not have our memories come alive with all the talk of washing wounds, being baptized, and sharing a meal? Doesn’t that sound familiar to us across all the centuries, and isn’t it at the heart of who we are as followers of Jesus? David Tiede sums it up most eloquently: “This story is a remarkable example of the irrepressible hope with which the apostolic movement was sustained in its encounters in the disparate and contentious urban contexts of the Roman order.” The adventures continue, throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and today as well, two thousand years later, in the church that claims to follow Jesus, in a world still captive, a world still hungry for good news.

A preaching version of this commentary (with source titles) can be found on

For further reflection

William Gurnall, 17th century
And while God had work for Paul, he found him friends both in court and prison. Let persecutors send saints to prison, God can provide a keeper for their turn.

Charles W. Colson, 20th century
I can work for the Lord in or out of prison.

Gene Tierney, 20th century
I existed in a world that never is–the prison of the mind.

Thucydides, 5th century B.C.E.
The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.

Walter Cronkite, 20th century
There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.


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