Down but not out

Good morning, Friends!

There’s certainly a lot going on in the world today. There’s a lot of economic problems. All the politicians seem to have gone crazy. There have been demonstrations and protests this week.

Our country is still involved in wars around the world. They’re killing thousands of people, and leaving more thousands maimed and wounded for the rest of their lives. People are anxious about schools, about jobs, about drugs. And to put the cherry on top, there’s global warming.

“May you live in interesting times. . .” It certainly is interesting. It’s so interesting that we sometimes don’t know how we’re going to make it. We’re fighting against politics, economics, demographics, psychological, social, and spiritual forces which are beyond our control. Do you feel anxious? If you don’t, maybe you should!

This morning’s reading is one of the most high anxiety stories in the New Testament. Jesus had been gone for a while, and the new Christian community was growing.

Thousands of people were coming to hear the new message, and many of them had stayed. They were reaching out, not just to their fellow Jews, but to Greeks and Romans and all sorts of people. They had to stretch their whole world view to handle all these changes.

Every time things change, there are going to be people who push back against the changes. The same thing’s happening today. We’re seeing lots of changes, some of them long overdue. We’re seeing people who push back against those changes.We’re also seeing people taking wrongful advantage of all the changes. They try to grab money or grab power at other people’s expense.

The same thing happened in the Bible. There were good people and greedy people, and a lot of anxious people in the middle. Anxious times.

This morning’s Scripture reading tells us that being anxious isn’t the only answer. In this story, when people pray, and when people trust God, sometimes doors open.

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 Herod saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

After arresting Peter, Herod 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. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” the angel said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.

They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.

Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

 – Acts 12:1-17

Just a starting note – the Herod in today’s story wasn’t the same Herod we remember at Christmas, the king who killed all the little boys in and around Bethlehem, trying to do away with the baby Jesus.

The Herod in today’s story was that king Herod’s grandson. Time passes on, but some things get handed down from one generation to another. This new Herod had James, one of the apostles, hacked to death by swords. Then he arrested Peter during the Passover feast, figuring it would please the crowds.

It looked like there was going to be a re-enactment of Jesus’ arrest and execution, only this time Herod wasn’t taking any chances. He had Peter locked up in a dungeon, with four squads of soldiers to stand guard.

So, this is the situation in this morning’s story. Peter, the head of the church, Jesus’ golden boy, the number-one fisherman and fisher-of-men, was about to be toast. He was about to join the glorious company of all the saints and martyrs, and the new church was going to be leaderless.

We should feel a certain amount of sympathy with Peter and the rest of them. We have problems, but so did they. Maybe their problems were even bigger than ours.

It says Peter was loaded down with heavy chains in a dungeon. They had him sleeping with a guard on either side of him. Just to be sure, they chained him to the guards. There were more guards outside his cell room door, and more guards outside the gates. Herod wasn’t taking any chances.

It says that “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. . .”

Prayer, in this case, doesn’t mean the kind of thing we usually do. It doesn’t mean “let’s think about this for 2 seconds and then go back to whatever we were doing.”

Prayer, in this case, meant that everyone in the church who could possibly be involved, dropped everything and prayed. They literally had people praying through the entire night, keeping a prayer vigil, ignoring their regular business, to do nothing else in this time of emergency but to pray.

I’m not sure what their feelings were. It doesn’t say if they were confident, or if they were anxious. Probably, if they were like us, they were mixed.

It doesn’t say anything about how Peter was feeling through all this. My guess is, that if he was chained between guards, locked up and triple-guarded, they had given Peter a pretty rough time. They had just hacked one of Peter’s closest friends to death. Chances are nobody read Peter his Miranda rights. Chances are he’d been beaten up, maybe even tortured. Like I said, Peter was toast. He was already in the belly of the beast.

“The night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter was asleep in his prison cell, with guards all around him. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.” Who says Hollywood was invented in the 20th century?

In our pew Bibles, it says that the angel struck Peter on the side and woke him up. Actually, the Greek version says that the angel whacked him roughly. “Get up quickly!”

And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel told him to get dressed, and wrap his cloak around him, and follow.

Peter thought he was having a dream, or a vision. He didn’t know if it was real. They went past all the guards, and the gate was standing open. They went outside, and walked down an alley. And suddenly, the angel was gone, and Peter realized where he was.

So he went to the house of one of his friends, where many of his fellow Christians were staying up all night praying for him. He knocked at the door, and they were so excited they didn’t let him in at first. They thought it was an angel outside, waiting to get in. Peter kept on knocking, and they finally let him in, and he told everyone his story, and they were all amazed.

Now, this story is not a real complicated one. I don’t think it needs much interpretation. It does have some lessons for us, which I think we ought to remember.

First, when Peter was arrested, he didn’t do this time what he did when Jesus was arrested. Remember, when Jesus was arrested, Peter told everyone in sight that he didn’t even know Jesus? Three times Peter said, “I don’t even know who you’re talking about!”

We don’t have a record of what Peter said to the soldiers, but it’s clear that he didn’t deny who he was, or deny who Jesus was to him. I think we can safely assume that he said, “You’re right. I’m a Christian. I knew Jesus. I tell the story of Jesus to anyone who will listen. I pray for people. God heals them. I’m one of the leaders. I won’t pretend otherwise.”

See, in a time of crisis, people tend to do one of two things. They tend to face up to the situation. Or they run away.

The first time Peter was put to the test, he ran away. But every time after that, for the rest of his life, he faced up.

The first time, Peter listened to his fears. Every other time, for the rest of his life, he remembered Jesus, and he remembered who he was called to be.

It’s almost as though each of us has two selves inside us. When we fail, it’s as though our weaker or less faithful self is in charge at that moment. When people rise to the occasion, it’s as though our best self is present, answering the call. We have a choice, most of the time, whether to meet a situation with love, and faith, and hope. With courage and grace. With mercy and fairness and truth.

We don’t always have a choice about how things are going to work out. But we do have a choice about who we’re going to be. And Peter, for the record, chose to be the person Jesus believed in. He was the rock. Peter chose to be his best self, his true self, his faithful self. That’s the most that any of us can ever expect to do.
Another lesson from this story, is for us to depend on God.

That doesn’t mean we’re never going to get hurt. In fact, according to Jesus, people who follow him can expect to get hurt. It’s part of the deal.

An angel doesn’t always show up to open the door.What matters, is that in the prison, Peter was not alone. At the time when he should have felt the deepest despair, Peter was free. However you want to interpret this story, Peter knew that God was with him. Peter didn’t feel despair. He felt hope.

On the human level, we fail. We fall short. We fall flat. Bad stuff happens to good people.

On the divine level, we’re dealing with the reality of the presence of God. We have the message and teaching of Jesus. We have the comfort and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We deal with powerful realities, like forgiveness and truth. Those are realities which are given to us by God, and no one can take them away.

God can still lead us, even when human leadership is lacking. God’s plan is still to love and to redeem the world, even during the darkest part of night.

We can depend on God. God walks with us, through the valley of the shadow of death, through our worst mistakes, through illness and depression, through every kind of loss or hardship or danger we can imagine.

God is with us. We can depend on God. We put our hope in God. We believe in God.

The other thing that really stands out in this morning’s story, for me, is Peter’s friends. Peter had friends who were praying for him.

I think that one of the biggest challenges that this church or any church faces, is what kind of friends we’re going to be. Are we just going to be social acquaintances, people who have a little bit in common with each other and a little bit of shared history?

Or are we going to be friends, the kind of friends that Peter had? When Peter was arrested and imprisoned and chained and waiting for execution, they didn’t give up. They were still praying for him, when prayer was the only thing they could do. Wow!

We all need friends who pray. Friends who we can open our hearts to. Friends who will listen. Friends who love us, even if we fail or fall.

I need friends who are more experienced than I am. I need friends who will share their wisdom with me.

We all need friends who will share what they have, even when it isn’t very much, even when, to them, it feels like nothing.

I have lost many friends. Many of my very best friends have died, or moved away, and I miss them. But there are always new friends. For people who live close to God, there’s never any shortage. Making new friends is easy. Only ask, and there’s someone new, just waiting to be a friend.

And as I said before, when I said it’s as if there are two selves inside each of us, it’s as if there are two friends inside us as well. One friend is weak, and isn’t confident. One friend is anxious, and burdened, and tired, and scared.

But the other friend, the one I want to be, the friend I want to reach out to in other people, is the friend I can count on. The friend who really prays. The friend who can’t fix everything, but the friend who walks with me, no matter what.

That’s the friend I want. And that’s the friend I want to be.

So. Let’s take this story into open worship. Maybe some of you will find other things to say about it.

No matter how dark things seem – no matter how dark things are! – let’s try to be our best self. Let’s not give up hope. Let’s remember that God is always with us, no matter what. And let’s be the kind of friends that each of us really needs, the best kind of friends we can be.

Let’s spend some time in open worship together.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown

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