Lately I have heard an interesting question: What’s with all these prisoners “finding God” in the pen? So, here is my thought…
Have you ever really looked at the letter Paul wrote to the Phillipians? It is a short letter, a mere four chapters, only 1,629 words in Koine Greek, fewer words than the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone! And often when we think of this little letter we take it at face value. It is a letter of hope and unity, there is an exhortation to stay aware from false teachers and a rebuke of two leaders who need to get on the same page and stop arguing about the color of the carpet and the length of the drapes and all the other human things that we argue about in the church. But deeper, this is a love letter… A love letter from a prisoner to prisoners, or at the least ex-cons.
You see, we often forget how the church in Philippi was born. We have the story: in Acts 16 Paul and Silas are just walking along, getting verbally assaulted by a woman with a spirit. So, Paul screams at that spirit to “Leave her alone in the name of Jesus!” And then they get arrested, because this woman was making two men money and they accused Paul and Silas of stealing from them. And all the sudden Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown in jail, without much of a trial at all. So, there they sit in verse 25, in that prison’s innermost cell, feet in the stocks, just cool as a cucumber and long “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”
Imagine that… Two men were singing songs of hope and thanksgiving in the darkest cell and the other prisoners were listening to them. Sure, sure, in a few moments there will be an earthquake and they will save the guard’s life and there will be a baptism and some other stuff will happen… But think of this moment, this is the birth of the church in Phillipi. Two men singing songs at midnight and people listening to them. There is no malice, no yelling that it's lights out, no grunts of disdain. The people of the church are listening… they are learning… they are sharing in the faith we all have in Christ, even though this may be the first place they are hearing the Word.
The church in Phillipi was born in the prison, among those who were discarded for “disturbing the city,” yet the Spirit dwells there, in that darkest cell, feet in the stocks, calling on us to sing hymns of thanksgiving… And yes, the church will end up having arguments, there will be false teachers to run from, there will be hope, and there will be unity. There will be a time for thanksgiving and singing prayer, even at midnight in the darkest cell. There is hope inside, there is the spirit inside, there is the love of God inside. And Paul writes to this church from another prison, reminding them, and us, that we are all saved in God, regardless of where we first heard the Word being spoken.
Rev. Marlow Carrels, Pastoral Leader (he/him/his)