Seventh Sunday in Easter 2004

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, NY
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on May 23, 2004. 
Based on Acts 16:16-34 (7 Easter, Year C).

Sing Sing it’s not. The jail at Philippi will never be confused with the Super Max. Paul and Silas escape, the prison is destroyed, and the jailer is converted! This was definitely not the crown jewel of the Roman prison system.  

In this morning’s account from Acts we hear about a miraculous prison break. After a flimsy accusation about disturbing the peace, Paul and Silas are dragged before the authorities, “severely flogged,” and thrown into prison. And we’re told that the jailer was ordered to keep them securely, so he “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” With a little help from a violent earthquake we then learn that “the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” This jail is hardly a maximum-security prison.

But beyond the “Escape from Alcatraz” drama, this is a strong reminder about Christianity’s power. Even the strongest prison cannot contain the Christian faith. Prison walls, no matter how thick and prison bars, no matter how strong, cannot restrain the power of Christ. Christianity breaks down the barriers between the enslaved and the free. And human constraints don’t stand a chance.

This story shows us the true contrast between freedom and imprisonment. And it has nothing to do with physical confinement. It has nothing to do with a lock down. Even while being flogged in the marketplace, even as prisoners, even while chained to the floor, Paul and Silas were free. Faith in Christ had already released them. And no manacle is strong enough to hold down a living, vibrant faith in Jesus Christ. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Romans, neither death nor life, neither chains nor prison walls, can separate us from the love of God. If we recognize that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s, then whether we are confined or unfettered, we are also the Lord’s. 

Most of us can’t relate to being locked up in prison. But we can relate to feelings of imprisonment in our own lives. We know what it’s like to be imprisoned by sin or illness or an abusive relationship or fear or self-doubt. There is plenty of imprisonment to go around. But Jesus desires nothing more than to set us free. And with this freedom nothing is impossible. Which is precisely why Paul and Silas were able to sing hymns and pray even while locked away in such a seemingly desperate moment. They had long ago been set free by faith and so mere manacles were insignificant. Not pleasant. Not without suffering. But in the grand scheme of the Christian life and faith, it’s never the end of the story. And Christ is present with them through it all.

Prisons have been in the news recently. We’ve all been horrified by the images of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Gharib. It’s hard to imagine this system stems from the root word ‘penitentiary’ from the Christian concept of penitence. Being made aware of our sinfulness so that we may turn and repent. Something several of our soldiers seem to desperately need. But these images also support that great divide between imprisonment and freedom that we’re speaking of this morning. The lines are not as clear-cut as they seem.

Look at the Roman jailer. By the world’s standards, a jailer is the ultimate free man. He stares at the imprisoned each day and then, when the workday is done, leaves it all behind and returns home to his family. If there’s anyone who can truly appreciate freedom it must be the jailer. And yet without Christ’s presence in his life, even as a “free” man, this particular jailer epitomizes imprisonment. Externally free but internally imprisoned. And it is only his conversion to Christ that truly sets him free.

The metaphor of confinement is used a lot in Scripture. We are slaves to sin and death. Without the liberating power of Christ, we live in bondage. But faith in Jesus Christ sets us free. Through his resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of sin and death. And so Christ’s resurrection is the ultimate jail break. And this entire Easter Season has been a celebration of our freedom through Christ’s resurrection. Freedom from death, freedom from sin, freedom from fear.

Sometimes it feels like a prison around here. We have wardens – Janice and Diane. Our ushers function, at times, like guards. Some of you were forced to come here this morning and you can’t leave until it’s over. There’s not as much overcrowding as I’d like. 

But then we remember the wonderful image of the yoke of Christ. If we are faithful Christians we are imprisoned by God. But it’s an imprisonment of love. The yoke is easy, the burden is light. And the freedom is immeasurable. 

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

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