Sometimes it is not the end of lockdown that is the important thing: it is what we do next that matters most.
Take Nelson Mandela as a case in point. When he was released from a Cape Town prison in 1990, having served 27 years for his attempts to overthrow South Africa’s white-only government, there were triumphal celebrations worldwide. His release would have felt no less momentous had he then immediately retired to a quiet, affluent suburb to live out his remaining days in peaceful luxury. However, his story is so much more incredible because, instead, he went on to become his country’s first black President, a position from which he started to legally dismantle the legacy of apartheid.
In today’s story, it is the followers of another revolutionary that are incarcerated. Their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, has already been executed and laid in a sealed, guarded tomb. His followers, however, are claiming that he has been raised from the dead, broken out of his burial chamber, and appeared to them on multiple occasions.
The religious authorities are further troubled when these followers, a group that includes Peter and John, continue to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, healing the sick and casting out unclean spirits. In a bid to silence the disciples, the Saduccees lock them away and command them not to speak about Jesus. Mysteriously released, the disciples boldly chose to continue preaching, and a growing number of converts are amazed at what they say and do.
This is where we join the story today. In the verses we have just read, the jealous Sadduccees once again throw the disciples in jail, still hoping that human constraints will be enough to control the spread of their message. This time God sends an angel to release them. The message is clear: his power cannot be stopped by shackles and chains.
The angel does not simply expect them to go home, keep quiet and avoid further trouble. He charges them with a task: ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ Their miraculous physical release is itself proof of God’s redeeming power, but it happens in order that they can go straight back to the busy temple courts and continue preaching about the spiritual freedom that this same God offers to those who give their lives to him. They are freed from prison, but they are freed for a task too.
We are people who have heard their message of Life and experienced Jesus’ healing power. Yet despite God’s incredible work of salvation in our lives, we do not always embrace our emancipation. Instead, unsure how to live a life of liberty, we quickly return to the yoke of slavery to sin (Hebrews 12:1). We forget that we have been saved from sin and darkness for a purpose. The apostle Paul, who himself was freed from prison by a ground-breaking miracle, summarises this truth in Galatians 5:1, saying: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’
What does it mean to live in this freedom? It means that although our salvation is glorious, it is not the end of the story. We are released in order that we might live with a new task in mind.
I, for one, do not want my redeemed life to be like the lacklustre second season of the TV show Prison Break. After a tension-filled first season in which Michael Scofield and his cronies succeed in breaking out of Fox River State Penitentiary (sorry for the spoiler!), the second season has nowhere left to go. The ‘Fox River Eight’ know what they want to be freed from but they have nothing to be freed for. Having escaped lockdown, they find there is nothing compelling to live for: no vision, no task, no convincing motivation.
I would rather live a ‘Nelson narrative’, where my triumphal release is not the final episode but the season opener. Instead of sculking at the prison door asking for re-entry to a world I understand, I want to throw off everything that hinders me, and the sin that so easily entangles me, and run with perseverance the race marked out for me (Hebrews 12:1).
This is not easy: we know that for many real life prisoners, the hardest day of their incarceration is the one on which they are released. Thankfully, we do not have to face the challenge alone. We have a helper – the same Spirit that the disciples speak about. As Peter proclaims, God sends his Spirit to live in all those who obey him. It is where the Spirit of the Lord is that there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). He is our divine rehabilitation officer, showing us how to embrace our liberty responsibly, joyfully and with purpose. Like the angel he sent in today’s passage, he gives us our task: to return to the world, determined to speak about our Saviour and demonstrate his love and power.
We are free indeed! (John 8:36) May we leave our lockdown celebrating our release, embracing our newfound purpose and clinging tightly to the Saviour who sets us free.
Father of freedom, thank you for liberating us through the death of your son Jesus. Help us to live lives worthy of his sacrifice. Make us bold and reckless in our pursuit of the freedom he won for us. Send your Spirit to guide us so that we might live not as slaves to sin but as servants to your gospel.