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"And the Chains Fell Off" -- Acts 12:1-10, 18-21 (7th Sunday of Easter)

For the past four Sundays now, we’ve been considering “the Way of Resurrection,” and how it flows out from Easter morning on into the Book of Acts – how it is lived out in the community that came to call themselves “the Way.” And along the Way, we’ve noticed some things.

·      We’ve noticed that the Way of Resurrection is embodied – in us – in our outstretched hands at work doing healing in the world.[1]

·      The Way of Resurrection is expansive – radiating out in ever-expanding circles of embrace.[2]

·      We’ve noticed that the Way of Resurrection is lived out in the complexity of community.[3] As it radiates out, it encounters the barriers that the world still tries to set in its path. Our work is to dismantle those barriers as we move ever and always into the fullness of a world with no separation.

And in this morning’s scripture, we come to some of the most daunting physical barriers we know – actual walls – sturdy walls – prison walls – as we find Peter again in jail.[4] You know, that’s actually a thing in the Book of Acts. Have you noticed that? As we have moved through the Book of Acts, people keep getting locked up, and put behind bars – and then sometimes... miraculously set free: 

·      Remember back in Acts 3, that “stretch out your hand” story. Peter and John heal a man who could not walk from birth. They’re jailed, but the authorities can’t keep them there, because there’s this man who couldn’t walk – who is now not only walking and running around – he’s jumping and leaping. And Peter and John go free. 

·      Not long after that, in Acts 5, the Apostles are rounded up, arrested, and jailed. But in the night, God opens the prison door, and they all go free. (The next morning, the guards and the authorities find the prison door locked back up, but nobody there.)

·      In chapter 8, we see the Apostle Paul, before he sees the light, rounding up members of the Way and putting them in prison. But just as soon as Paul embraces this Way of Resurrection – the authorities come for him. And, as he follows the Way of Resurrection around the Mediterranean world, he is beaten, and jailed, and run out of town.

·      There’s today’s story in Acts 12 – where Peter is imprisoned, and an angel walks him out of jail.

·      And then in Acts 16 – I think we talked about this story last year – Paul and Silas are imprisoned. An earthquake shakes the jail, and the prison doors fly open. But Paul and Silas hang out – they don’t want the guards to get in trouble. The guards take them home for supper – and Paul and Silas refuse to leave until the powers come and escort them out into freedom.

Again and again, those who follow the Way of Resurrection are imprisoned, and sometimes miraculously set free. It is what we might call a motif in the Book of Acts. It happens again and again. What are we to make of this pattern of incarceration and liberation – again and again?


Maybe we should start by naming that we are talking about the incarceration and freedom of actual bodies. Before we say anything figuratively or metaphorically about the freedom we see here, we should say – literally and concretely – that in these stories actual bodies are being locked up in actual jails, and actual bodies are being set free.

When we talk about our freedoms in our American culture – particularly in dominant parts of that culture where we have a basic and broad level of general freedom – we may start by thinking of those freedoms articulated in the First Amendment  – the freedom of speech and religion; the freedom of press and assembly and not to incriminate oneself.

But essential to all of those – is the freedom to move one’s body freely through space – from here to there – without being bound up, chained up, walled in. The Constitution has something to say about that – even before the Bill of Rights – in Article I – when it preserves what’s called the writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus means, literally, “you shall bring the body” – “show me the body.” It provides, in principle, that bodies can’t be imprisoned, without a showing of sufficient cause.[5]

When we come to this Scripture, it's important to say that we are talking about actual bodies being put in actual jails so that we understand the totality of the incarceration being attempted here. M. Shawn Copeland – in her book Enfleshing Freedom –  puts it like this: Our bodies are where we experience the fullness of life; our bodies are where we experience each other; our bodies are where we experience the transcendent – where we experience God.[6] When the powers seek to incarcerate bodies, they seek to bind up, and confine, and control our experience of being human – our agency to be fully human – our agency to create change in the world.

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are clear that they are proclaiming the liberation of actual bodies. When Jesus announces the purposes of his ministry at the start of the Gospel, he says that the Spirit is upon him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to those who are oppressed, and the cancellation of debt. Release to real captives. Freedom for real bodies.

But what happens again and again in the Book of Acts – what’s happening to Peter here in this text is the imprisonment of his body. Look at how very jailed Peter is. King Herod Agrippa I sees Peter – and the movement called the Way – as a threat to empire. Herod panders to the religious leaders who see him the same – and he locks Peter up.[7]  Usually in those days, a prisoner would be guarded by a squad of four guards, so that they could take shifts on the watch.[8] Peter is guarded by four squads of four guards – 4X4. The prisoner would have a guard watching at all times – Peter has two guards. The prisoner would have been chained – Peter is chained by two chains. And as if that weren’t enough, they place another guard at the gate. Peter’s body is jailed and chained and guarded with extreme prejudice.

And that shouldn’t surprise us. Because that is what power-over does. What’s not surprising is that when the powers feel threatened, they start incarcerating problematic bodies. That was standard practice in the Roman Empire. And it would usually happen much faster than it happens here in this story. The person would be arrested, their body jailed, and usually within 24 hours, they’d be killed. That’s what happens to James at the start of this story. That’s how the system worked.

And we know that’s how systems of power and violence work in our day. For several years now, we’ve been talking in detail about how our own American systems of racism work, and how the enslavement, incarceration, and control of Black bodies has long been a central part of that.

Our Constitution – notwithstanding the rights I mentioned early – at its inception was written to protect the institution of slavery – one of the most brutal systems for incarcerating bodies.[9] Even when the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were passed, making citizens those who had been enslaved and providing equal protection of law – as Ava DuVernay and others point out – the 13th Amendment continued to permit the incarceration of bodies.[10]

And, as Michelle Alexander explains in excruciating detail, those systems of mass incarceration have become one of the latest embodiments of American racism.[11] With processes and procedures that leave racial bias unchecked, our criminal justice system rounds up and arrests a disproportionate number of Black and brown bodies. Sentencing laws and prosecutorial discretion lead to disproportionate sentences and penalties. Black and brown bodies are incarcerated at rates far higher than white bodies, and then even after imprisonment, laws continue to deny rights and opportunities to the formerly incarcerated. Alexander calls all this a “New Jim Crow.” We know what this looks like: systems of power-over incarcerating real bodies as a means of maintaining their systemic power and privilege.

This is what the powers do. We see it in Gaza. Even before the horrors of the Hamas attack on October 7 and before the horrors of the Israeli attack on Gaza that followed, Human Rights Watch has called Gaza “an open air prison.”[12] In 2007, the Israeli and Egyptian governments effectively closed down movement in and out of Gaza – closing land routes, and shutting down the operation of airports and seaports.[13] Gaza is small. It is 140 square miles, about the size of Las Vegas, with three times the population – 2.1 million people.[14] In response to the October 7 terror attack, Israel invaded Gaza, ordered Gazans to evacuate to the south – effectively pushing much of the population into a smaller and smaller land area. Since the incursion began, the IDF has killed over 34,000 Gazans – one-fourth to one-third of them children.[15]  Over 1.2 million Gazans are now crowded into the southern town of Rafah, and Netanyahu has stated his clear intention to move militarily into Rafah.[16] Netanyahu could not do what he says he is about to do without having moved these real bodies, real people, real families into this confined space.

As we continue to pray for the release of hostages (whose bodies are also confined by violence), as we continue to pray for a permanent cease-fire, and for a restoration of access to water, food, and medical care, we must also pray for – and work for – a just peace that dismantles systems that confine real bodies and real lives.

Along with other mechanisms and means, systems of power maintain their power-over by incarcerating, confining, and controlling bodies – by doing all they can to control our bodies – which are the place where we have agency in the world.

In the Book of Acts, what’s not surprising is that Peter, and Paul and Silas keep getting locked up. What is surprising is that they keep getting set free. Again and again. It’s like the writer of Acts wants to make sure we don’t miss that. Did you see how they got free? Well, listen to how it happened again! Peter is bound up – 4 squads of four guards each – chained to 2 soldiers – with 2 sets of chains – a sentry posted at the locked, iron gate. And an angel arrives. The translation we read says that the angel “taps” Peter – but the Greek is more like a shove. The thought of actually getting released from jail is so improbable in their world that Peter thinks he is having a dream. And the chains fall off. And the prison door opens of its own accord. And Peter walks out from the two guards, past the four squads of four soldiers, past the sentry, out the open door, and down the city street. Peter’s body is free – moving on and out in the Way of Resurrection.

Again and again, in the Book of Acts, real bodies held in real prisons are set free. The Spirit is on the move. Earthquakes shake open jailhouse doors. Shackles fall away. Prison gates open of their own accord.  God herself shows up and escorts the apostles to freedom. A man who could not walk from birth leaps and runs around town – so much healing in the air that the powers lose any moral authority they may have ever had to bind up bodies meant to be free.

I love the phrase that M. Shawn Copeland uses to describe liberation – “Enfleshed Freedom.” That’s what we are seeing here – actual bodies set free. What we are seeing here is nothing less than the resurrection of the body – not only the body of Christ – but our bodies. The way of Resurrection is “enfleshed freedom” – an end to every separation and the freedom of every body.

I looked up the word “motif” to make sure I was using it correctly. A “motif” is “a recurring, significant theme.” The writer of Acts wants us to take this motif of the incarceration and freedom of bodies seriously. We can’t understand the fullness of the Way of Resurrectionwithout it. The Way of Resurrection is always moving on out into freedom – from a tomb, from a jail, from every wall and barrier – out from everything the world erects to try to keep people bound up, pressed down, and held back from the fullness of all that God intends us to be.

Now we know that the powers keep trying to separate and confine that which God intends to be free. And that give us our “something to do” – as we move out into the world in this Way of Resurrection. As we move into the world, I want to suggest that we use this motif as a lens:

1.   Where do we see bodies being bound up, constrained, and confined? Let’s start literally – where do we see actual bars and actual walls? Then, look for the systemic barriers – segregation (bodies separated out into certain neighborhoods), blockades, borders. And then to social and economic barriers that block access to life-essentials like medical care, and educational and job opportunity, housing, and food.

2.    And then, consider for a moment. What might enfleshed freedom look like? – when the chains fall away, and the walls are torn down – when people walk free.

3.    And then ask -- after we acknowledge our role in the binding up -- what’s one thing – small or large – one thing that I – that we – can do – to move toward enfleshed freedom?

I have to confess that I didn’t know exactly what we would find when we set out this Easter season to explore the Way of Resurrection. The Scriptures looked like interesting stories, worthy of a look. But let’s say again what we have discovered along the way:

The Way of Resurrection is embodied... in us.. in our outstretched hand doing healing in the world. It is expansive: It moves out into the world in ever-expanding circles of embrace. The Way of Resurrection is lived out in the complexity of community. And, the Way of Resurrection is ever and always moving the world toward freedom – toward the liberation of all bodies, everywhere and all the time.

In Resurrection, God has broken the power of death and the power of every power that would do us harm. Easter is so much more than one day – so much more even than a season – it is a way of life – a way of living – that moves us out toward and into horizons more expansive than we ever thought possible. By the power of the Spirit, the Way of Resurrection moves us ever and always into more healing, more freedom, more life.

© 2024 Scott Clark

[4] For general background on this text and the Book of Acts, see see Justo L. González, Acts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001); Paul W. Walaskay, Acts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002).

[6] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2d ed.) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2023) (“In and through embodiment, we human persons grasp and realize our essential freedom through engagement and communion with other embodied selves.”).

[7] See González, p.143-44.

[8] See id., p.145.

[9] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011); Derrick A. Bell, Jr., And We Are Not Saved (1987); Scott Clark, “When Wait Means Never: American Tolerance of Racial Injustice,” National Black Law Journal (UCLA ed.), vol. 13, no. 1 (1993).

[11] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011).

[13] See id.

Photo credit: Ivan Aleksic, used with permission via Unsplash


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