Quite frankly, in our story today, Paul doesn’t start out looking too great. Basically, he loses his temper at a young girl…a young girl who is both a slave and has a spirit of divination. Think about it, in almost every way, she is at the mercy of others. As a slave, she has no ownership over her own life…she has no freedom..she can only do as her owners tell her. And even internally, she is possessed by the spirit that gives her the ability to see the truth about others. She has no control over her own life..her own self. And when she is compelled to tell the truth day after day about Paul and Silas (and she is simply telling the truth — they are, after all, slaves of the most high God proclaiming a way of salvation), Paul becomes annoyed. He loses his temper and sends the spirit packing. Let’s be clear…Paul doesn’t have mercy on her…he isn’t “healing” or “freeing” her. If he was, that is one thing….but here, Paul acts only out of his own frustration. And the reality is that without her gift of divination, she will have little or no value to her owners…and she will be much worse off. We can hope that perhaps they let her go because she was no longer useful…but let’s be honest, that’s not the way slavery works. We can hope she came to know Jesus…and the salvation he gives…the love and grace and freedom that give her a new way of living in the world….but it doesn’t say that happened. She simply disappears from the story. Paul’s rash act has consequences for her that Paul never stopped to consider, it seems. And of course, the truth is – Paul probably wasn’t the first and he certainly wasn’t the last Christian to lose their temper or to damage someone by supposedly “helping” them. Sadly the church has a long, long history of that kind. The church and its people are always a mixed bag. Paul is a mixed bag.
And in this case, there are consequences for Paul for his hot-headedness. He lands in jail. But then, in jail, we go from the worst of Paul to the best. In jail, he and Silas don’t sulk or get angry…they sing. They sing. When their world collapses around them…when they face the consequences of their actions, when doors shut on them…they sing in the darkness… and they pray… and they remember God’s goodness. They sing their faith and sing their hope, and their singing is powerful and contagious in those prison walls.
We know it, don’t we? How Singing is powerful. Because Singing both reflects our inner spirit and shapes it. Singing can move us to dance with joy, to lift our arms in praise, to lie down and weep, to stand up with courage. When we sing, the angels join in…and the music can soothe us and embolden us and give us hope. There’s a reason we sing when we worship. Singing carves truth into our souls in a way the just words do not. In prison, Paul and Silas sang, and all the prisoners heard their song. A song of God’s salvation…of God’s love…of God’s presence, even in the dark. A song that chased away fear…a song of hope. And then, the earthquake happens.
And all the doors are wide open and the jailer is going to kill himself. He is now the one trapped in fear because he works for the Empire…and there will be no mercy for him in that quarter. If his prisoners are gone…his life is over. But Paul stops him. The prisoners have not left. The singing has transformed them. The prayers have changed their understanding of freedom….of freedom that matters. And they show mercy to their enemy…to their jailer. They stayed. They could have run…they could have taken advantage of the freedom those open doors offered and escaped. But they used their freedom to stay and spare the jailer’s life.
Did I mention this is Paul at his best? This is Paul showing mercy to his enemy. This is Paul encouraging this ragtag community of prisoners…to understand that there is more to life than freedom from prison.. This is Paul singing songs of faith that inspire them to recognize…maybe for the first time… that they are children of God…and, impossibly, that the jailer is as well. This is Paul, for a moment, understanding that even the person on the other side of the law…the other side of justice…should be seen through eyes of compassion….as Annanais once saw him. This is Paul, realizing that every person matters…every person is beloved of God.
Yes, this story we read today is everything we are, as followers of Jesus…as a church. Sometimes we screw up and are broken and messy…and sometimes we are breathtakingly beautiful. We are human…but we are humans who have an abiding hope in the grace and love of Jesus.
And amazingly, God can use us to bring hope and grace to others. In this story, experiencing the prisoners’ mercy transforms that jailer…and goes on to transform his whole family. The jailer and his household would have lived on the prison grounds. From the way it is written it seems that it was one building and the family lived above the place where the prisoners were kept. So this means the family, too, would have heard their songs that night. And so, when Paul and Silas tell them about Jesus…the reason for their song…the reason for their hope…the reason they stayed when they could have run off — the jailer and all his household arel baptized…they are all brought into the family of Christ. And the jailer invites them up into his home, tends their wounds…and breaks bread with them. He who has received mercy….shows mercy.
And that is how the story of the church goes on…and how it has continued to go on for 2000 years now. The church epicly screws up — with crusades and slavery and religious bigotry…with abuse and greed and political power. But that same church shows mercy and courage and hope with breathtaking beauty — creating lines of protection around mosques when communities are threatening their Islamic neighbors…joining together to march and sing songs of freedom during the civil rights movement in the United States…and shaping a way forward in South Africa after apartheid. The church goes on….creating shelters for the homeless and the victims of domestic violence…resettling refugees…creating safe spaces for people of all kinds as they travel their unique journeys. The church goes on…singing in the darkness, offering new beginnings and grace for all,, in its little incarnations all over the globe…including here. Here…I have seen you do beautiful acts of mercy…and here I have heard you sing songs of faith that change lives… and here I have seen you welcome people with the love of Jesus. You are breathtakingly beautiful.
Yes, the church goes on. The church, in all its imperfection…still goes on here and across the globe…baptizing families and binding up wounds and breaking bread and singing songs of hope. The church that has received mercy…shows mercy. And we are saved. Again and again, we are saved. We are saved for another day so that maybe we might look for the slave girl in our midst whose story has been lost..and sing for her. Again, we are saved…so we can sing in the dark and have nothing to fear. Again, we are saved…because, like Paul, like Silas, like the jailer and his family.…we belong to Christ. We all belong to Christ. Amen.