December 26, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Pray
With Faith
Acts 12:1-17

We have watched in recent weeks as the church has spread out from its Jewish base in Jerusalem. In relaying such stories as Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans and Peter’s witness to the Gentiles, Luke provides an encouraging depiction of these early Christians acting out their calling. Compelled by the love of Christ—the same Christ who now lives among us—they actively take the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As this journey continues in the coming chapters of Acts, we will increasingly notice some further developments. For one thing, the church will wrestle intensely with issues of accommodation. How, in other words, will the church incorporate such a diverse and growing group of followers? For another thing, the Christians will sense a widening distance between themselves and their Jewish neighbors with whom they had until recently been closely identified.

With this increasing distance between Christians and Jews—escalating fear and animosity—we can better understand the events of chapter 12. King Herod, as kings so often do, speaks but a word and throws the church into a new crisis. As a result, James becomes the first of the apostles to experience the same fate previously reserved for Stephen and perhaps other lesser known individuals—he is executed. In the same way, Peter is himself arrested and surely anticipates a similar end.

Peter’s arrest, Luke carefully informs us, took place during the festival of Unleavened Bread (12:3). This festival lasted seven days and reached its climax on the day of Passover. The entire feast, as many of you know, served to commemorate God’s delivering the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt hundreds of years before. The irony of the situation is not lost on any original reader. Peter’s arrest occurred at the very time when the Jews were celebrating their own freedom.

Luke’s continuing description of Peter’s incarceration and subsequent release verges, I think you will agree, on the comical. Herod’s internal anxiety, coupled with his awareness that a considerable number of people still hold Peter in relatively high esteem, leads him, first of all, to exercise noteworthy precaution. He first delays Peter’s trial until after the day of Passover, hoping not to arouse more adverse reactions than is absolutely necessary. Next he calls out the National Guard to keep an eye on the prisoner! Four separate squads of soldiers, apparently four people in each squad, guard Peter on a rotating basis. Two sit directly beside him, and two others watch the door. The scene reminds me, on a far smaller scale of course, of what I see every time I visit the Arab city of Hebron. Situated in the middle of the city—an Arab city of roughly 150,000 people—is a modern Jewish settlement with perhaps 300-400 inhabitants. Because of the volatility of the area, these settlers are regularly guarded by 1,000 Israeli soldiers! Herod, needless to say, was being cautious. And while Peter was in prison, Luke informs us, the other followers of Jesus simply prayed fervently.
Then, on the very night before Peter’s impending trial and anticipated execution—and while the church was praying for Peter’s welfare!—something extraordinary took place. Herod no doubt concluded that it was an inside job carried out by some of his supposed enforcers. Luke, however, assumed differently. During the night, God in one way or another releases Peter from his imprisonment, and Peter walks away quietly. The shock of the moment even confuses Peter himself, who initially believes that he is dreaming. When reality eventually sets in, Peter recognizes the hand of God in his affairs and proceeds somewhat silently to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark. Her house had no doubt gained a certain degree of notoriety—it is among the first places where the authorities would search for a fugitive—so Peter has no plans to stay there very long. He only wishes to notify the believers there of his safety before traveling on.

When he arrives at the house and knocks on the door, a maid named Rhoda responds. To add further humor to the entire episode, Rhoda is so taken back by the sound of Peter’s voice that she runs to the other disciples, leaving him standing alone outside! When she assures the others that Peter is in fact waiting at the door, they only question her sanity. Remember, they are too busy praying that God would somehow help Peter get out of prison alive to ever imagine that he could actually be standing there! “It can’t be him,” they answer. “At best, it is his angel.” But the banging on the gate further interrupts their concentration, and when they investigate, they find Peter standing there alone, in the flesh. And with but a few words of instructions, Peter departs for another, unnamed place.

It is, as I said before, a wonderful story, full of irony and surprises. But what might we to learn from it, particular with respect to prayer? Let me offer just a few, simple suggestions. The story of Peter’s release from prison reminds us, quite vividly in fact, that prayer does make an enormous difference in our lives and in the life of the church. As the tension in the air escalates and the early Christians face increasingly difficult obstacles, they have few resources with which to defend themselves and further their cause. You and I must remember that we are here envisioning a community of believers who are somewhat on the fringes, a community consisting primarily of poor and socially insignificant people, believers who lack most of the common and tangible connections so familiar to us in contemporary society. What are they to do as Peter languishes in a moldy prison? Picket city hall? Threaten to vote certain officials out of office during the next election? Bribe the magistrates? Physically dismantle the jail? What are they to do? They can pray.

In a sense, this story reminds me of the various court tales in the book of Daniel. In each of those stories, clearly intended to encourage oppressed Jews years afterward that God was watching over them, the leading characters—Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—find themselves in one predicament after another. With confidence they pray, and God takes care of them in one way or another. Prayer, these disciples gathered at Mary’s house soon realize, makes an enormous difference in the lives of individual believers and in the life of the church collectively.
Just a few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting an enormous Episcopal church in Dallas, Texas—the church of St. Michael and All Angels. St. Michael’s, as they call it for short, has between 7,000 and 8,000 members, and they provide a profound Christian witness in their part of the city. As I moved around the building, looked over their brochures, and spoke with any number of people in the congregation, I was impressed by the many effective ministries associated with the church—ministries to the poor and needy, ministries to disciple people in the church, and ministries to raise up leaders for the future. But when I spoke with the Senior Pastor, Mark Anschutz, he said virtually nothing about any of this. His lasting comment to me was, “Everything that happens at St. Michael’s runs on prayer.” As I sat here last Sunday night during our wonderful Christmas concert and looked around at what was to me a huge crowd—500-600 people?—I leaned over and commented to Mike Holland: someday I’d like to see this many people come to prayer meeting here. These early Christians, Luke informs us, prayed fervently—prayer was their life-blood—and it made an enormous difference in their lives. Prayer makes a difference as we nurture our marriages and other relationships, raise our children, push our way through college, make vocational decisions, and cultivate the ministries of our church. Prayer matters.

We must, secondly, be careful not to use a passage such as this to simplify unnecessarily the outcome of prayer in our individual and collective lives. It is easy to imagine, isn’t it, that Luke intentionally shares the story, as he clearly does other miracle stories, in order to encourage the believers of his day who are surely encountering issues of their own. “Remember when Peter was in prison,” he infers, “and the other Christians prayed for him.” “God will help us, too.”

But it also does not take a great deal of imagination to conclude that a story such as this might very well discourage other disciples who have themselves prayed and prayed, only to see no direct, visible response from God on their behalf. It can be difficult, for example, for a person who has prayed intensely for some particular need or situation, only to see no results, to hear about someone else who has experienced a far more visible response from God. How many of us who have lost loved ones through grave illnesses, for example, feel nauseated when we hear so-called televangelists promise their audience that complete healing is but a phone-call away? It can be enough to make a well person sick rather than the other way around! And while we snicker at the response of the believers when they hear that Peter is knocking at the door—“here they are, praying for Peter, and they don’t even believe that he is there!”—we are at the same time left to realize that we would almost certainly have responded in precisely the same way had we been in their shoes.

While it is true, I believe, that prayer always makes a significant difference, it may not always make a difference in the way that we envision. We must recall, for one thing, that just prior to sharing with us the story of Peter’s miraculous deliverance, Luke briefly relays information concerning James’ execution. Why was James killed, we might rightly wonder, and Peter was spared? Does prayer make a difference, or is it simply a nasty game of chance? And, given the uncertainty surrounding some of these circumstances, what does it ever mean to pray with faith.
In my mind, the call to pray with faith has far less to do with the specifics of our prayers than it does with the God to whom we pray. Our faith, in other words, is not to be rooted in the substance of what we ask for, but instead in the God to whom we speak and listen. Prayer is effective, not because it provides a channel through which we attain what we ask for, but because through it we draw increasingly closer to God. Prayer, in this sense, is far more like an ongoing conversation between lovers than it is a petition to the local court of appeals. We pray with faith, then, not so much by being certain that what we ask for will inevitably be given, but by believing in the goodness, mercy and love of God. Our faith is in God, not in our own prayers.

Finally, and with the previous word of caution in mind, we never want to reduce prayer in such a way that we fail to allow for the possibility that God will at times in fact do precisely what we ask. I remember talking with a member of my church in the Bronx soon after I first arrived there. I had spent some time with a homeless man that afternoon, and I later expressed concern to this church member about how much I needed to learn. “Don’t worry too much about the homeless people in the area,” she responded. “You’ll get used to them.” This story of Peter’s imprisonment and release provides enough of a spark to encourage us always to keep our antennae up. We never want to lose the element of surprise when we pray. We never want to tame and institutionalize prayer in such a way that we assume, as did these early Christians, that Peter could not possibly be standing at the door. While placing our full confidence in God and not our own prayers, we nevertheless keep an expectant eye wide open, looking for God-sightings all along the way. Rather than expressing total surprise or even disbelief when one of our prayers is in fact answered as we had hoped—like the believers here in Acts 12—wouldn’t you rather smile and say, “That’s just like God!”