St Michael’s, 8th May 2016
Readings – Acts 12:1-17; Matthew 10:17-30
If the book of Acts was a piece of music, it would have two themes. The first and dominant theme would be the spread of the gospel, from a few believers in Jerusalem to a worldwide movement across the Roman Empire. The book of Acts is a wonderful, thrilling story of how the risen Lord Jesus sends out His church in the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of all nations, and this theme would definitely be in a major key.
But there is also a second underlying theme that would very much be in a minor key, and that would be the suffering of the church. As believers go out and spread the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not everyone welcomes their message. All too often they are persecuted, put on trial and killed. And anyone who thinks that becoming a Christian involves an easy ride has obviously not read this particular book of the Bible.
Listen to the opening verses of our reading from Acts this morning. Acts 12:1-4:
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
All this is a fairly chilling reminder of what sometimes happens to followers of Jesus Christ. First James, the brother of John, is beheaded. Then his fellow apostle Peter is arrested, and we can really only expect one outcome from the trial. The church in Jerusalem is facing a serious crisis and the future looks bleak.
And it isn’t the first time the church’s existence has been called into question. Back in Acts chapter 7 we read of the arrest and execution of Stephen, the first martyr for the Christian faith. Luke goes on to tell us in Acts 8, verse 1 how on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Yet somehow or other the church in Jerusalem has regrouped and reformed, and it is still boldly meeting in prayer.
But this doesn’t mean that the church has in the meanwhile become any more popular. Clearly there remained a large number of folk in the city of Jerusalem who were deeply hostile to any mention of Jesus Christ, and to anyone who professed faith in Him. So when Herod wanted to boost his approval ratings, there was one very simple and easy course of action he could take. Kill one of the troublemakers, put the ringleader on trial, and then round up the rest. It would cost him nothing, and soon – as he believed – the whole problem with these Christians would simply disappear.
So why did the church attract such unpopularity and hatred? One answer is that this is what Jesus told his followers to expect. In our gospel reading we hear how He tells his twelve apostles how all men will hate you because of me (Matthew 10:22) and a few verses earlier He warns them, in verse 17: Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. And when we turn back to our reading from Acts it’s sobering to realise that two of those listening to Jesus’s words were James brother of John and Peter. Jesus’ words were not describing a vague possibility but what would become the actual experience of all who believed in His name.
But why did Jesus expect there be to such opposition? There’s a little clue right at the beginning of our Acts reading. How does Luke describe Herod in verse 1? That’s right – he calls him King Herod. And as far as Herod was concerned there was only person who deserved to bear the name of king and that was himself.
You see, the world cannot cope with the idea that there might be another king called Jesus. To recognise Jesus as your king is to accept that He is the one ultimate authority and power. And that is a deeply troubling message to anyone who believes they should be in control of their own lives. It was a troubling message to Herod who thought He should be the one everyone looked up to and obeyed. It was a troubling message to the Jewish leaders who thought they should be the ones who decided how God was to be worshipped. And the message of Jesus as king is one that maybe in far smaller ways people still find troubling today.
That’s why whenever we hold a baptism service I ask those professing their faith: Do you turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour? Because when it comes to believing in Jesus, it’s important to realise our faith is not just an interesting theory or a means of spiritual support. Our faith is based on the understanding Jesus has the right to rule over every part of our lives because He is the one who died and rose again for us. He is the King, He is the Boss, and we can either accept this truth or reject it – there is no middle ground.
So how did the church in Jerusalem respond to the death of James and the arrest of Peter? Well, they didn’t flee in panic, as I might well have done. They didn’t water down their message and try to please the ruling authorities. No, they prayed. Verse 5: So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
Now we don’t know exactly what the church was praying, but we do know how they prayed. Verse 12 tells us that many people had gathered in the house of Mary the mother of John. Because that was the way the early church responded to every new situation that they faced. They gathered in prayer.
So for example, after Jesus was taken up into heaven and the church was waiting for the Holy Spirit, what do we find the believers doing? Acts 1:14 tells us: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Or again, when Peter and John had just been released from their first arrest, how did the church respond? Acts 4:23-24: On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.
Surely there is an important lesson for us here. If we own Jesus as our king, and recognise that He is the one with all authority and power, then it follows our greatest priority must be to gather together in His name to seek His will. That’s why at the heart of this church’s life are small groups and prayer meetings. I sometimes get the impression people see them as optional extras for those who are particularly keen, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our weekly small groups and monthly prayer meetings should be the most important aspects of our life together as the church of Jesus Christ and the first dates that go down in our diaries. Because a church that prays together knows the mind of Christ and is able to face whatever situation comes its way with faith and hope.
Of course I realise that some find the whole subject of prayer difficult. Maybe you’ve never really had the opportunity to learn that much about prayer, or find speaking with the Lord something hard to do. In this case, can I remind you again about the Week of Prayer starting tomorrow? This prayer week isn’t aimed at people who find prayer easy and who are used to being in church. It’s aimed at those who would like to pray but aren’t quite sure how. We are simply going to have seven prayer stations around the church based on the Lord’s Prayer where you can explore what it means to pray to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that over the next five days St Michael’s was full of people all discovering the joy and the privilege of prayer? Because ultimately the way any church grows is through prayer – as we see the Lord at work and learn of His goodness and mercy and love.
How then did the Lord respond to the church’s prayer?
Well, the first thing to note is that the Lord didn’t act at once. Verse 6 tells us nothing happened until the night before Herod was to bring him (that is, Peter) to trial. You see, prayer is not a magic formula which immediately brings all our troubles to an end. Prayer is about exercising our faith even when sometimes there seems little reason to believe. And so in this instance, for the whole week of Passover, the church was praying when nothing appeared to be happening. They knew, you see, that whatever the visible evidence, the Lord had heard their cries and so they were willing to keep placing their dear brother Peter into His hands.
But it’s also important to note from this passage that when the Lord acts, He acts. Peter wasn’t half-delivered from danger only later on to be rearrested or killed. Indeed the writer of Acts, the gospel writer Luke, goes into quite some detail to prove how Peter’s rescue was total and complete. So first the angel appears in the cell, wakes Peter up and releases him from his chains. Next he leads Peter out of the prison and did you notice how according to verse 10 the iron gate leading to the city opened by itself? Finally, before he disappears again, he makes sure Peter is at least a street’s length away from danger. The whole episode is a wonderful story of the Lord’s intervention in a situation that seemed totally hopeless.
Yet when the Lord does decide to act, are we ready for what He might do? Clearly there was at least one person in the prayer gathering who was less than prepared for the possibility of Peter’s release. And it’s at this point that we come to some of the funniest verses in the book of Acts. Acts 12:13-14: Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognised Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
You can just imagine Peter standing outside saying, “Rhoda open the door! Rhoda, open the door!!” He’s trying not to shout because he doesn’t know who might be coming after him. But he’s also aware he needs to get inside and soon. It’s one of those little episodes in the book of Acts that remind us what we are dealing with here are not stories, but actual eye- witness accounts of what happened. I’m sure Rhoda herself in her later years would laugh out loud at her own daftness that day, and realise she had gone down in history as the woman who failed to open the door.
However there is a serious point to this little detail. When Rhoda went to tell the church what had happened they told her you’re out of their mind. It seems that, although the believers were faithful in their prayers, they were not prepared for the answer they received. But then again, I look at the prayers I sometimes pray and I realise just how often I come to my heavenly Father as though He were a small God who only gives small answers to my small prayers. Sometimes we need God to do the unexpected and the miraculous just to remind us that He really is the king who is able to do whatever He chooses, and to help us understand once again what a privilege it is to pray to Him in the name of Jesus.
Of course the whole passage raises the question of why the Lord decided to rescue Peter and not James. And the simple answer is, we do not know. But we do know that for the early church death was not defeat. A few years later the apostle Paul was in a prison cell chained to a Roman soldier. He did not know the outcome of His trial, and death was a real possibility. Yet listen to these amazing words he wrote to the church at Philippi:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:21-24)
Yes, Paul says, I could be killed, but that would only mean my time had come to be counted worthy of suffering with Christ and to receive the reward of my faith. And if that happened, according to Paul, it would only mean that his labour had come to an end here on earth, not that somehow his faith had failed him at his hour of need.
And indeed although this passage here in Acts tells us how Peter was miraculously released on this particular occasion, there is good evidence to suggest that later on under the emperor Nero he too paid the ultimate price for his faith. According to the ancient writings he was condemned to be crucified just like His Lord and Saviour Jesus. But at least according to some of the accounts he asked to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy of sharing in exactly the same death as His Master.
Now I for one when I hear how the early church approached their suffering and persecution find myself deeply, deeply challenged. And then I remember that in fact the fate of these early Christians is actually shared by many believers around the world today. According to best estimates there are more than 100 countries where believers face death either from governments or from those hate the name of Jesus. The 20th century saw more martyrs for the faith than in all the previous nineteen centuries combined. We in the West so often complain when people make fun of us, or make rude comments when we make our faith known. But actually what we face is as nothing to what our brothers and sisters, say in Syria or in China, have to endure.
So for me the reading from the book of Acts leaves us with three questions:
Firstly, are we willing to declare that Jesus is our king? In other words, are we prepared to give Jesus total control of our lives, and accept He has full authority and power over us?
Secondly, are we willing to do whatever it takes to meet together in prayer and make it our first priority to gather in Jesus’ name? After all, there are many believers around the world who are dying for the freedoms we so often take for granted.
And thirdly, are we willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus whatever the cost? Because ultimately to live is Christ and to die is gain. At least that was what the apostle Paul believed – what about you?