A Walk through Acts 16
The author of Paul’s biography, A Man in White, spent his early adult life in West Germany as a Morris code interceptor for the US Air Force. Setting at his radio equipment in Europe he must have felt worlds away from his hometown in impoverished rural Arkansas. The young man excelled at this mission; his officers prescribed amphetamines to keep him alert and on task for longer hours. He would struggle with the resulting drug addiction for much of his life.
Though the young staff sergeant had the best ears and mind in the business, he really wanted to sing. He bought a $5 guitar and began to play. He wrote a few songs as well. After watching a movie about prison life in 1951, SGT Johnny Cash wrote his song “Folsom Prison Blues” while still in the Air Force. He would record and sing the song a number of times before performing for the Folsom prisoners in 1968. He says he wrote the startling line “Shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” after trying to imagine the absolute worst reason for killing another human being. Listening to the recording 50 years later I was still haunted by the applause from the audience until I learned the producer added the responses in the studio as he prepared the album for release. Folsom prison sat silent while Mr. Cash yearned for a train to take all of them far from their prison bars. In fact, the man in black felt like all people live in some kind of prison bars.
Acts 16 recounts prison bars, singing, and true freedom sought by all humanity. The chapter begins with a story to help me realize freedom includes voluntarily laying down my own prerogatives for the good of others. Luke takes his readers from the highly contentious Jerusalem conference where all agree not to hold new converts accountable to Jewish traditions, to the circumcision of Timothy under the approving eye of Paul. Fortunately Luke explained the paradox – many Jews were in the mission field and they knew of Timothy’s mixed heritage. Timothy lived free from all prison bars – so free he could give up his own preferences and comforts for the mission.
Am I that free or do I hear the gospel train’s whistle at a distance? How can I hear the missionary whistle and respond for the needs of others rather than live just for me? How can I love others as Timothy did? Or do I live my life in the condition Eric Fromm calls “escaping from freedom”? Living for self and avoiding the focus needed to live a purposeful existence may look like life without bars, but it actually represents an escaping from freedom to the comfortable confinement of self-imposed prison. Freedom trains can become rolling cells if saints live beneath their missional privilege.
The prison theme becomes even more raw after Paul and Silas bankrupt the local fortune telling franchise. For some reason the preachers became deeply irritated at the demonic advertisement. They cast out the demon to get a little rest for themselves.
Systems around Jesus’ kingdom will always revolt when we witness kingdom advancement. Those who owned the girl thought this new religion robbed them of their rightful property. Attacking personal property and privacy will bring opposition. I wonder what would happen to the economy if all alcoholic users were set free from the bars of their addiction tomorrow? Breweries and taverns would hand out pink slips, and farmers would lose markets. Bottle makers, canning machine manufacturers, and label printers would need to retool. Advertising agencies would have to think of some other use for Clydesdale horses and mountain stream images. The federal government would lose $9.6 billion in excise taxes; ATF would become just TF.
For Paul and Silas, the prison bars became space for what they always did – worship. We do not know what was on the police blotter that night, but I wonder what offenses lingered in other cells. All of the other prisoners listened to the singing that doubtlessly included unintended sour notes and sharp intakes of breath. Rod-ripped flesh and leg shackles restricted movement, but it fueled worship. Worship and prayer during suffering still serves as a primary mission tool. I wonder if I am free enough to be that kind of worshiper.
Men stayed in their cells. I always thought the supernatural event could be seen in the stone dust in the air and abandoned chains on the ground, but the real power was in all of the men staying with the two worshipers. Something rooted them to the ground rather than doing the natural thing after being sprung from prison.
More walls fell for the attempted suicide victim. The warden accepted the reality that his life was forfeited due to the act of God in the earthquake. The worshipers prevented the tragedy by pointing to all of the prisoners waiting for instruction. The man used his extra moment of life to ask an important question, “What must I do to be saved?” The question came because free men remained in a prison without bars. Somehow dust covered wounds convicted the warden of his own sin.
Minions of a police state experience salvation the same way as everyone else. If he believed in the Lord Jesus, then he and his whole household would be saved. The household undoubtedly include his family as well as servants and employees. Paul shared the Gospel in a way that demonstrated the power of being truly free. They all experienced prison break that night by going down to the river. The warden washed Paul’s back while Paul washed the man and his household’s sins away.
Hospitality followed the baptismal service as it did for Lydia’s household earlier in the chapter. Hospitality served as a powerful sign of freedom from sin’s prison. The chapter ends back at Lydia’s house where the believers shared fellowship and heard encouraging words from the bruised men.
I think I need to pray.
You promised us everlasting life and fathomless joy as part of your new creation. Forgive me for setting the parameters of that new life through my old eyes. My old eyes see pain free, luxurious days of ease as freedom. Release from the prison of old eyes lets me know true freedom emancipates me from the restrictions of self-centered, pleasure driven existence. You have healed my eyes many times, but I still see a few men as walking trees.
Could you help me cast out demons before they irritate me? Would you help me understand the system shattering effect Your kingdom has on absolutely everything around me? I do not think our world needs another gentle, easily integrated kingdom that looks like just one more software update.
Oh! Just to think of the freedom You want to give Your people makes me weep. I do not know the kind of freedom that calls me to stand in the collision between Your kingdom coming and the intrenched world order. I think my people and I would rather You just get good people elected to political office to fix stuff. But You have already walked us through the choir practices that prepare us for prison concerts – concerts where the stripes may be on our bodies as we sing of Your goodness to the outcast. Prison wardens will hear. Suicide will be prevented. Midnight wound washing and sin scrubbing will result.
When I pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” today, I do believe it sounds differently than it did yesterday. I hear a distant whistle calling me out of my cell; I think it is the sound of Pentecost.
Your grace is sufficient.
In Jesus Name,