Scripture: Acts 16:16-34
It’s a story about prisons, isn’t it. And most of us, quite frankly, don’t have any experience in such places. As it happens, I have been in a prison. In fact, I spent an entire summer there. It probably isn’t what you think, though. One of the courses I took in preparation for ministry was as a chaplain at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine. There, I honed my ministry with my five parishioners, all of whom were women and who together were all the women in the state who had been jailed for murder. And all five had killed their spouse or lover. I spent my summer in a cell block there, listening to their stories and offering pastoral care.
While it was a medium-security prison for men, it was maximum-security for women. Because of that, the safety measures were extremely tight. I was searched every time I entered and had to pass through two loud and imposing gates, one always slamming shut before the other opened. Security was so tight that I could only imagine how authorities would react if one of the prisoners were to escape.
So in some sense I get it when I hear the story of an ancient jailer and his reaction when the prison walls are shattered by an earthquake. When he thinks all the prisoners have escaped, he’s horrified. Why go on? He’s failed miserably and he might as well honorably end his own life.
This is an upending story, this tale Luke tells, because it plays with the notion of who really is the prisoner. On the surface, Paul and Silas are clearly the prisoners. They’re the ones who have been incarcerated. They’ve been a public nuisance, so they’re locked away in their cells.
The real prisoner in the story, though, isn’t Paul or Silas. In something of an ironic twist, the real prisoner is the jailer himself. He’s the one who is, in some palpable, but much less obvious, way locked up. He’s been a fiasco, and his failure has snared him and punished him. It has trapped him in mortal fear, such that he can’t go on. Prisons aren’t always about walls and bars and metal gates.
Bill Buckner died this week. Baseball fans will remember him as the Red Sox player who, in 1986, let a ground ball go through his legs in a World Series game, costing the Red Sox the game, and eventually the entire Series. For his gaffe, he was booed relentlessly and even received death threats, ridiculed by fans who found his error unforgivable. For years, Buckner stayed away from Boston, and out of the limelight, imprisoned, really, by a mistake that Red Sox fans couldn’t forget.
Buckner’s death reminded me of another baseball player, named Donnie Moore, who, a week or two earlier in that same year, gave up a home run to Boston’s Dave Henderson in the bottom of the ninth inning, with his California Angels up by a run, and one out away from going to the World Series. Several years later, after never returning to his All-Star form, Moore shot and killed himself. Another prisoner of a very public mistake.
Both men were punished by merciless crowds intent on winning. And, perhaps worse, they were held in contempt by their own harsh and pitiless self-judgment. They were, in a sense, prisoners held hostage for mistakes deemed inexcusable. They were two dramatic examples of people who have been locked in cells that have punished them in striking ways. But being a prisoner? They’re light years from being the only ones. Imprisoned souls are far more common than we often let on.
Maybe you know some of these prisoners. There’s the man who was raised with the constricting notion that, to be a real man, he was not so show any emotion at all. When he hurt, he was not to acknowledge it. “Brush it off,” his Little League coach would scream at him. “Don’t cry,” his teenage friends would tease him. “Sissy,” he’d be told if he revealed even the slightest weakness. And to this day, he is unable to demonstrate nearly any feelings at all. Emotionally flat and impassive, he’s imprisoned in a toxic idea of manhood.
Or another prisoner: there’s the family that quite simply bought too much house. They’re not making enough money to do much more than get by. They’re hamstrung by their need to project status and success. They’re tense and worried all the time, unable to do some of the things they might like to do. In their anxiety, they, too, are prisoners.
Or this: there’s the alcoholic who thinks she’s free, thinks she’s capable of deciding not to drink. But she’s thought that for decades and she’s never been able to follow through. She and her spouse argue every night about something trivial. But it’s not really the specific spat that’s at issue, of course; it’s the drinking. She and her children just drift further apart, she in her haze unable to connect with them or express any real love. She, too, in her addiction, is a prisoner.
Prisoners abound in this culture. People are tethered to any number of shackles that hold them back and steal their freedom. There are no overt bars, of course, no physical gates. Invisible bars and gates, though, confine all sorts of people to internal prisons that are far more painful, far more devastating than any municipal jailhouse could ever be.
And the thing is: this happens to all of us at one time or another. None of us is immune from the failure and brokenness that can enchain us. We know what it is to be imprisoned, don’t we. Money, success, addiction, gender roles, peer pressure, job security, you name it—they all can hem us in and leash us. And if you see yourself bound by that confining rope, those punishing interior bars, you might well ask, with the jailer, “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). What must I do to break the chains? What must I do to find again the freedom for which I long, and which sometimes seems so elusive?
And the apostle Paul’s answer comes readily and quickly: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (16:31). And it sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Just believe, and we’ll be fine. And then we stop and think about it for a moment, and we wonder, ‘What does it really mean to believe on, or in, the Lord Jesus? Believe what exactly? And what does believing have to do with finding wholeness? And why would such an intellectual assent—“I believe in Jesus Christ”—make any difference in my sense of freedom and peace?’ It’s not at all obvious what “believing on the Lord Jesus” might look like.
What we have to be abundantly clear about is that such belief isn’t some sort of test we must pass in order to get the divine “A” for which we may have been pining. Prominent quarters in contemporary Christian culture sometimes convey the notion that you must do the right things for holy blessing to be yours—there’s a particular experience you have to have and certain words you must use to describe it, or it doesn’t really count. There’s a kind of conversion litmus test we may think we have to pass. So we say here clearly that that’s a grotesque perversion of divine grace. Believing isn’t like the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In God’s world, you don’t have to do anything to make the final round; you don’t have to do anything even to be a champion. There are no tests to pass; there are no grades to attain.
No, believing is not like winning a prize. It’s much more like receiving a gift. The real work of being freed isn’t ours to do. It’s God’s. God is the one who frees. Remember the story’s decisive declaration: after the earthquake, “the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened” (16:26). God opens the doors and unfastens the chains. We simply assent. We say “Thank you.” A gem is bestowed on us, and all we can do is receive it and say “Wow!”
What you and I most need isn’t another thing—a watch or a car or a boat. What we most need isn’t work success or a Mega-jackpot or the perfectly appointed home. No. What we most need is only to receive the divine verdict that the “chains were unfastened” and that everyone is beloved just as we are. We get out of prison by accepting that—by receiving God’s bottomless love. That’s it. That’s what frees us.
In 2008, twenty-two years after his infamous error, the much-reviled Bill Buckner returned to Boston’s Fenway Park to throw out the opening pitch at that year’s home opener. As he walked to the mound from the left field corner, what happened was remarkable: the crowd stood and clapped and screamed in delight. For three full minutes they applauded this much-maligned star. They welcomed him home. And he brushed away tears and bathed in the adulation. Holy blessing had come to Buckner in the form of a forgiving, adoring crowd. And, it must be added, in his willingness to let go of his mistake and accept the fullness of his life, the “chains were unfastened.”
In the first church I served, a retired minister was a member. His name was Paul LeFevre, and he had been a United Methodist minister for his whole career. He started coming to our Vermont church when he was let out of prison after several years of incarceration. He had been imprisoned for sexually abusing his own grandchild. Shortly after he began coming, he came to my study to tell me what he had done. He was full of remorse for his violation, and was deeply pained by the effect his actions had had on his family. This was not a man who took what he had done lightly.
At the same time, though, and in a remarkable way, Paul LeFevre was a man at peace. As reprehensible as what he had done was, he had apologized from the depths of his being, he had made his reparations, and he had done the work of personal reform. He could not undo what he had done, though, and he knew that, in order to go on, he had to let go of a past he could not change. And he did. He had let go of his deep self-recrimination and had, instead, accepted God’s verdict on him, that despite his egregious sin, he was still beloved. The deep truth was that God delighted in him. He knew it. He accepted that verdict. He lived with a deep peace at his core. What I saw was a man whose “chains [had been] unfastened.” And it was a quietly great and beautiful thing.
In E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, there’s a line that goes like this: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human life will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
What God offers is a life that is connected. When we connect with each other, we dim the voices of division and discord, we witness to a better and deeper path, we reveal a holy and blessed way. And when we connect with God—when we “believe on the Lord Jesus”—ah, that’s when a profound peace can descend on us. The prisons of our lives? They’re never going to vanish. When we drink from the deepest wells of God’s gracious embrace, though, then the “chains [can be] unfastened.” Joy and peace abound. Love saves us. Believe in that love. Let it surround you and fill you. And “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).