So I’ve used it a lot over the years, as you can imagine. Paul and Silas are the victims of spite, trumped up charges, a bit of mob rule and some inept decisions by those in authority. The magistrates had had them flogged, not realising that both Paul and Silas had the status of Roman citizens, which should have protected them from treatment like that.
Later they had to make a grovelling apology. Next morning, the magistrates sent a message to the jailer telling him to let Paul and Silas go. But the two apostles refused to go; they stayed put in prison, and sent a message back saying, “You gave us a public flogging and threw us into prison without a trial. If you want us to go, come and escort us out yourselves, rather than sneaking us out via the back door. And by the way, an apology would be nice, since we are both Roman citizens.”
But that comes after the reading we’ve heard this morning. To begin with, there they are in prison, whiling away the time by singing hymns. It’s late at night by then, but they’re singing and praying, and the other prisoners are listening, one hopes gladly. Then all of a sudden there’s an earthquake. That part of the Mediterranean was and is prone to earthquakes, and this one certainly shook things up. Their chains fell off - their arms and legs would have been shackled, and maybe their necks as well. The cell doors swung open. Meanwhile the jailer had probably been knocked unconscious. When he came to and saw all the doors open, and all his prisoners presumably gone, he drew his sword to end his own life. But just in time, Paul shouts, “Don’t do it! We’re all still here!” It’s all so dramatic!
The reality is that those were cruel and brutal days. A jailer whose prisoners escaped would face the same punishment as them or worse. It surprises me that Paul and Silas were able to persuade the other prisoners to stay, since we’re told that the earthquake had released every one of them; but somehow he got them to see their escape could only be at the cost of their jailer’s life.
And so they all stayed. And the jailer was so amazed and overcome by that selfless act that he fell at Paul’s feet, and that night he and all his household were baptized. Liberation had come to the man responsible for their imprisonment. And even before he was baptized, the jailer treated and cleaned the wounds Paul and Silas had from their flogging, while later he invited them to eat in his own house - a kindness that proved the genuineness of his new faith. “I turn to Christ,” people say at a baptism service. Truly turning to Christ means also turning to kindness, compassion, fellow feeling and mutual service.
But wasn’t that was what got Paul and Silas into prison in the first place? They’d been exasperated by the shouting of a girl whose gifts of prophecy brought big profits to her owners. But they must also have been exasperated by her situation - being a good earner for people who owned her, while having no life of her own. What they did released her, gave her a life again. You could say it was an act of liberation that imprisoned Paul and Silas.
Those who seek to build a better world will always be met by vested interests who don’t want things to change - particularly when it hits them in the pocket, or they think it might. Think of eco campaigners today. The world is drowning in single use plastic - but how able are we to do anything much about it? There are so many vested interests, from the companies that make big profits out of plastic, via the supermarkets for whom products packaged in plastic are easier to move and display and sell, and therefore more profitable, to you and me who find it so easy to use something once then throw it away.
Liberation isn’t always easy. Not everyone who’s offered it wants it - it can be more comfortable in a cage. Our pet rabbit escaped when I was little. We thought it was gone for good, but next day there it was back in its run. It felt safer there. But though a cage can be gilded and given every mod com, it’s still a cage.
Our story shows us two forms of justice. The first is the justice meted out by the magistrates, justice meted out by those in power: in this case misused and distorted, kowtowing to the loudest voices and those with vested interests. Like too much of the justice we find in worldly places. But then we see the justice God desires, modelled by Paul and Silas both before and during their time in prison. God’s justice honours the other person, desires their freedom, and is motivated by kindness, compassion and love. This is the justice that rolls down like waters, that lifts every valley and levels out every hill; the justice of the Magnificat, that lifts up the lowly: justice that makes a positive difference. This justice is always linked with those other two important Bible words, righteousness and mercy. And this is the justice of the Kingdom of God.
Paul and Silas were locked up because the girl’s owners, and the mob, and the magistrates, labelled them as dangerous. And so they were - to those who dealt unfairly, to those who acted unjustly, to those who imprisoned others. Jesus came to make changes to that, to set people free, to set free both the oppressed and the oppressor. Liberation is one word for that: his Gospel changes people and transforms situations. It casts down the mighty from their thrones, to quote again from the Magnificat. But maybe that’s us - comparatively powerful and fairly comfortable, at any rate. And then it won’t always feel like change for the better. The owners of the slave girl were set free by Paul from their unfair exploitation of her, but I don’t imagine they saw it in terms of liberation. It’ll have felt unfair, unlawful even, because of the way it damaged their interests.
We rightly identify them as being among the baddies in this story - but don’t we sometimes do the same? Thy kingdom come, we pray, so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the smooth running of our lives. As long as it doesn’t cost too much, or take up too much space in my diary.
This is the penultimate Sunday of Easter, and the last Sunday to bear the name of Easter. The great fifty days of Easter end next Sunday on the birth day of the Church, Pentecost. For forty days the disciples struggled to understand not just that Jesus had risen, but what it actually was he’d done for them and for the world on the Cross: to see the Cross as a place of triumph, not of defeat. Then for ten days they prayed, as we’re praying now, between Ascension and Pentecost.
We have proclaimed the Resurrection, and we’ve sung the hymns, heard the stories, repeated the alleluias. But next Sunday Pentecost will challenge us: “Are we living the Resurrection?” Last week, Jesus asked a crippled man lying by the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?” Today the question is, “Do you want to be free?” The liberation of Jesus Christ breaks open all kinds of chains, just as that earthquake did. It takes away in the end the labels of oppressed and oppressor that are part of how the world’s systems imprison us. If we’re truly God’s people, if we’ve found in him the healing and forgiveness and freedom we need, then we’ll be known by a new name, a name that’s made visible in how we live: in fellowship and community and service.
Let me close with the last verse of one of our hymns :-
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart,
come quickly from above;
write thy new name upon my heart,
thy new best name of Love. Amen.