‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free’: longing for liberation

A sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Texts: Acts 16.16–34; Revelation 22.12–14, 16,17,20,21; John 17.20–26.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” sings the legendary Nina Simone, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me”.

Freedom, liberation, is the focus of our reading from Acts today, complete with broken chains. And what a story it is! Paul and Silas bound fast in jail, and then this dramatic, miraculous freedom – the earthquake, the unlocked doors. Literally “my chains fell off”.

But let’s go back a bit. Why are Paul and Silas in prison in the first place? They have cast out a spirit from a slave-girl, in the name of Jesus Christ. But that in itself is not what gets them into trouble.  The trouble comes when “her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone”. This is the story of a vulnerable young woman, exploited by men for money. And now, as a result of Paul’s intervention, that particular form of exploitation is at an end.  This woman, whose name we are not told,is set free by Jesus through Paul, released from the means of her oppression and exploitation.

When Paul casts out the “spirit of divination” – however we might understand that – he is speaking against something else too. He is speaking against the coercion and exploitation of this young woman at the hands of wealthy and powerful men – men powerful enough to get him thrown into prison. Perhaps it is not too far a stretch to suggest that Paul here is speaking against the coercion and exploitation of women more generally. Even that he is casting out a spirit of coercion, of exploitation, of patriarchy. And he is doing it in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m not suggesting that Paul is some great feminist ally but maybe, just for a moment, by the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit, he is participating in what feminist theologian Letty Russell terms “Jesus’ iconoclasm of patriarchy.”

When the men who have been exploiting this young woman bring their case against Paul and Silas before the magistrates, notice that they make no mention of their real motive, he loss of their profit at the expense of a vulnerable young woman. Instead they say “these men are disturbing our city”. This should come as no surprise. Movements of liberation are always resisted in favour of ‘order’ by those whom the prevailing order favours. Liberation is disruptive, the embodiment of the disruptive power of the Spirit who blows where she will.

The liberation in this story is three-fold: there is the liberation of the slave-girl. Then there is the obvious, dramatic liberation of Paul and Silas from their prison cell. And finally the liberating experience of the jailer, freed by Paul’s words from his guilt and shame at the prisoners escaping on his watch, and saved from death.

You just cannot keep the liberating Spirit of God down! Not with systems of patriarchal oppression, not with bars and chains, not with internalised guilt and shame. The liberating power of Jesus Christ cannot be contained or controlled.

And that liberation changes everything. The jailer knows that. Look at his reaction to seeing how God has freed Paul and Silas: “he fell down trembling”. This is a moment of recognition. Liberation is what God looks like, and the jailer recognises God in this moment of liberation, and is “baptised without delay”. We don’t know what happened next to the jailer, but it’s clear that this encounter with God who frees the captives from their chains is a turning point for him.

Back to Nina Simone: “I wish I could give all I’m longing to give / I wish I could live like I’m longing to live / I wish I could do all the things that I can do / Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew.”

In baptism, in receiving “the water of life as a gift”, as our reading from Revelation puts it, the jailer is starting anew. He, like the woman freed from her exploitation, like Paul himself a few chapters earlier on the road to Damascus, like each of us, is profoundly changed by encounter with the living and liberating Christ, and offered a new start.

And then there’s the longing: “I wish I could live like I’m longing to live”. I don’t know about you, but that resonates deeply with me. Transforming, liberating encounter with Jesus stirs something in us, as it stirred in Paul: a sort of holy restlessness, a profound longing for the perfect liberation which can only come from God. A desire to live more Jesus-shaped lives. A desire to live and work for a more kingdom-shaped world.

That longing, that desire, is not only ours but Jesus’ too. In our gospel reading, Jesus prays: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

Jesus desires for us to know God’s glory, to know it as he himself knows it, to know that we too are loved, loved by God, loved from before the foundation of the world. And in knowing God and that all-encompassing love of God, that we may “become completely one”.

The liberating movement of God’s Holy Spirit is always a shared enterprise, however imperfect we are at recognising our sharing in it. As Nina Simone sings: “I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart / Remove all the bars that keep us apart.” Our freedom is bound up in one another’s. To quote Maya Angelou: “the truth is no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

This is not about you knowing Jesus, or me knowing Jesus. It is about the whole creation knowing in the very depths of its being the liberating, life-giving power and love of Jesus Christ.

We are not called to set creation free, that work is God’s and it has already been done. We are not called to save anyone, that is the work of Jesus on the cross and it is accomplished. But we are called to make real what is already true, to make real to our neighbour the truth of God’s liberating love for all, to make it so real that freedom tastes of reality in ways which speak tangibly of God.

What that looks, sounds, feels like will be different for each of us. Sometimes it may be as simple and profound as a quiet word or an unnoticed action which lightens someone’s burden. Sometimes, like Paul, we may find that our commitment to liberation gets us into “Gospel trouble” (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Gene Robinson), that our work is met with resistance, as the disruptive liberation of the Spirit always is. Always, whether we feel embroiled in struggle, or whether we are wondering if our efforts are enough, we need to hang on to the knowledge that we are all called and held by the liberating love of God.

So, as we prepare to celebrate at Pentecost the coming of the disruptive, liberating Holy Spirit, and as we prepare today to meet in bread and wine the Christ who comes to free us and the whole creation from every chain that binds us, let us pray:

O God in whom is perfect freedom, may you so fill us with longing for the liberation of all people and the whole creation, that we are ready to work and to struggle, to be changed and transformed, until that day when at last our restless hearts find rest and we see God face to face, when “we’ll sing ‘cos we’ll know how it feels to be free”. Amen.