Release to the Prisoners

Acts 16:16-34


There are certain jobs that have to be done by someone. Being a gaoler, for instance, in Philippi, a Roman town in the north of Greece, in about AD 50. We meet the Philippian Gaoler on what was so nearly the last day of his life. An earthquake undermined the foundations of his gaol, shattered the walls and destabilised the whole building; it had to be abandoned. But we’re jumping ahead, for earlier in the day, we hear he has new prisoners. And I wonder how he feels about incarcerating his latest charges.
For despite his brutal profession, he doesn’t sound like a brutal man. Some of his prisoners will be difficult, and require a firm hand, of course. But many will likely be locked up as much for crossing someone powerful as for any serious crime. So anyone could end up being thrown into his gaol, then: political opponents of the powerful, the scum of the city, or his own friends and neighbours and family. His job is just to keep them alive; and especially, to keep them where the city magistrates have sent them. It is, as they say, a dirty job, but someone really does have to do it.
But you wonder what it does to him, making a living from the suffering of others. It feeds his family, and keeps a roof over their heads, for sure. But does he ever feel imprisoned by his work? Feeling, as he fastens each stock and manacle, slams shut each door, that he too is serving a life-sentence? That every day his soul is scarred a little more deeply? Until, in the end, does he wonder whether he has any soul left at all?
This day, the day that might have been his last, we meet him receiving a group of Jewish prisoners. Foreigners, arrested and flogged for disturbing the peace. After a Roman beating, they are not in a good way. It’s not his job to tend their wounds; but he’d have to explain should one of them actually die, so he’ll get them some salt water and bandages. He locks them up securely, as he’s been ordered, and gets on with his work. And the most extraordinary thing. Floating up from the inside cell, he can hear singing!
Wailing, he is used to; piteous pleas for water, groans of pain, sobs of misery: all these sounds you can ignore if you train yourself. But singing? This might so easily have been the last day of their lives; yet they seem supremely unconcerned. Who are these men? Somehow, they seem able to look at all their problems from a different perspective from that of our gaoler.
Actually, they’d not been disturbing the peace very much at all, unless you object to people singing. But they’d crossed some of the people who run Philippi, because of a slave girl: she’d been screaming and ranting at them because she had some sort of gift. People said she could foretell the future. She kept going on about why they’d come here; and in the end, Paul put a stop to it. Released her from her gaol, so to speak. But what he did is going to cost her owners their source of income, and so it costs him and his friends their freedom.
Now here they are, in gaol in Philippi; and our friend is responsible for keeping them here. But singing, he finds hard to understand. He never sings in his gaol, and he has the keys! Their very lives are in peril, and they are singing about it! It is as though they know what it is to be free, whilst he is the one clapped in irons!
He goes and tells them to quieten down, but they don’t seem bothered by his threats and angry glare. They don’t seem afraid, the way they should be. They don’t look at him with hatred, like all the others. Instead, they start telling him about Jesus. Whose life and whose death proclaim release to the prisoners. Does he tell them Jesus can proclaim release to the prisoners all he likes, but while our gaoler is the man with the keys they’re not going anywhere, and if they don’t quieten down, they won’t eat for the next three days?
But this night his gaol doors slam shut, to imprison him. For another earthquake strikes. Philippi is prone to them. Mostly they don’t do so much damage, but this is a bad one, and the gaol is reduced to a ruin. There is dust everywhere; even in the flaming torchlight, you can’t see what’s happening; there are panic-stricken people running and screaming and falling over the debris in the streets, and scrabbling to move broken buildings with bare, bleeding hands.
But it isn’t the eathquake itself that imperils our gaoler’s life. He rushes into the gaol, taking his sword and bracing himself for the worst, because his life hangs in the balance here. Should any of the prisoners escape, he will be the one to answer, he will be the one to be punished! He will pay for their freedom with his life. But yes, there’s a great hole in the wall, and all the chains have broken loose. And thinking they’ll all have fled by now, he draws his sword, because he can see no escape for himself. A failure as a gaoler. All he can hope for is that if he ends it now, the city magistrates will show a little mercy to his family.
Yet they’re all still here! The door to freedom has burst open in front of them, yet they’re all still here, in the gaol; and one of them calls out to him to put down his sword. The manacles are still hanging from the man’s wrists, clinking, as he lifts the gaoler from the floor and looks into his eyes. And instead of regarding him with loathing, instead of looking at him with contempt, Paul and his companions are smiling, and cheering, and reaching out to embrace.
Whatever it is that they have, he wants it. Whatever their secret, he wants to know. ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they tell him again of Jesus, giving up his freedom for the gaoler’s life.
So that is the story of how the gaol where he worked is all gone, and the prison in which he existed has been demolished. Paul and his friends baptise the gaoler and all of his family. Still singing of course, still joyful, still talking about Jesus proclaiming release to the captives. The gaoler and slave girl, and others here in the city, now know what they mean. This might have been the last night of the gaoler’s life, the night his gaol collapsed. Instead: it was the first day of his freedom. You don’t know how good it is to be free, until you know how bad it is to be imprisoned.
Captives still need release proclaimed to them. Prison walls still need to be cast down and abandoned. Christians still need to sing.
© Jon Russell 2019