Paul and Silas travel to that place of prayer. You remember the place by the water from last week, the place where Lydia, the wealthy dealer in purple cloth, listened eagerly. It must have quickly become the place where they came to listen for this Spirit that was tearing down old walls, opening hearts and homes, changing things for them and in them.
I bet they sang there. We know the Philippians sang. It’s right there in Paul’s letter to them. He quotes a hymn – maybe it was the congregation’s favorite hymn. “Though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Every congregation has its favorite hymns, the ones they sing standing a little straighter, with more volume, a little less self-consciousness. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” “Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart, Naught be all else to me save that thou art…” Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…” How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent Word!…”
So many of our congregation’s favorite tunes are accompanied by the pipe organ, an instrument that can rattle the walls. I have a friend who came to worship with us once, and as we were visiting later he said, “Man, your organist really blew the dust out of those pipes today. I loved it…wanted to stand and dance. You can dance to Bach, right?”
Another soundtrack of our church is the drone of the bagpipes. I know when those doors open and Tom appears in his kilt and strikes the first note of Highland Cathedral over the drone, tears will be shed.
We’ve been singing in the church from the start. The Philippian Christians go down to the water, outside the gates of the city, to the place of prayer. And there they pray and sing and listen.
Little do Paul and Silas know, but their singing in that place of prayer is a rehearsal for a time they will not sing by the water in the bright light of day, but in the deepest darkness; for a time when they will not stand and sing, but sit in painful shackles.
The little hymn they sing tells them the journey they are about to make. Christ emptied himself. Even to the point of death on a cross. Have the same mind in you that was in him.
Their cross waits in the form of a slave girl in the street.
She’s a fortune-teller. Her gift has caused her to be taken by people who are peddling her in the streets. She will tell you your future for a little money, but she doesn’t see any of the cash herself. Rome and all its colonies ran on these little micro-economies. The girl was probably sold to them by her own father. She is not free. Her owners are just around the corner, watching. Surely Paul and Silas know this. It explains why they allow it to go on for days. They know if they say anything or do anything, there could be trouble.
But on this day, Paul’s had enough. He believes this girl’s gift is really a burden, a possession by a spirit, and so with a word he sets her free.
Her freedom reveals the bondage of her owners, who are now without a source of funds. The salaries they earned off the back of this poor girl are gone. So they go to the police and the police arrest Paul and Silas and take them to the magistrate. The charges are simple. We do things a certain way around here. There are customs we observe. These are outsiders. They are Jews. If we let them get a foothold here, the whole system could come crashing down.
There’s fear in the air. Who exactly is bound and who is free? The magistrate makes quick work of these two Jews. The blows from the rods rain down on their backs in this painful and humiliating spectacle. They are forced not just into the prison, but into the interior of the prison, a dark and inescapable place. Still in terrible agony from the beating, their legs are forced open and stocks locked around their ankles in a painful position. The jailer is placed at the door for good measure.
Who is bound and who is free? The former owners of the slave girl, who were completely dependent on her oppression for their livelihood? The magistrate, who represents the Roman Empire and yet is so threatened by two Jewish preachers he has them beaten and thrown into the deepest part of the cell? The jailer watching the prison? Or the two men inside, singing?
Martin Luther King, Jr., in the last speech he gave in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, said, “There’s a certain kind of fire that no water can put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing, ‘Over my head I see freedom in the air.’”
Christians have been singing a long time – sometimes in beautiful sanctuaries like this, accompanied by pipe organs, and sometimes in prison, shackled and dark; sometimes in comfortable pews, and sometimes in the streets with water hoses and dogs trying to silence their song.
I wonder if it was when they got to the final part of the hymn, their favorite hymn, when the walls began to shake. You know the part. They would have already sung the part about Christ emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, suffering death on the cross. It is there, at that darkest moment of the hymn that it takes a dramatic turn.
There’s a change in key. “Therefore God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name…” The singing gets louder and louder, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth!” And maybe that’s when the ground begins to shake under the earth, when things begin to change, when old chains fall away, and closed doors open, and things take on a great clarity there in the darkness of that inner cell…a light shines, as the hymn reaches a crescendo, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is Lord not Caesar and his magistrates. There’s freedom in the air.
Jesus is Lord, and no beating can change it. There’s freedom in the air.
Jesus is Lord, and no prison can hold him. There’s freedom in the air.
The organ changes key, there’s a grand pause, and we stand a little straighter and sing a little louder those last stanzas, the ones that rattle the walls.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”
“High King of heaven, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.”
“Thou reignest in glory; thou dwellest in light. Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight. All praise we would render, O help us to see ‘tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!”
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not I will not desert to its foes; That soul though all hell endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Just when you think Highland Cathedral cannot get any higher, the organ joins the bagpipes, and you feel like you just might need seatbelts in the pews to hold you down. And when that final note ends and silence descends, I sometimes catch myself holding my breath.
It is in that moment, when the hymn has ended and the shaking has stopped and the chains have fallen, in the silence after the crescendo, where the full power of what has occurred is known.
You know they are free indeed, because Paul and Silas don’t go anywhere. None of the other prisoners do either. They too sense a different kind of freedom in the air. You know they are free because they stay there in that place of vulnerability. They do not let fear of being recaptured make them run. They show mercy to the jailer. And now he’s seen a freedom firsthand that Rome cannot conjure with its beatings and its crosses.
So the waters of baptism flow, and the church expands, built not on power or fear, but love and freedom. And so Christ’s church continues to be built, continues to shake up the ways of death, continues to break free from bondage, singing as we go. Amen.