Prison Escape


Acts 16:16-34

May 8, 2016


Much of this story from Acts is really ugly.

It’s about human trafficking – a slave girl is used for money;

It’s about scapegoating – Paul and Silas are beaten because they’re foreigners;

It’s about the abuse of power by the Roman empire as it strikes down those who are different.


Human trafficking;

scapegoating outsiders;

abuse of power;

the ugly parts of this story are still with us today.


But then God does something new here.

At first it seems like this will be another story of a great dramatic prison escape….


It brings to mind the escape last summer of “El Chapo” the Mexican drug lord.

Remember the story?

Apparently from within a maximum security prison,

he climbed through a 2 foot hole in the shower

to an underground tunnel 30 feet below ground.


The tunnel was a mile long, and lest he be uncomfortable,

there was lighting and ventilation and even a motorcycle on rails

which led to a construction site and temporary freedom!

Biblical stories of prison escapes are nearly as dramatic.

Twice before in the book of Acts,

God has orchestrated prison breakouts for the apostles,

unlocking cells in the middle of the night

and providing angels to escort them to freedom.


But what we heard today does not wind up to be the story of a prison escape.

There’s a powerful earthquake.

The walls of the jail fall down.

The doors of the cells are opened.

The chains binding their legs become unfastened.

It even seems that the jailer is knocked unconscious for a bit.


Paul and Silas don’t even need to run…

they could walk to freedom.


But they don’t.

They stay where they are.


And that’s when we get a sense that God is doing something new here.

Instead of being a story about a prison escape,

it becomes a story of human relationship,

and overcoming our fears of each other.


The lead up to the story shows that clearly Paul and Silas

are in territory not friendly to God –

They’ve come to Macedonia to the city of Philippi where god is the Holy Roman empire –

god is wealth and power;

where people are treated as commodities,

valued only by how much they produce.


Here we have a slave girl.

She has a power – a ‘superpower’ we might say-

she has the power of divination –

She can tell the future…

but also it was thought she could see things as they really are…

things other people missed.


In Greek culture, this kind of power was attributed to the god Apollo,

whose symbol was a python.

This slave girl had the spirit of the python,

and people would come to her to ask a question.

She would enter a trance-like state and answer as if the god was speaking through her.


Apparently she was quite good at it –

she made her owners a lot of money.

So when Paul rids her of this python spirit,

and she no longer has this gift,

and her owners are furious…at the loss of income!


We never learn what happens to this slave girl.

She’s discarded, forgotten,

no longer of “value.”


The story moves on to the city center,

in front of the magistrates.


Philippi is a Roman colony.

Of all the Roman colonies, Philippi was particularly close to Rome,

both politically and economically.


Many of its residents were descendants of the Roman soldiers

who fought under Emperor Caesar Augustus.

They had received land in Philippi as a reward for loyalty.[i]


In order to maintain its influence,

Rome demanded loyalty.

Complete loyalty.


And one way Rome maintained loyalty –

one way people or groups of people preserve loyalty and power anywhere –

is to scapegoat minorities,

to scapegoat anyone who’s different…to create a common enemy.


The slave girls’ owners are clever.

They know how to get the crowd riled up.


They don’t get back at Paul and Silas by complaining about what they actually did

(release the python spirit from their slave)

instead, they get back at them by telling everyone

that the problem is the Jews….


We can’t trust them.

They’re not like us.

They don’t have the same morals as we do.

Their customs are different.


How many times have we heard the same claim here?

The problem is the outsider –

the problem is the Hispanics;

the problem is the Muslims;

the problem is the gays;

the problem is the blacks…


We can’t trust them.

They’re not like us.

They don’t have the same morals as we do.

Their customs are different.


It works in Philippi

about as well as it works here.


The crowd joins in the attack, flogging Paul and Silas, beating them with rods

because they’re Jewish – they’re outsiders.


And then we get to the jail …and the jailer,

who’s been taught and trained all of his life that the Roman empire was special,

that they were stronger, smarter, wealthier,

their way of life was just plain better than anyone else’s,

and that he should fear anyone who would challenge this claim.


But during the night,

throughout the night,

the jailer becomes a captive audience to his prisoners.


In the midst of their injuries,

Paul and Silas begin to pray and sing…and pray and sing…and pray and sing.


They’re still singing at midnight when there’s an earthquake;

the walls of the jail fall down, the doors open, and the chains unfasten.


At first it seems like it’s a story of God’s power.

Our God is so strong that God defeats the power of the Holy Roman Empire.

Walls cannot hold them.

Chains cannot hold them.

A great apocalyptic prison escape!

Yay God!


Except that there is no escape.

Power (at least the kind of power that is wielded by force)

is not what wins in this story.


Paul and Silas don’t run away.

They stay where they are and the way we think the story will end changes.


The jailer is about to kill himself assuming he’s lost his prisoners,

when Paul and Silas call out, “We’re still here!

We’re still with you!

We’re in this together!”[ii]


Paul and Silas interrupt the cycle of fear

that often leads to violence and death

by offering relationship.


It could have ended badly…very badly.

But with Paul and Silas trust the jailer,

And in the end the irony is that there was a prison escape,

but the prisoner we thought needed releasing wasn’t the one who broke free!


The jailer is freed;

the jailer escapes from his fear and prejudice.


May a holy earthquake work in us,

breaking us out,

freeing us from our fear, from our prejudice.



[i] Matt Skinner, in



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s