We are nearly to the end of our Easter journey through the Acts of the Apostles. That’s a little sad for me. I love working through Acts’ stories about the earliest Church. Thankfully, we are ending on a high point: the story of the Church at Philippi.
What struck me with particular force this week was Paul’s experience in the prison at Philippi. But as always, we need a little context.
Paul and his team probably arrived in Philippi sometime in the mid-fifties. This was new territory for Paul, his first venture into southeastern Europe.
After a few uneventful days getting the lay of the land, Paul managed to convert a woman named Lydia. That was a good start. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, meaning Lydia was wealthy. Her home became the center of the Philippian Church.
As best we can tell, things went really well for the new Christian community in Philippi. After leaving Philippi, Paul praised them not only in a letter he wrote to them (4:15-16), which we might expect, but also, at some length, in a letter he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor 8:1-7). Clearly the Christians in Philippi were doing something right.
But life is never easy, not then or now. Paul had probably not been in Philippi more than a few weeks when he let his temper get the best of him, with unfortunate results.
A slave girl with “a spirit of divination” followed Paul around the city, calling out that Paul and his companions served God and proclaimed the way of salvation. That seems like it would be a good thing, if a little irritating. Finally, Luke tells us, Paul was “very much annoyed.” He commanded the spirit to come out of the girl.
The slave girl’s outraged owners incited a mob against Paul and complained to the magistrates. The magistrates had Paul and the others stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown into prison, where they were shackled in stocks.
Put yourself in their place for a minute. I have never experienced public humiliation, a severe beating, or being shackled in prison, so the whole thing is foreign to me. But I have a pretty good idea how I would react, and it’s not pretty. I would be moaning in a combination of self-pity, regret, and rage.
But not Paul or Silas, his companion. They spent their time “praying and singing hymns to God,” praying and singing enthusiastically enough that the other prisoners heard them and paid attention. That’s really impressive.
We don’t know what they were singing. But the hymn at the beginning of our service, number 182 in the hymnal, fits their situation beautifully. It acknowledges that Christian life is not necessarily easy. But even when life is hard, Christ is present with us. And Christ’s love wins in the end.
I’m not going to sing our hymn! But I will read the words. It’s three verses.
“Christ is alive! Let Christians sing. His cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. His Love, in death, shall never die.”
“Christ is alive. No longer bound to distant years in Palestine. He comes to claim the here and now, and conquer every place and time.”
And then, most relevant of all: “Not throned above, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily, in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.”
I imagine Paul and Silas singing something like that: a hymn of Christ’s victory even there, in that prison, in the midst of their pain and suffering. I imagine them starting quietly, in a kind of lament. And then, as I picture the scene, they gradually get louder. Their prayers and songs start to work on them. And as they keep praying and singing, their voices become strong and confident, and even joyful.
About midnight, as Paul and Silas prayed and sang, an earthquake struck Philippi. This earthquake weakened the foundations of the prison, burst open the cell doors, and loosened the shackles of the prisoners.
As you might guess, Roman prisons were not pleasant places to be. And the fate for most prisoners was execution or, if they were lucky, being sold into slavery.
So it seems like this earthquake would be really good news. Especially since it happened in the middle of the night, when prisoners could most easily slip away undetected.
Not unreasonably, the jailer assumes the prisoners have done just that. And not wanting to be held accountable, he is all set to kill himself when Paul gives him the astonishing news that all the prisoners are still there. None of the prisoners made a run for it.
I wonder, why not? Why didn’t the prisoners take this perfect opportunity to escape?
Luke doesn’t tell us what was going through their minds, as they sat in their cells, shackles broken, doors open, and nobody in a position to stop them from escaping.
But here’s my guess. My guess is, the other prisoners were so astonished at Paul and Silas, so impressed that Paul and Silas could pray and sing even after all they had been through, so intrigued by the idea of Christ’s victory even in that place and time, that the other prisoners wanted to stay close. My guess is, they wanted what they saw, or at least what they heard, in Paul and Silas. They wanted to learn where Paul and Silas got that kind of courage and resilience and joy.
In our story, at least as I imagine it, Paul and Silas pray and sing because that’s what they needed to do. They needed to remind themselves of Christ’s victory as they sat in pain and shackled in prison.
But it matters that others heard as Paul and Silas expressed both their pain and their faith. Others who were also in pain heard Paul and Silas, and they were drawn to a faith that sustains even in a very dark night of the soul.
Few of us have been or will be tested in exactly the same way Paul and Silas were at Philippi. But we all have suffered in one way or another. The challenge for us in this story, also its invitation, is to respond to the hard things in our world and in our lives with prayer and with songs to God. The challenge and the invitation is to remember Christ’s victory even when we suffer or we see suffering.
It is sometimes really hard to hold on to our faith in Christ’s victory. I was working on this sermon not long after hearing about the school shooting in Texas. I wasn’t much in the mood to celebrate Christ’s victory. I was more drawn to that third verse of our opening hymn, the promise that Christ feels our pain. And yet we still we say, with Christians through the ages, Christ is alive. Christ reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
That Christian hope is always important. But it feels especially important these days. And it’s important not just for us, though God knows we need it. Christian hope, rooted as it is in Christ’s victory over death, is a powerful witness and a vital message for our time.
And so I pray that we can follow the example of Paul and Silas, that we can pray and sing through our own struggles, and that we can share our prayers and songs with a hurting world. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan