(Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17.20-26)
‘One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl.’ So starts the strange extraordinary story from the book of Acts that was our first reading this week. As we were going to the place of prayer. As ever, it’s the small details that reveal much. This is a story framed by prayer; on their way to pray, Paul and Silas encounter a slave-girl, a woman defined by her bondage, her imprisonment by the men who make money out of her. This is a story about prayer, and about freedom, or the lack of it.
Last Sunday, as the Cathedral embarked on a Festival of prayer, joining with Christians across the world in praying, Thy Kingdom Come, we were encouraged by John, our Vice-Provost, to discover, through prayer, our heart as the meeting place with God; the place of God’s abiding, overcoming our fear and kindling us into love. As our Gospel put it this morning: ‘I in them, and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
Our reading from Acts is a vivid illustration of what that abiding in God as God abides in us looks like; how prayer might shape our living. One day, as they are going to the place of prayer, Paul and Silas meet a slave girl, a woman who makes a great deal of money for others through fortune telling. Such fortune telling relies on a belief that the future is fixed, determined – it is the antithesis to a faith in the possibility of freedom, faith that the future is open, to be shaped by our collective response. This woman, herself not free, owned and a money maker for others, offering fake news to gullible people desperate for certainty about the future; this woman becomes fascinated by Paul and his friends, and begins to follow them everywhere. You sense that she is perturbed: abused by her owners, she sees in these men of prayer something different at work. Paul, somewhat exasperated by her haunting of them, orders the spirit of divination, of fortune telling, out of her.
However we might understand that exchange, something shifts. The woman herself disappears from the story – wahtever Paul has accomplished, to her previous owners, her liberation from fortune telling, means a fall in their fortune making. Their hope of making money from her is gone, and they are furious.
And so, even as she is set free (we hope), the money men force a role reversal: Paul and Silas are themselves imprisoned, thrown in to jail by magistrates in cahoots with the money men, and there they are stripped naked, beaten, put in the innermost cell, their feet fastened in the stocks. And there, at midnight, at the darkest hour, we find them ‘praying and singing hymns to God.’ Who is bound? Who is free?
And at this darkest hour, ‘suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chanins unfastened.’ This is a story of dramatic reversals – where those we think are bound and chanied are suddenly free, and those who think themselves free are suddenly revealed as imprisoned. It might be tempting to think the earthquake is some sort of divine intervention – it certainly has a miraculous quality to it. And yet the text is silent on the cause of the earthquake. It just is; it’s the circumstance that helps reveal what the text is really interested in – who is bound, who is free?
The immediate effect is that the jailer whose job it is to ensure that the prisoners remain locked up, is beside himself, and draws a sword to kill himself, supposing his prisoners have escaped. Because if you were the fortunate beneficiaries of an earthquake, why wouldn’t you? And he, the enforcer of the magistrates rule of fear, has failed. But his prisoners, who he imagines have leapt to their freedom, instead call out to their jailer: ‘Do not harm yourself for we are all here.’ Here is freedom; here is the abiding presence of God, in this act of selflessness and relationship forming. It brings the jailer to his knees, and then to faith. ‘He brought them outside’, out of the prison that they were never in, and he then asks: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved.’ And so this jailer is brought too to the place of freedom; into the company of those who can sing and pray even when the world is at its darkest. And in their company he forges new bonds of friendship and love: ‘he took them and washed their wounds, brought them up into the house and set food before them. And he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.’
‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray.’ This Cathedral is fundamentally a place of prayer, we are a people of prayer. This week, this Festival of prayer is an opportunity to journey deeper into that reality and truth. In a world so often defined by who makes money from whom, by a culture of imprisonment and fear; where we can be tempted to think the future is fixed and determined and we know who the winners are; prayer is about the journey into a different kind of freedom. The freedom that sings songs in the darkness, that acts in selfless, surprising ways, that forges bonds of faith, that knows the abiding presence of God in each human heart. Who is bound? Who is free?