Freedom and Bondage


Acts 16:16-34

Years ago Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We talk a lot about freedom here in America, and it means different things to different people. What does freedom mean in a biblical sense though?

This morning we are going to look at three people from our passage in Acts. One is definitely NOT free, one is definitely free, and one learns what freedom really is.

The first person we are going to look at is the slave girl.

She is decidedly bound, by two different things. The first rope is the fact that she is a slave.

Now, we don’t have slaves in our society any more. We did away with institutional slavery years ago, during the Civil War. There are no slaves in America.

Or are there? It is possible to be a slave to alcohol or tobacco, or drugs, to pornography or junk food or TV or any number of things that end up controlling our lives. Any addiction is a form of slavery.

But let’s take it a little deeper. There are many people in the world, and in our community, who are a slave to poverty. What do I mean by that? Can’t they just get a job and then they won’t be poor anymore?

There is a cycle of poverty that exists. It could look something like this; You are doing fine, you have a decent job, make decent wages, you can pay your rent, buy enough food for your family, make your car payments, insurance, gas, and all the other incidentals. You are making it, but just barely. You are treading water, just barely keeping your head above.

And then you get sick. You go to the Doctor, even though you don’t have really good health insurance, and it costs you an arm and leg, but you need to do it. And you miss a few days of work. And then a few more. And your work calls you and tells you that you have missed too many days, and the next thing you know, you are out of job. You have a huge medical debt, and now you have no job.

And yourself in a hole that you cannot dig your way out of. And the thing is, the deeper you are in the hole, the deeper it gets for you.

This may sound really strange, but it costs more to be poor than it does to be rich. When you are poor you have to shop where you can, not where it is cheapest. And guess what, they don’t put discount food stores in poorer neighborhoods! You end up buying food, not because it is nutritious, but because it is cheap. And the less you have, the more likely you are to lose it.

How many people in our communities are slaves to poverty? They want to get a leg up, but there ain’t no step stool in sight. And they can jump as high as they can, but it is never enough to grab hold of even the first rung of the ladder of success. These people are trapped. And that is called slavery.

There is another type of bondage, a more subtle type, was described by the Belgian mystic and poet Hadewijch, who referred to the Bondage of a false self. We were created to love, to be in a relationship with each other and with God, she says, but often we find that we cannot do that. We have erected a false self, a projection of who we want to be, a false front that hides us, because we are afraid to love as God calls us to love. The problem is this false self keeps us from being our true self before God and the people we love. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with couples who really do love one another, but who for some reason, have a very hard time showing it. The love they have inside of them cannot get out. They want to reach out—to their spouses, to their children, to God, but find they are unable, because they have hidden their real selves behind a wall of fear. They are afraid to love. Most are afraid to love because they are afraid they will be hurt. Or they are afraid that if people see who they really are, then people will not like them, the people the love and respect the most may not like them, so they present a false front that is more likeable. And before long, this false front has taken advantage of their fears, and is running their lives.

In the movie Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays and English Butler who is so wedded to his role as a butler that he has to true self anymore. He watches his elderly father begin to decline physically, but cannot reach out to him, because that would out of character for a butler who can handle any situation that comes up with a stiff upper lip. He falls in love with one of the servants, but he never tells her, even though she is clearly in love with him, because he cannot let go of his role as a butler. The role of butler has taken over his life, and even after he retires, he cannot let go of it.

He is just as much a slave to his false self as the slave girl in today’s story is in bondage to the men who own her.

The second thing that binds this girl is the spirit within her. That is not a Holy Spirit, it is not the Spirit of God.  We know that because of how it affects her. The Spirit of God makes us free. This spirit just makes her a more desirable slave. It deepens her bondage. It has taken her over, and continually pushes her deeper and deeper into slavery.

There are spirits that can lead us deeper and deeper into bondage. For example, in the 1920s and the 1930s in Germany there was a spirit of anger about how Germans were treated after the First World War. There was a Spirit of Oppression that came with the extreme economic sanctions of the Versailles Treaty. There was a spirit of Shame that was thrust on them. Their government fell apart, their economy was in tatters, they were almost a vassal state to the countries that defeated them.

And those different spirits make the ripe for the bondage that came with Hitler and the Third Reich. That happened to a whole culture. The Spirits of fear, anger, shame, bigotry and hatred took over their country. We know the results.

Those same spirits threaten us personally. If we are controlled by those spirits, or by others, call them the Seven Deadly sins if you will, or whatever, if we controlled by dangerous spirits that leave us open to being manipulated by others.

Paul, who delivered this woman of her evil spirit, talks about these spirits in his letters. In Colossians he warns against the spirits of, lust, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language and lies. These are spirits that will enslave us.

And when an evil spirit like that can control us, it sets us up to be manipulated by others. When the people of a nation have a spirit of fear, the politicians of that nation can manipulate the people by playing on their fear. If we are afraid of terrorism, even though the odds of being in a terrorist incident are very rare, people will use that fear to get our votes, and to get us to pass laws that are not really in our best interest. They will sell us thing we do not need, and make money off of us. You know, every time there is a mass shooting, gun sales go up dramatically, even though in reality you are more likely to be shot by your own gun than by a mass shooter.

We, as a nation, are afraid of getting sick, we are afraid of growing old and we are afraid of dying, and there is not end of people out there who want to take advantage of that by selling us things that will make us look and feel younger, and will keep us alive and healthy for a long time.  And almost all of it is worthless junk, that makes some people rich, and doesn’t help anyone else.

When there is a spirit of fear in a nation, there are a whole host of politicians, not all, but many, who will take advantage of that and use the people’s fear to their own advantage. Ed Dobson, who used to be a fundraiser for the Moral Majority said that whenever they were low on funds they would send out what they called “the gay letter.” “Homosexuals are taking over our country!” the letter would say. “You have to act now to stop this country from becoming another Sodom!” Of course by act now, they meant give money, and they said it was always a guaranteed fundraiser for them.

Churches can be taken over by spirits—today especially in the mainline church I see spirits of fear, or of despair. People look at the future and it looks bleak to them. Churches are getting older and they are getting smaller, and that causes people to lose faith. And some churches end up doing things that are not worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They buy into gimmicky programs, they dumb down, they cater to those who have the least interest in God, not the most interest. They lose sight of the fact that it is God’s church, not their church.

You see, the fact is, while freedom is a great thing, not everyone wants you to be free. Some people find it much more convenient if you are NOT free. You may want to be free from drugs or alcohol, but the people who sell you these things like it when you are in bondage. You may want to be free from gambling, the casinos see it a little differently. You may want to be economically free, but the people who make money off of your poverty like it when you remain poor. You may want to be free from fear or free from anger, but the people who make their living and get your votes because of your fear and anger just want you to be more afraid, and more angry.


Now I want to be clear here. When I talk about a spirit of anger or a spirit of shame, these are not spirits like Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost. I’m not really talking about ethereal beings that float through the air and then come to rest in us. I am using the word spirit metaphorically here, but does that really change how the spirits affect us? To the people who have to deal with a spirit of rage or lust or shame or fear it does not matter if it is a metaphorical or literal spirit. It is a Spirit that puts them further into bondage.

So there is this girl who is in bondage. Perhaps she is not so different from you and me and sometimes. Perhaps each of us is also in bondage in some small, or large way, whether it is an addiction, a social condition, a spirit in us—maybe we are not so different from her.

But then there is Paul—Paul who exhibits the power of Jesus Christ, who said, in his very first sermon:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

Paul sees this girl and in the power of Jesus, he sets her free. He can do that because he is free in Jesus Christ. Paul understand that Jesus came to free the captives and Paul is living his live as a free man. He is free in Jesus Christ. There are no spirits that bind Paul. In Christ is soul is free. What does it mean for Paul to be free? He is free to love.

Even when he is behind bars, he is a free man. After he frees the slave girl from the spirit that oppresses her, the girl’s owners are angry that their cash cow has dried up, and they manage to have Paul arrested. But even in jail Paul is free. Behind bars, with his feet in stocks, he and Silas sing hymns and praise God.

As Richard Lovelace wrote, Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” And Paul and Silas were not in prison—at least their souls were not in prison. Even when the earthquake shakes open the doors of their jail cell, they don’t leave. They stay put.

Their jailor sees that, and he is afraid. He is afraid for two reasons. First, if Paul and Silas were to escape, the jailor has to carry out their sentence himself. That is the way the Romans made sure prison guards never lost a prisoner. If the prisoner escapes, the guard has to carry out the sentence himself. So when this guard sees the open doors to their jail cell, he knows that he is not a prisoner himself.

But no, Paul and Silas have not escaped, because they don’t need to. Yes, they are stuck in this jail cell, but they are not prisoners. They are free—Free in Jesus Christ. And that also scares their jailor. Perhaps he has never met such a free man before.

He asks them, “What can I do to save my skin?” I don’t think, when he asks about being saved he meant in a religious sense. I think he realized who the real prisoner was—himself. How can I be free as you are free.

And Paul tells him, believe on Jesus. The more you trust in him, the freer you will be. The more your life conforms to his life, the more authentic your life will be. The more you give yourself to God, the more of your own life you find.

As Jesus said, in Matthew 16:25:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?


Do you want to be free? Truly free? Give more of your life to God. Find your true self, your authentic self in Jesus Christ. Read his teachings. Talk to him in prayer and daily conversation. Take seriously his call for you to follow him. Invite the Holy Spirit of God into your life.

And be a part of helping to liberate others. Reach out to others in love. It is a risk, but one worth taking. Reach out to those who find themselves in bondage—to addictions, to poverty, to the false sense of self they put up. Reach out to those who are taken by a spirits of fear and shame, of anger and malice, of lust and greed. Reach out in love.

It is a risk. Look at Paul. He did up in Jail. But look at the girl in our story. No longer bound by the spirit that oppresses her, but we do not know if she is truly free. But the jailor is a free man. Like Paul and Silas in jail, he is now free to love God, to love others and in the process to find out what it truly means to love himself.   Believe, like the jailor in the story, and be free.


About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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