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Acts 16:16-34

I’ve been following the news of the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. It’s a sad story to say the least, that there was such an unhappy response to the country’s first publicly elected president. Democracy is harder to do than we often think it is. It’s especially difficult to win well, by whatever system. In the first days of this overthrow, the military interim government seemed to indiscriminately arrest Islamists, and rival factions have been openly fighting each other for control of the next step. According to his opponents, Morsi’s problem was overuse of power too; he was democratically elected, but he assumed unlimited power last year (temporarily). Democracy is hard work.

I give thanks this weekend for the hard work of US independence. It began as a general idea, marked off with words like “self-evident,” “inalienable rights,” and “necessity.” Our country took years to establish a workable constitution, decades to grant everyone basic personal liberty, and almost two centuries to affirm a truly universal right to vote. And the work goes on. We also have to acknowledge that we have misused our freedom along the way – we’ve abused the land’s indigenous people, despoiled the environment, allowed the rich to take advantage of the poor. Grateful as I am to be an American, we have by no means been a perfect country. There’s a saying among my more cynical friends – “Celebrate freedom: eat meat, drink beer, blow stuff up” (I only did one of those this weekend). But embedded in that critique is the idea that there’s a right way to do this. So how should we use our freedom?

Today in Acts, we see that God is in the freedom business. Almost everyone in this story comes out more free than when they started. Paul and Silas encounter a slave girl who is possessed by a spirit of divination. This spirit knew that they were from God, and it wouldn’t shut up about it. Paul finally frees the girl from the spirit, because he’s annoyed. It’s an imperfect scene to be sure. Why did Paul wait so long to cast out her spirit? Why did he not free her from slavery at the same time? Of course, we can ask the same questions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s challenging to celebrate groundbreaking changes by today’s standards, but they’re remarkable in their own terms.

It’s disappointing that God didn’t speak more clearly against Greco-Roman slavery here, but he did treat this girl as more than mere chattel. God freed her from possession, in a spiritual sense at least. But she was still technically property, and according to the law of the day, Paul broke her. Her owners pressed charges, and Paul and Silas end up going before the Philippi Un-Roman Activities Committee. The charges are something more than a property crime. It would seem like freedom from slavery and fear are foreign ways in Philippi, because freedom is not how the world’s power usually works. The accusers assume Paul and Silas are not citizens and so are entitled to fewer rights (we’ll find later that this isn’t true), so they toss them in jail to deal with at the officials’ convenience.

This is where we find the real meat of the story. God frees Paul and Silas from prison with a great special-effects, non-destructive earthquake. The doors open and everyone’s chains fall off. But it’s a strange jailbreak, because the erstwhile captives just sit and wait for the jailer to wake up and find them. It’s strange because Paul and Silas weren’t really captive. They were free to pray and sing, and their prayer and song kept them free. They kept the reality of God ahead of them. That’s in the story of many triumphant prisoners, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Nelson Mandela: their focus on prayer, study, or a personal practice kept their souls free even when their bodies weren’t.

Because these two prisoners were free already, they were able to share their freedom with their captor. They didn’t just have to run away. By staying, they saved the jailer’s life. He would be executed for allowing his prisoners to escape, which is why he was ready to kill himself instead. That crisis is one side of his question, “how can I be saved?” Paul and Silas reply with the other side: in Christ, you’re not just saved from death, you’re saved for life. The jailer responds with hospitality (remember that from Lydia’s story last week?), bandages and feeds his former prisoners, and has himself and his family baptized into Christian freedom.

There are different kinds of freedom. There are civil liberties, permission from your parents, financial independence. All of these are defined in terms of what people or circumstances could stop you from doing. Christian freedom, on the other hand, can’t be stopped by others, and it doesn’t stop with us. Christian freedom is our freedom to let God work in us. It’s God’s freedom to liberate others from the forces that keep people from living in joy and peace. When that freedom works in us, the whole world becomes freer.

I’m not sure where this story leaves the people of Egypt, except in all our prayers. They are called, as we all are, to make their freedom count for the good of others, not just for themselves or particular groups. The United States took years to achieve much of what our founders believed for us, and we’re still finding our way into some of those dreams. I put my hope in the God of history to be at work here. By God, we’re freed (like Paul and Silas) to share our freedom in every way. We’re free to share Christ’s love with others who are trapped in disappointment and fear, to pray and worship in Christ who is our freedom and our life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.