No Roadblocks

May 31, 2022

Sermon 5-29-2022

7th Sunday of Easter

Text: Acts 16:16-34

Pastor Jean M. Hansen

     As we come together today, we are saddened by the senseless loss of life during the past two weeks in our country, in ordinary places – schools and grocery stores. I am going to reflect on that in the context of today’s text, so we’ll begin with the reading from Acts.

     The last Sunday of the Easter Season has arrived and today we’ll wrap up our focus on the early days of the Christian Church as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles. We’ve been focusing on roadblocks to the proclamation of the Easter message that, “He is risen!” (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) I promise that I won’t review all of the roadblocks that we’ve discussed, but I do want to pick up where we left off last Sunday, which is in Philippi.

     The Apostle Paul and Silas came to Greece at Jesus’ specific direction to establish the “Jesus Movement” in Europe, far from their home territory of Palestine. They knew no one when they arrived, or so it seems, and there wasn’t even a synagogue where they could seek comfort and direction. There was a place of prayer, though, and it was there that the disciples met a woman named Lydia. (Last week we did a “Lydia chant” with the children. Do you remember it? “The Bible story is about Lydia, who liked purple, listened to Paul, loved God and shared God’s love. That’s Lydia.”)

     She was, in many ways, different from the other followers of Jesus - a woman, a non-Jew and a businesswoman who dealt in a luxury item – purple textiles and dyes. So, it’s likely that she was wealthy. The Holy Spirit stirred in her heart and mind as she listened to Paul proclaim the good news about Jesus; she believed and was baptized. That’s important, but perhaps even more significant was that she provided a “launching pad” for that proclamation of the Gospel in Europe. Paul and Silas went from being strangers in a strange land, with no place to stay or to be fed, to having a home base. The roadblocks of being far away from home, in a port city in Greece, were moved and the establishment of a community of faith began.

     There were, of course, complications – roadblocks – which is where today’s story begins. This time it was a young girl who was enslaved in two ways, by human masters and by a “spirit” that enabled her to predict the future. There is a long and dark history related to the Greek word that describes this “spirit”; let’s just say she lived in darkness and needed to see the light. BUT, her owners wanted her to remain as she was because of her “gift”, which was shared with others for a price; her owners banked on that and were getting rich on it.

     Then, this girl noticed Paul and Silas and began following them around, crying out, identifying them as servants of God who can offer a way of salvation. We get the impression that her owners did not mind, since she was attracting attention to herself too, which was good for their pocketbooks. However, she began to get on Paul’s nerves after a few days. He cast the spirit out of her, it seems more to shut her up than to help her out. I say that because we do not know what happened to the girl; her story is not told.

     However, it is clear that her owners lost their source of easy money, and their anger led them to drag Paul and Silas before the authorities. The Philippians either wanted more psychic feedback or were looking for a reason to get rid of these bothersome foreigners, so they joined in attacking them, and the magistrates ordered that they be beaten with rods. The broken and beaten followers of Jesus were thrown into the bowels of the prison, with their feet secured in stocks. Just think, all of this happened not because they disrupted the peace, as was claimed, but because they impacted a profitable business. It’s not so difficult to imagine a similar thing happening now if something that was right and good – like healing the girl – thwarted economic success. This looks like a significant roadblock to me!!

     But, the Holy Spirit is stronger than the spirit in the girl, the greed of her owners and the Roman rulers of Philippi. Evidently, Paul and Silas understood that truth; so as they sat in prison, wounded, shackled, they did not despair, but prayed and sang hymns, as the amazed other prisoners listened to them.

     Quoting commentator Stan Mast, “That’s when the Lord Jesus showed everyone who was really in charge. With a sudden violent earth quake the Lord shook the foundations of the prison, blasted open the prison doors, and loosened the chains of every prisoner. But no one ran away.” (1) My question is, “why”? Did Paul ask them to stay? Did they want to see the rest of the story? Were they too afraid to move?

     The jailer was so shaken, and sure that the prisoners had escaped and he would be held responsible, that he considered killing himself. But, Paul stopped him, and assured him that everyone was present and accounted for. Then the story switches focus, and it is no longer about the girl, or Paul or Silas and their freedom, but the jailer. Given the context, the question he asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, is not an inquiry about eternal salvation, writes theologian N.T. Wright. Instead, the inquiry is more like, “What must I do to be delivered from this catastrophe that is threatening?” Or, “How can I get out of this mess?” (2)

     Let me pause here to reflect that many, many people, including me, asked that question this week following the horrific mass shooting on Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children, 2 adults and the shooter were killed. We also asked it a little more than a week earlier following a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, in which 10 people died. Tragically, it’s a question we have faced again and again in the past 20 or so years.

     The answers are wide-ranging, including limiting access to weapons, limiting private ownership of automatic weapons, banning high capacity gun magazines, better mental health care for unstable people, the list could go on and on. Many would say that our legislators should pick one and make it happen, with focus on the common good rather than on economic or political considerations. I saw a post on Facebook in which the words “thoughts and prayers” were crossed out and the words “policy and change” replaced them. That sentiment is understandable, and even commendable.

     But I also want to point something out from today’s reading. When the jailer asked, “How can I get out of this mess?” Paul’s answer is “deeper” and “broader” than expected. Dr. Wright points out that from the Christian worldview, the entire mess the world is in – whether it be global or country-wide or individual – is the result of the gap between what is and what could be if Jesus’ will and way were acknowledged and lived.

     “That’s why “believe in the Lord Jesus” is always the answer to the question of how to be rescued, at whatever level and in whatever sense,” writes Dr. Wright. He continues, “It isn’t about getting in touch with one’s inner spiritual self. It isn’t about committing ones to a life of worship, prayer and good works. It isn’t even about believing in some particular theology of how precisely God deals with our sins in the death of Jesus.” (3)

     What is it about, then? Dr. Wright says it is about proclaiming Jesus as Lord. I would say it is about grasping who Jesus is, how Jesus wants us to live, and then striving to do it – really do it – sacrificially, boldly – knowing that life’s challenges will continue, but we are walking in “the way”, sharing the grace of God in Jesus, removing roadblocks and bringing the world closer to what God intends it to be. (Which isn’t a place where 19 children die while at school, celebrating the year’s end.)

     Today’s message is that the power of Jesus and his Gospel sets prisoners free, whether it be release from a controlling spirit, or stocks and shackles, or meaninglessness, sin and death. No roadblocks can keep us from Jesus’ saving grace, which empowers us to fix the mess we are in. AMEN


  1. “Sermon Commentary on Acts 16:16-34” by Stan Mast, June 2, 2019,
  2. Acts for Everyone, Part Two, by N.T. Wright, 2008, Westminster John Knox Press, pgs. 65-69
  3. Same as #2