Freedom from Slavery

Photo: Kengeleni “The place of the bell” in 1955
Philemon 10-19

It was a hot humid morning so I was thankful for the sea breeze that wafted through the palms. Things were quiet, just a few kids calling to the vervet monkeys in a nearby acacia. Three wildebeest seemed to be keeping an eye on them a few meters away. Suddenly the tranquil scene was broken by distant shouting. The kids turned and the wildebeest bolted as a lone figure appeared running down the twisting footpath from the sea. He headed straight for me and then stopped perspiring and out of breath. It was Charo, one of the Giriama watchmen who had just sprinted two kilometres from the beach. “Ninaona majahazi ya waarabu yanakuja!” (I can see Arab boats coming!) he panted pointing back to where he had come from. Everyone knew the procedure. I turned to Katana beside me and nodded. Eager as ever he jogged over to the bell and soon I heard the clang, clang, clang pounding through the trees. As usual faces started appearing at the doors of all the huts. People grabbed their kids and a few belongings and disappeared into the bush. It was always this way when the Arab Slave Ships arrived. They came again and again hoping to round up villagers but by the time they got here the people were gone. The bell had been a great idea.
Kengeleni is Swahili for ‘The Place of the Bell’. The old bell arch (pictured above) can still be seen on the main road travelling north out of Mombasa. It provides a window into the world of African slavery. Similarly the New Testament book Philemon gives us a window into the world of first century slavery. In the Scripture above Paul says,“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus … I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you … no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, he had recently become a Christian. Paul pleads with Philemon to accept him as a brother and not a slave. He goes further and promises to pay for any loss Onesimus had caused him. Was he a runaway slave? We don’t know. But I do wonder how often Paul had to plead with Christian masters to set their slaves free as more and more became believers. Here in the first century the gospel’s challenge to slavery had just begun; it would be another 2000 years before slavery was completely abolished.
Slavery was a large scale horror. People were taken from their families and homes never to return. They were stripped of freedom, value, and identity. They were sold as anyone would market ‘a thing’. Recently a woman whose family has lived in the Caribbean for generations had a DNA test in the hope of discovering which part of Africa her enslaved ancestors came from. The results showed they were Kikuyu (one of Kenya’s biggest tribes). I can only imagine that the solving of her identity was a great healing to her soul.
In Romans 6:16-23 Paul uses slavery as a powerful image to distinguish between a life of sin and a life of righteousness. He says we were all slaves to sin and now as Christians we are slaves to righteousness; for everyone is a slave to whom they obey. He goes on to say that slavery to sin means death, and slavery to righteousness means life. This is because slavery to sin binds and destroys while slavery to righteousness delivers and heals. Sin sneaks up and captures us like a slave trader, while righteousness is like a loud and obvious bell giving us the option of freedom.
In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (That is the year of Jubilee when all Jewish slaves were freed).” Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit so he could set people free from slavery. In 2 Corinthians 3: 17-18 Paul says “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The Holy Spirit is the anointing for freedom. He frees us, not from physical slavery, but spiritual slavery – slavery on the inside. This is important; we can be free on the outside and slaves on the inside, and we can be slaves on the outside and free on the inside. Not many are slaves on the outside today, but millions are slaves on the inside. When Jesus cast out demons people were set free on the inside. Their bonds were broken and their enslavers fled. People who are stuck in habitual sin are in a kind of slavery; the kind the Holy Spirit can free them from.
The Holy Spirit not only sets slaves free he also gives them a new identity. Paul says “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (Romans 8: 15-16). Those of us who have been slaves to sin need the assurance that we are now God’s children, and the Holy Spirit places this assurance within. But he doesn’t stop there. He also empowers us to be ambassadors of God. Jesus said “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are not only given a new identity as God’s children, but we are also given a high calling. In short we are freed from slavery, received by a family, and given a new reason for living. This is exactly what Paul was asking Philemon to do for Onesimus. Like Onesimus you and I are freed slaves!
In Galatians 5:1 Paul says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Paul is warning you and I as freed slaves not to be enslaved again. The community that used the warning bell in Mombasa were a community of freed slaves; people that had been enslaved once and didn’t want it happening again. In effect the bell’s warning was “Hey you! Don’t be enslaved again!” And that’s a good message to all who have been set free in Christ.

Illustrations: A Caribbean Kikuyu, A Zebra in Bondage, Kengeleni – The Place of the Bell, Bonnie’s Confession of Slavery.

Words to Vineyard Mombasa: Flapping White Dove – Freedom!

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