Setting the Prisoner and the Imprisoner Free
by Dan Kidd
From the earliest stories of God and God's people, baptism was a ritual wherein God imparted grace and restoration. In Numbers 8, the Lord has Moses wash the Levites (the priestly tribe). If someone was ritually unclean, by disease or by touching something dead or bloodied, the Levitical law instructs, "The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water; then they will be ceremonially clean."
Naaman, a commander in King Aram's army, is instructed by the prophet Elisha, to bathe in the Jordan where he is healed of leprosy. At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he was baptized by John the Baptizer and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell on God's people, Peter concludes his sermon by directing the people to repent and be baptized.
Throughout the centuries since, Christians have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, receiving the grace and restoration promised in Jesus; drowning to death the old self and being resurrected with Christ.
In today's passage, we hear of one such baptism; the baptism of the Paul's and Silas's jailer. There are a number of things we can marvel at and celebrate in this story, but one detail we ought not miss is how Christ's Gospel sets free not only the imprisoned (an incredible pronouncement) but also the imprisoner. Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah pronounced,
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1 NRSVA)
Too often we are divided as enemies. Perhaps nowhere so intensely as the rift between prisoners and their imprisoners. And it seems all too natural that we must pick a side in such contests. Either we are on the side of the prisoner or the side of the imprisoner. But Christ's Gospel is bigger than that. Paul and Silas, by a miraculous act of the Lord, were freed from their imprisonment. They had no reasonable obligation to attend to the jailer. But they knew that he needed liberation just as bad as they did. So they stayed and offered him the Gospel. And in the waters of baptism that morning the Lord liberated the imprisoner and his entire household.
Lord, we thank you for the incredible gift of baptism, wherein you impart your grace, your liberation, and your resurrection to us. Thank you for a Gospel so sweet that it offers all of this to whomever will hear it. Thank you, Jesus, for being the liberator of prisoners and imprisoners and for everyone else.