“Singing in Jail”- The Power of Music 

Acts 16:16-34

The Reverend Terry McLellan

July 16, 2017


Throughout the gospel according to John, particularly in John 17, the High priestly prayer Jesus said before his arrest, spoke to the interconnectedness of The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit and those who follow Jesus within the covenant life, obliterating the barriers between us. We experience and demonstrate that interconnectedness in several ways – our care one another in trials; our standing with one another in difficulty; praying for one another as part of our worship, including the way we sing together uplifting our collective spirits.  Its been that way for centuries, from the beginning. In the present case, centuries ago, Paul and Silas are in Philippi headed to prayers in the Jewish synagogue, when they encounter a slave girl who is held by businessmen and works as a fortune-teller.

As part of their business, these men have put this girl out for hire as a fortune teller.  They take the money and the girl tells the fortune of the gullible.  For this she receives maybe enough to eat and a place to sleep .In 1st century pagan societies, she was seen as possessed an evil spirit that has taken hold of her and given her the ability to tell these fortunes. Paul and Silas want to set her free, but they really “step in it”, when they turn off the income to these businessmen by exorcising the spirit which has captured her.

Business men are upset – complain and Paul and Silas are thrown into the deepest darkest jail the city could find. Not only closed gates but also chains and stocks way underground – hindering their walking out. Paul and those with him are in the deepest darkest place— and from there emanates the sweetest music – we do not know what kinds.

The titles are not noted – but it was probably some music originating in the synagogues or maybe the early churches were already writing Christian hymns.

Either way, the hymns were no doubt used to create a place of worship, even in prison.

We can deduce sung by heart because too dark to read music. No doubt the singing buoyed up the spirits of those imprisoned. Invoking not the demon spirit but the Holy Spirit coming to bring life to those who may feel that they are dead or dying. Later in night—an earthquake happens and miraculously frees the missionaries from their imprisonment, another example of how an encounter with Jesus always rattles and shakes the world as we know it.

Again the relationship with God causes havoc, the scripture implies that the usual response to a prison without locked gates is that those imprisoned flat out run. Not this time, however. The missionaries decide to not run and to stay.  They probably knew that the jailer’s customary response to breached security during his watch would be to commit suicide, because often the jailer who lost his prisoners would be executed. And when the jailer arrives on the scene, that was his first thought, too.  He might as well kill himself, because no doubt his prisoners were gone on his watch. But the refusal of the missionaries to save themselves at the expense of the jailer, smacked the jailer in the face with their compassion and fearlessness. A surprising grace mediated by the imprisoned to the captor.  In shock he asks them, “What must I do to be saved?”

The jailer is so blown away by this preposterous turn of events.  Instead of locking them back up he takes them home to his family; feeds them; talks with them about their source for this courage; and decides that he and his family should join up to follow this Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to overtake them all. And the lives of the whole household would never be the same. They rejoiced – singing deep in the prison begat singing in the imprisoned live of the jailer and his family.

This connection of hymn singing connecting Christians with the Holy Spirit and bringing to reality the characteristics of Jesus within those who follow him has been shown time and again.

It is why so much of our worship has included song generation after generation.

Time and again singing as a form of worship that did not need an immense and ornate cathedral has had its effect on countless lives trying to follow Jesus, through 2000 yrs, even to this day. Though music performed in a beautiful sanctuary has its place and we love the music that brings us together; music that has come out of other jails or out of the cotton fields of the south; out of the work and rhythm of prison chain gangs building railroads or highways is no less powerful and freeing.

Music such as the Negro Spirituals which grew out of the African slave life has continued to present the quiet courage and faith of those under the thumb of others who thought the ownership of human beings was a worthwhile thing.  Many of these owners even proclaimed their loyalty to Jesus while subjugating some people to ownership of others for economic gain. The singing of the slave songs may have even pushed some hearts of slave owners to move from their own subjugation to the life of slavery. Every time I hear one of those spirituals, I am both saddened at what crimes were done to those who first sang them.  But I also am lifted up on the wings of faith and hope and the desire to see a better day.

Chris Hoke—— King Speaker series earlier this year.  Prison chaplain, poet, activist and singer/songwriter, writes movingly of the role music played in his prison ministry – giving him a deep connection with his clients  and them with him. He writes, “as I had growing up, many of these men had also heard a faint music.  They too tried to write their own songs in the night hours in their cell, They wanted to share them with me here—acappella.   Some of the songs had power and original charm.  Some were simply bac and belonged only in that room.  Our tight cinder-block chamber hummed like a bell with their melodies, seeping out into the jail’s night shift corridors.  They asked to hear my own songs, the not so disguised prayers. . . . I began to sing my songs, without my guitar.  Young gangsters beat-boxed along.  . . .the high hard walls making each note sweeter than any reverb effect I had ever heard.”

When we come here week after week, year upon year and we sing praises to God and about the spirit of hope from others who have gone before; we are not breaking new ground.  The tradition of song increasing our faith and drawing us closer together is carried on.  This tradition connects us to God and to one another.

Praise God who gives us the gift of music.  Phil talked last Sunday about the fact that some don’t sing and some don’t sing so well.  We can all, though, make a joyful noise to the Lord.  The quality of sound is not so important, when it is sung to God.  We can sing ourselves and those around us free through Jesus Christ.  Amen