I was a bit uncertain about telling this story. Would the children be worried by it? Would they think they should stay in dangerous situations?
In the event their responses seemed to indicate that, for the most part they had been inspired to be courageous, and that they got the point that this was a story about loving our enemies. Quite a few also told me how they could see the pictures of the story in their heads, and one described the prison in great detail to me afterwards.
There was once a man who lived a long time ago in a town called Ephesus, and he had a difficult job to do. His job was to guard the city prison and make sure none of the prisoners escaped. It wasn’t just people who had done bad things who were put in his prison. The Romans ruled Ephesus, and their soldiers could arrest anyone they wanted to. If they didn’t like what someone was saying. If they thought it might be a threat to Rome, they could throw them into prison. And the jailer had to make sure they stayed there. If anyone escaped he knew he would be in a lot of trouble. He’d probably end up thrown into prison himself, and maybe the soldiers would even kill him.
So the jailer was always careful at the end of each day to make sure all the prison doors were locked and barred and bolted. No one was getting out of his prison.
One evening he went round and checked with special care. It had been a busy day. Two new prisoners had been brought in. “Who are they?” he’d asked the soldiers” and what have they done?” “Their names are Paul and Silas, and they have been making all sorts of trouble. They are followers of a man called Jesus. They have been saying that God thinks everyone is important, even the poor people and the slaves. We can’t have that! If slaves start to think they are important they might not do what they are told. They might rise up and rebel. Who would do our work then? So we have given them a good beating and now we must wait to see what our bosses want us to do with them next.”
So Paul and Silas were thrown into a dark, damp prison cell, along with all sorts of other prisoners. To be specially careful, the jailer chained their feet to the wall. They weren’t going anywhere. He locked all the doors behind him.
As he went upstairs to his house and family, though, he heard a strange sound, the sound of singing. It wsa Paul and Silas, and they were singing a song about God, thanking God and praising him. “What a strange pair!” he said to himself. “What on earth have they got to sing about?”
The jailer went to bed, and was soon fast asleep. In the middle of the night, though, he woke up suddenly. Everything around him seemed to be shaking. It was an earthquake. The whole prison house was shaking. when the shaking stopped, he rushed out of his room and started to go down the stairs to the prison. Oh no! The doors of the prison had been shaken loose by the earthquake. They were all standing open. The prisoners were sure to have taken the chance to escape – who wouldn’t? The jailer knew he would be in terrible trouble.
All of a sudden he heard a voice, calling to him from the darkness of the prison. “Don’t harm yourself. We are all still here!” And sure enough there were Paul, Silas and the other prisoners. “We knew you would be in trouble if we ran away, and it’s not your fault we are in prison, so we stayed. We know that God is with us anyway, whether we are in prison or free, whether things are going well or not, and that gives us courage.”
The jailer was amazed. But he remembered how Paul and Silas had been singing, not crying, in the prison earlier, and he could see that they really trusted God to look after them.
“I would like to know more about this Jesus whose teachings you follow”, he said. Come upstairs and tell me more about him. He took Paul and Silas upstairs, gave them some food and washed their wounds where they had been beaten. And as he did so, they told him about Jesus, and about how he had loved and cared for people, even if they had been cruel to him. “He told us we should love our enemies, and pray for those who were mean to us” said Paul and Silas. The jailer had never heard of someone living like this before, and he had never met anyone as brave as Paul and Silas. “How do I become one of Jesus’ followers,” he asked. “You need to be baptised” said Paul, and so that’s what happened. The jailer and all the people who lived in his house were baptised that very night.
And after that? Paul and Silas went back down into their prison cell to wait for the morning, so that the jailer wouldn’t get into trouble. In the morning, when the soldiers came, they set Paul and Silas free – the judge decided that one night in the cells was probably enough to put them off their message. But Paul and Silas never gave up spreading the message of Jesus, and the jailer never forgot these people who should have hated him for locking them up, but who had loved him instead.
Prayer: Protect us when we are feeling scared. Remind us that you are always with us. And help us to love and pray for everyone, even the people we don’t get on with.