Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Illustration by Tobias Mayer, 2022

And {the high priest and Sadducees} laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.
Acts 5:18-20

The apostles find that after his death they are able to continue the healing work of Jesus, and with gladdened hearts they do so. This work raises great indignation amongst those holding office in the formal religious establishment, just as it did when Jesus himself was healing. Consider the frustration: they had slain the one unorthodox healer, only to find they had created twelve new unorthodox healers. The potential mathematics of this equation must have been terrifying! Not daring to test it by killing any of the new healers they cast them all into prison instead. To no avail.

This is another of those biblical stories that benefit the reader far more if we read it metaphorically rather than literally. In literal terms we have a clever, magician-God, sending his lovely assistant to magic away the locks and open the doors. Impressive, but ultimately meaningless. Magic is a one-time gesture, that can as easily be withheld as performed. Metaphorically, what we have here is far more exciting. It is once-terrified human beings finally freed from their self-imposed shackles—the bondage of self, the chains of fear. After living in confusion and misunderstanding, compelled to follow Jesus but afraid of the consequences of doing so,1 the disciples are finally free. The authorities may be able to lock them up, even to kill some of them (as later they do) but they'll never again be able to imprison their spirits. The disciples, and now all those they touch, have found a new freedom and a new happiness. In finding God they are released from the confines of religion. The irony is delightful.

Did the prison doors literally open for the disciples? Did they literally walk away to preach in the temple the following morning? It doesn't matter. This is not the story of one night, one single event, but rather a glimpse of the future. The book of Acts is the story of systemic change. Jesus sowed the seeds and here we have the seedlings, tentatively reaching up into the sunlight, adapting to their (often hostile) environment, and growing robust through their experiences. Each act of the apostles helps prepare the ground for the generations to come. The real miracle is that any of this occurred at all. It may not be literally true that Jesus rose and walked amongst them, but is is absolutely true that he did, for without the spirit of Jesus each disciple would have run away and hidden himself. As it was each had learned enough to be propelled forward by love and justice, and be held together in community. When our meaning and purpose exceeds the limits of self, there is no prison that can contain us, there is only freedom.

1 The story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41) is perhaps the best-known example of the disciples' fear response, but they continuously oscillate between fear and bewilderment throughout the gospel of Mark, and many references are made to this fear in Matthew and Luke too.