Freedom is a funny thing. For being a word we’re so accustomed to, it can be more difficult to define than we often think. It can also be more difficult to know it when we see it, or know it when we see the lack of it. Acts 16 gives us a full cast of characters, some free and some not, although which characters are which may not be clear at first.
Among this cast of characters are first Paul and Silas who have arrived in the city of Philippi. They meet a girl whose body houses a spirit that speaks future events through her. She’s been made a slave because of this, and her abilities are making quite a bit of money for her owners. Having no freedom herself (either as a slave to these men or in her own body), she speaks an ironic truth when she sees Paul and Silas. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” While “slave” strikes us as a negative term (and not without good reason), Paul himself would go on to say in Romans 6 that our baptism makes us slaves to righteousness. We’re all under the alluring influence of one thing or another. The question is, is it the love and righteousness of God, or something else? For all this girl’s lack of freedom, lack of ability to have her own will and be her own person, she has ironically spoken a profound truth. It is often the demons that see Jesus and his followers for exactly who they are.
Paul does as his Lord would do and casts the spirit out of the girl’s body, and this is when we find out that the men who own her are just as enslaved as she is, even if we wouldn’t guess it based on appearances alone. With their money-making scheme now gone, they have Paul and Silas arrested. They can’t imagine a life without their dishonest gain and must punish whoever takes it from them. They’re every bit as enslaved to their greed as the girl was to the thing living in her body. But the irony continues. Paul and Silas are in a prison cell that evening, but we quickly find out that this doesn’t make them any less free. In fact, it is the man standing outside the cell and holding the key that lacks freedom. As Paul and Silas are deep in prayer and worship, and when an earthquake suddenly jars the cell doors loose, the jailer fears that he will face death for having failed to retain his prisoners. But Paul and Silas haven’t gone anywhere. The freedom they know is completely unaffected by any cell or locked door. Being trapped in a cell doesn’t make them any less free, and escaping wouldn’t make them any more free. They’re just free, imprisoned or not. It’s the jailer, so afraid of the punishment that awaits him that he’s ready to commit suicide, that lacks any real freedom (until, of course, he’s baptized into a new life of faith, healing, and hospitality).
As children of the God who brought Israel out of their Egyptian bondage, this is what we mean when we say “freedom.” It is peace in the midst of loss and instability, a refusal to be rocked by the things that go wrong. It is entrusting ourselves to the God who makes himself an enemy of Pharaoh and greedy men who see their slaves as nothing more than moneymaking opportunities. It is the knowledge that neither a locked door nor an escape makes any real difference in how free we are. This freedom is, as the girl calls it, the “way of salvation.”