Sermon for 12th May | Sermon for 12th May

“My chains fell off, my heart was free.”

A sermon given by Roberta Berke on 12th May 2013, Easter 7, on Acts 16.31

Have you ever had someone come up to you at a party, fix you with a wide-eyed stare and ask, “What sign are you? You must be a Scorpio.” Usually they guess the wrong birth sign. These people try to tell your future by the incidental date of your birth. What sign am I? The cross of Christ. Because I’m a Christian, I don’t believe in astrology. Our lives are ruled by God, they are not determined by movements of stars. We have been given free will. We are not slaves to imaginary astrological forces.[1] St. Paul rebuked the gullible Galatians: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?”[2] Notice how Paul emphasises the word, “enslaved”. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, two enslaved people are set free: the fortune-telling slave girl and the jailor himself.

Fortune telling has always appealed to people who are anxious about their future. In ancient times, people attempted to discover their fortunes by asking an oracle, someone thought to be possessed by a spirit of Apollo. The most famous oracle was the Pythia, a woman at the shrine at Delphi. Here the Pythia, often a young girl, sat on a golden tripod inhaling fumes from a deep cleft in the earth. Some studies have suggested that these gases were hallucinogenic [3]. In a trance, the Pythia uttered cryptic words. Her sayings were then interpreted, for a price, by the shrine’s priests. Apollo’s shrine at Delphi became enormously wealthy. Some local fortune-tellers tried to imitate the oracle at Delphi. One of these local soothsayers was a slave girl at Phillipi. When foretelling the future, she probably spoke in a strange voice, as if she were possessed by a spirit of Apollo. Could her otherworldly voice, like the Pythia’s at Delphi, also have been caused by a drug?

Phillipi was a good place to set up a fortune-telling business. This busy city in eastern Macedonia was strategically located on the main Roman highway from the Aegean to the Adriatic. When Paul and Silas arrived in Phillipi, they began to preach the gospel. But Paul was constantly interrupted by this local fortune-teller, that slave girl who was said to be possessed by a spirit of Apollo. She kept shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”[4] The demon that possessed her recognised the power of the true God and of his servants. For days, this girl followed Paul and Silas everywhere, incessantly shouting out their true mission. However, sometimes even the truth can become very tiresome. At last, Paul became, “very much annoyed”. (It’s reassuring to know that even saints can get aggravated.) Paul confronted the demon possessing this girl. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”[5] Immediately the girl was freed from her demon, and she became her true self. She lost the ability to tell fortunes. Now she was worthless to her owners. We’re not told what became of her. She may not have had any other useful skills. Was she sold off as a scullery maid? Or as a prostitute? Perhaps Lydia, the wealthy merchant, took her in as part of her Christian household.

As usual, Paul’s actions caused a huge uproar in the city. The slave girl’s owners were furious: their business had been ruined. They stirred up a mob, so the local magistrates had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison. In their prison cell, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake, the doors of the prison were flung open, and all the prisoners’ chains were released. The jailer was so frightened that he would be condemned for the prisoners escaping that he was about to kill himself. But none of the prisoners had run away. This was even stranger than the earthquake. Shaking with terror, the jailer begged Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved? They told him, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.’ ”[6] The jailer washed the wounds on Paul and Silas’ backs, then he and his whole family were baptised.

In today’s story, in addition to Paul and Silas, two other captives were set free: the jailor himself and the possessed girl. Probably none of us has been physically chained up in prison like Paul and Silas. However, we can be held captive, without realising it, by inner restraints. Blake called these self-inflicted chains, “mind-forged manacles”[7]. Two forces which can hold us captive are: excessive worry about the future and our impulses to sin.

This jailer sounds like the type of person who leaves his house, then, halfway down the street, stops. “Did I turn the gas off? Have I locked the front door? Do I even have my house keys? The jailer was such a worrier, that he must frequently have consulted fortune-tellers. He didn’t look to see if the prisoners had escaped, he just assumed the worst. In fact, no one had run away. Even if they had escaped, the earthquake wasn’t his fault, so he couldn’t be blamed for this natural disaster. Paul and Silas told the terrified jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”[8] The word for “believe” also can mean “trust in”, “have faith in”. Of course, prudent planning for the future is necessary and sensible. But incessant, ruminating worry is useless and corrosive. Jesus told us, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…indeed your heavenly Father knows you have need of all these things.’[9] When we trust in the power of God’s grace, we can be released from our chains of ceaseless anxiety about our future.

The other captive who was set free was the fortune-telling girl. She was the property not only of her owners, but also of her demon. She was “possessed”, literally “owned”, by her demon. Spectacular demonic possession like that slave girl’s is very rare. Yet all of us can be captured by destructive impulses that may lead us into sin, into acts and thoughts that separate us from God’s will. Sin means that we are possessed, we are owned, by something other than our true selves. Even St. Paul said, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”[10]

How can we break our invisible chains, our mind-forged manacles? Sometimes we’re not even aware of what false ideas, what fears, what sinful impulses may be holding us captive. When we recognise what is enslaving us, we want to be free. But we’re only human: weak, frightened and impulsive. In order to break our chains, a power stronger than ourselves is needed. That liberating power is the grace of God. God’s grace is silent, invisible, yet stronger than an earthquake. Charles Wesley said his spirit had been imprisoned, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night”[11]. Then, like a burst of light into a dungeon, God’s grace had set him free. “My chains fell off, my heart was free, / I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”[12]  AMEN

Copyright © 2013 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.

[1] Astrology and fortune telling are strenuously condemned in the Bible. See  Deuteronomy 4.19-20; 2Kings 23.4; Isaiah 47. 13-14; Jeremiah 10.2; Colossians 2. 8,20; Galatians 4.8-9.

[2] Galatians 4.8-9

[3] First published by: de Boer, J.Z.,, “New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle” Geology 29 (2001) 707-10.  For a critical discussion of this theory see: Lehoux, Daryn, “Drugs and the Delphic Oracle” in

The Classical World , Vol. 101, No. 1 (Fall, 2007), pp. 41-56

Published by: Classical Association of the Atlantic States

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[4] Acts 16.17

[5] Acts 16.18

[6] Acts 16. 30-31

[7] Blake, William, “London” in Wain, J. ed., The Oxford Library of English Poetry, vol.II, pp 220 – 221.

[8] Acts 16.31

[9] Matthew 6.31-32

[10] Romans 7.14-15

[11] Wesley, Charles, “Free Grace” in Gardner, H., The Faber Book of Religious Poetry

(London: Faber 1986) pp 209 – 210.

[12] ibid.