Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Prisoners Freed” Acts 16:16-34
On May fourteenth, Payton Gendron, an eighteen-year-old white male with an assault rifle and body armor, entered the Tops Market in the predominantly African American East Side neighborhood of Buffalo. He opened fire, killing ten black shoppers and workers. Gendron drove 200 miles to commit his crime, and we know from a manifesto that he wrote and the video footage that he livestreamed of his attack that he was motivated by racial hate. Among the victims was eighty-six-year-old Ruth Whitfield. Ruth was on her way home from visiting her husband in nursing care. Also killed was sixty-seven-year-old Heyward Patterson, a deacon at his church, who was giving rides to shoppers that needed them.
On May fifteenth, members of the Laguna Woods Taiwanese Presbyterian Church came under attack as they shared lunch in the church hall following worship. David Chou was a visitor that day. He came armed with two nine-millimeter guns, a bag of Molotov cocktails, and anti-Taiwanese beliefs. Chou visited with church members and shared lunch before launching his attack. Dr. John Cheng, an orthopedist, was killed when he charged the gunman, but his brave actions allowed others to overpower and hogtie their attacker. Five people, ranging in age from sixty-six to ninety-two were wounded, four of them critically.
On Tuesday, an armed gunman, eighteen-year-old Salvador Ramos, entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas through a back door that had been propped open. Just the week before, Ramos purchased two AR-15 assault-style rifles and a lot of ammunition for his birthday. At the school, Ramos entered a fourth grade classroom and killed nineteen children and two teachers before being shot by federal officers. Among the dead was ten-year-old Jose Flores, Jr, who loved baseball, videogames, and being an amazing big brother. Also killed was veteran teacher Irma Garcia, described as sweet, kind, and loving. She tried to shield the children from the gunman.
In the wake of so much senseless violence, we are heartbroken, grieved, and weary. We struggle to imagine the enormity of the loss. We consider how we would feel if the lives lost were our grandpas, our children, our teachers. It feels like we are trapped in an endless cycle of violent attacks, followed by thoughts and prayers, followed by calls for change, followed by the failure to take action, followed by yet another incident of mass violence. It is as if we are prisoners of an epic cycle of senseless, horrific death that repeats, over and over again.
The Apostle Paul was imprisoned many times as he took the gospel out into the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, four of Paul’s epistles were written from prison and he repeatedly described himself as being in chains for the sake of the gospel. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes Paul’s stay as a “guest of the emperor” in the Roman colony of Philippi.
It all started when Paul exorcised a pneuma puthona, spirit of the python, the ancient serpent who guarded the oracle at Delphi. We don’t know how, but this demon had taken up residence in the belly of a slave girl and spoke prophecy to the highest bidder. This poor girl was doubly enslaved. She was held in the python’s coiled grasp and held captive by men who exploited her suffering to make “a great deal” of money. These slave owners were irate when their income stream dried up, so they had Paul and Silas arrested on trumped-up charges of disturbing the peace and promoting anti-Roman sentiment. It didn’t take much to gather an angry mob to call for immediate, harsh, and violent punishment. Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged, chained, and thrown into the inmost part of the jail, the tullianum, a dungeon without light or fresh air where those who had committed the most serious crimes or were of the very lowest level of society were kept.
That’s when this story gets really interesting. Severely punished and unjustly imprisoned, we expect Paul and Silas to tend their wounds and silently languish. But around midnight, the two men were praying and singing psalms. Philippi’s deepest dungeon became an impromptu church. Paul and Silas found hope in the Lord. Other prisoners listened in, longing for good news in the dark. Next, the presence of the Most-High God was revealed: the earth shook violently, the prison’s foundations rocked, doors sprung open, chains were loosed and prisoners freed; yet, instead of making a break for it, Paul and Silas stuck around. They saved the life of their jailer, shared the good news of salvation, and baptized the entire household. The next day when the apostles were exonerated, they went forth renewed in God’s power and purpose. How is that for a Hollywood ending?
It’s a wild and hopeful story of prisoners freed, one that we need to hear as we languish in dark times of senseless violence, hate, and mass shootings. It’s a story that can speak to hearts hurting with unending grief and overwhelming fear. It’s a story that contradicts our belief that we are powerless to make a difference and put an end to the cycle of meaningless death. Would you like to know how?
It begins with what we do in the dark. Bruised by the world’s brutality, it is easy to throw up our hands and feel powerless. And yet, we are not alone in the dark. God faced the worst of human violence for love’s sake when Jesus suffered a cruel and savage death on the cross. In Jesus, God infused the world’s suffering with God’s presence. And so, we trust that God was there as Payton Gendron prowled the aisles of that East Side Tops Market. God was there in the church hall when Taiwanese Presbyterians came under attack. God was there in Robb Elementary School as children wept and teachers pleaded. God is with us in our darkness, from the inner dungeon of a Philippian jail to the hushed silence of our sanctuary. We are not alone in the dark, and that is something to trust in, to pray and sing about. In a world where we feel we are prisoners of an endless cycle of violence, we can offer a bright and lyrical hope to all who feel alone and afraid in the dark. Sing and pray, my friends.
We can trust that God, who is with us in the dark, is powerful. In teaching about this story, Professor Brian Peterson of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC points to the earthquake. Peterson writes that “this earthquake is the visible manifestation of God shaking this world’s powers to their foundations.” God was more powerful than a Roman jail. God is more powerful than the violence of this world. God is more powerful than the economic interests that make big money off the sale of guns and ammunition. God is more powerful than the powers that seek to make political hay from gun violence without effecting any change. Our all-powerful God longs to shake things up, to rock the foundations of a world that has grown numb to senseless attacks. God longs to set prisoners of violence free. Trust in the power of God, my friends.
That all-powerful God calls faithful people everywhere to shake things up. We are grateful citizens of this nation, and yet we belong to the Kingdom where Christ is King and love is the byword. We have been saved and freed for God’s purpose. In response to that amazing grace, we dare each day to nudge this broken world a little closer to that holy Kingdom that is all around us and still to come.
It doesn’t matter what your social or political beliefs may be. There is plenty of Kingdom work for those who would dare to break that horrific cycle of violence. If we believe that mental illness is to blame, then we need to be out there making a healthcare system where those who suffer from mental illness get the best possible care, provided with great compassion and medical excellence at reasonable cost. If we believe that hate is to blame, then we have a lot of loving to do, we have many vulnerable people to shelter, and we have the work of non-violent resistance ahead of us. If we believe that political agendas and gridlock impede change, then we need to find candidates who listen and use our votes to bring change to the halls of power. If we believe that greed is the problem, from DC lobbyists to arms manufacturers, from videogame designers to an entertainment industry that glorifies violent heroes, then we need to think seriously about how we spend our money, time, and attention. Never underestimate the power of collective action shared in pursuit of a Kingdom-purpose. With God’s help, we can be world-changing. Let’s shake things up, my friends.
If we squander our freedom with endless hand-wringing, indifference, or political in-fighting, we know what the consequences will be. That cycle of violence will continue. Senseless violent attacks will provoke our thoughts and prayers. We’ll fail to take meaningful action. We’ll lapse into apathy and indifference. Then, yet another mass shooting at a place like Robb Elementary School or the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church or Tops Market will again launch the same brutal and intolerable cycle. We don’t want that for our world. We don’t want that for our children.
Sing and pray. Trust in God. Shake things up.
Jake Bleiberg, Jim Venturo, and Elliot Spagat. “Gunman’s Final 90 Minutes Fuel Questions about Police Delays” in Associated Press News, May 26, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Eric Levinson, et al. “Uvalde School Shooting Suspect Was a Loner Who Bought Two Assault Rifles for His 18th Birthday” in CNN News, May 27, 2022. Accessed online at cnn.com.
AP News Staff. “Buffalo Supermarket Shooting: What Do We Know So Far?” in Associated Press News, May 24, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Damian Dovarganes and Christopher Weber. CA Churchgoers Detained Gunman in Deadly Attack” in Associated Press News, May 16, 2022. Accessed online at apnews.com.
Jennifer Kaalund. “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34” in Preaching This Week, June 2, 2019. Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.
Brian Peterson. “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34” in Preaching This Week, May 12, 2013. Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.
16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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. 19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.