Sunday, May 10, 2020

A Praying Community -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter 2020

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Praying Community
Acts 12.1-13.3 (NRSV)
10 May 2020, Easter 5 (off Lectionary, Easter theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme)

The book of Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s work — the first, the gospel, tells us about Jesus, and the second, Acts, tells us about the Body of Christ in its earliest days, as they figure out what it means to be the Church. It’s a story of the disciples being led by the Holy Spirit, the community growing and spreading, and in the most difficult of circumstances. We know that it was written probably in the 80s, about 50 years after Jesus lived, died, and was raised. We don’t know for sure when exactly the events that Luke writes about took place, but a good guess is that it’s probably around the 40s and 50s. In that time, the disciples have been preaching and healing, the church has been traveling on those fancy Roman roads, and the Roman Empire has been expanding its reach and also its cruelty. 
Today’s story begins with the third King Herod to rule in Judea as a client king, perhaps better called a puppet of the emperor. The first, who was king when Jesus was born, was known for his cruelty, which we can see in the way he handles the news that the Messiah has been born. The second, the one whom Joseph feared and so he took his family to Nazareth in Galilee rather than back to Bethlehem, which was just a few miles from Jerusalem, was the one who beheaded John the Baptist on the whim of a party oath. And this third Herod, called Herod Agrippa, was no better. We hear about him in Acts chapter 12, beginning at verse 1.

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, Get up quickly.And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.He did so. Then he said to him, Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.Peter went out and followed him; he did not realise that what was happening with the angels help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.
As soon as he realised this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognising Peters voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, You are out of your mind!But she insisted that it was so. They said, It is his angel.Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, Tell this to James and to the believers.Then he left and went to another place.

It was the most hopeless of situations. James, the brother of John—one of the first disciples to be called, leaving his nets and hired men and father and following Jesus….one of Jesus’ inner circle, along with his brother and Peter, violently lost at the hands of a jealous mad king. During Passover, no less. And then, when the king realised he could perhaps score some points with the religious leaders he was always at odds with, he arrested Peter too. Peter was, of course, the leader of the Jerusalem church, just as Jesus had said he would be. 

Now, after all these years, the very thing the disciples had feared, the reason they hid in the upper room, both before and after the resurrection, because they were afraid that the authorities would come for them next, happened. On the last night of Passover, Peter was in prison, chained to two soldiers, with more soldiers outside the locked door, inside a locked prison, outside the locked city gates, knowing that the next day was his last. And the church, grieving the loss of James, fearful for Peter, prayed.

It was an impossible situation. There was literally no way out. 

Of course, God specialises in impossible situations. 

Peter was no stranger to dreams and visions. He had many, some of which changed the course of the church forever. So when he dreamt of an angel and a light, he must have assumed it was happening again. He followed the angel out of the cell, out of the prison, into the city, and it was only when he was standing in the dark streets alone, after curfew, that he woke and realised that his sleepwalking was more than a dream, it was a divine intervention! He ran to the house where the church was praying—a house owned by a wealthy independent woman, no less. And then one of my favourite moments in all of scripture happens: Rhoda, the servant, comes to the gate and when she sees Peter, she leaves him standing there while she runs back in to tell the others! And, just like on Easter morning, they don’t believe her — literally tell her she has lost her mind. But Peter is still at the gate, perhaps beginning to get nervous in case he is spotted, making a racket knocking on the door! Finally they let him in, he tells his story, and then….he goes away. 

Perhaps he left because he knew it would be safer for everyone if he wasn’t found among them the next day. Perhaps he went into hiding somewhere else. Tradition says he traveled to Rome and preached the gospel there until he was later crucified himself, upside down. Whatever the case, he recognised that his calling was no longer with this community, but elsewhere. The role of the Jerusalem church had changed, and they needed new leadership. It was time to pass the baton to James, the brother of Jesus, and let him grow into his role as leader of the Church in Jerusalem. So as hard as it is to know when it is time to let go of authority and pass it to the next generation, Peter discerned that both their calling and his were now different, so away he went.

Continuing now at verse 18…

When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.
Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the kings chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the kings country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Herod had already revealed himself to be cruel, to care more for how he was perceived than for the well-being of others, and to be prone to acting on whims. When Peter could not be located, Herod simply took his anger out on the most convenient underlings available…though the guards, of course, had nothing to do with Peter’s escape. They were sacrificed to his ego, and when that was done he went away to his better palace, in the Roman capital of the territory. 

There, surrounded by all the trappings of power and glory, people came asking for help because they were starving. They have to literally beg and grovel, praising Herod with all their might, in order to get a morsel of food. He set himself up as if it was a religious festival, appointing a day for them to come and sing his praises before he would allow them to receive necessary supplies. It was the opposite of how the church operated — remember that throughout Acts we have heard “there was not a needy person among them” because everyone shared their resources so that they could all have enough. Not so with the king. But…in what might be another of my favourite lines of scripture, we hear that the angel, perhaps the one who had brought Peter out from certain death to life, does the opposite for Herod. His insistence that people glorify him in order to have what they need just to survive ends with him being struck down, “and he was eaten by worms and died.” Notice the order of the words there! It makes me laugh every time. Which is good, because when we live under startlingly similar circumstances, we need a bit of a laugh now and then.

I could go on for some time about this particular style of quid pro quo from a political leader, but I think it might be better if we focus on the importance of giving glory where glory is due…and that is always to God. 

And, of course, the story continues! At verse 24, and going into chapter 13:

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. 
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

In contrast to Herod’s ways of self-glorification and making people grovel for their survival, the church, the community of sharing and compassion and abundant life, continued to grow. When a community knows who they are and then lives out that mission with clarity and grace, people are attracted to that! People want to be a part of something that feels real and hopeful, and that makes a difference in the world, and the church certainly has that. 

You may recall that Barnabas and Saul had been sent from Antioch to take the offerings that would help the Judean church survive the coming famine. When they returned after finishing that mission, they brought John Mark, whose mother Mary was the leader of the house church where Peter had told his prison break story. When they returned, they took their place in the leadership of the Antioch church, which may have been the most diverse church leadership team ever: there was Barnabas, who was an immigrant who had moved from Cyprus to Jerusalem and then been sent to Antioch; Simeon, who was black; Lucius, an immigrant from North Africa, Manaen who was one of  the second Herod’s childhood friends and converted from within his court; and Saul who had formerly been a Pharisee!

This incredibly diverse leadership team guided the whole church in Antioch as they studied God’s word, did their best to live according to Jesus’ way, and listened for the Holy Spirit. This community spent their time in spiritual practices, fasting and praying and singing and sharing in the work of the community. And there, in that community, in the midst of those practices that helped them draw closer to God, the Spirit spoke. 

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 

And so the first missionaries were ordained, set apart for the work given to them. They didn’t just go off on their own, they were equipped and sent by a community that knew and loved them. And that community discerned this calling through the spiritual practices they did together.

As we too prepare to be sent out as witnesses, I wonder if we can learn here about the importance of a praying community. Both in Jerusalem and in Antioch, we see the community gathered together, praying and listening for the Spirit. And each time, their prayers lead to a new phase of the Church’s life, first as Peter hands over authority to James, and then as Saul and Barnabas head out on their missionary journeys.

Who knows what God might do with a whole church praying and listening for the Spirit today! It might feel like we are in the midst of an impossible situation, things can feel a bit hopeless as we continue behind our locked doors for a while longer, frightened and worried. But God specialises in impossible situations. And though the world outside might feel indifferent to the gospel at best, the reality is that the Spirit is still calling and equipping and sending us to share the good news that there is another way, we don’t have to live by the Herod way or the Empire’s way. Abundant life for all creation is possible, in Christ. 

So…what if we decided to be a church that prays together? Yes, for all the usual things we pray for—safety and health and comfort in the midst of grief. And also explicitly for the Spirit to reveal what God’s vision for us is, what our calling is in the next phase of our life together, and for the people and the resources and the gifts to fulfil that calling. As we prepare to be witnesses, let’s pray.


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