How would your local church react if two leaders (think minister, elder, deacon) were arrested, not because of moral indiscretion or tax evasion, but simply because they spoke out for Jesus? Would other leaders suspend meetings of the church and advise members to avoid electronic communication with one another? What would you do? And what if one of them was sentenced to death and executed quickly?
This issue became very real for disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem not many years after the beginning of the church. According to Acts 12, Herod (Agrippa I, grandson of the Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus) arrested the apostle James, the brother of John, during the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread, and executed him. He then arrested Peter. Many disciples already had fled Jerusalem after the earlier stoning to death of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). The apostles (and we learn from Acts 12, other disciples) had remained in Jerusalem. Herod scheduled a trial for Peter after Passover.
How did the Jerusalem church react? “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). We learn later in the chapter that at many disciples met in private homes for this reason. The Bible does not reveal the content of the prayers; I strongly suspect they prayed that God would deliver Peter and protect them. The prayer of Acts 4:23-31 suggests that they also may have prayed for boldness and for God to demonstrate his power through the name of Jesus. Mary, the mother of John Mark (We learn more about John Mark later in Acts and in letters written by Paul and Peter; he may have written the Gospel of Mark) opened her house to disciples for prayer.
The night before Peter’s trial, someone strikes Peter on the side. An angel tells him to get up; his shackles fall off and that his guards are asleep. The angel tells him to get dressed, then leads him away from the two guards to whom he had been chained, then past several other guards, to the iron gate separating the prison from the city. The gate opens by itself. Peter’s initial reaction: This must be a dream. Then after walking “the length of a street” the angel leaves him and Peter realizes it is not a dream. God has rescued him!
Peter goes to Mary’s house where the people were praying (Ben Witherington in his commentary on Acts suggests it must have been a regular gathering place for Christian worship.). Mary’s house apparently was like many properties in the Middle East today; it had an outer wall with a door. Peter knocks on that door and a servant named Rhoda answers. She recognizes Peter’s voice and is so happy to hear him that she runs back to tell everyone but does not open the door to let Peter in. The disciples have prayed fervently for Peter. Now Mary’s servant tells them he is at the door and they don’t believe her. They tell her that she is out of her mind and dismiss her story. Peter, meanwhile, continues to knock on the door, undoubtedly aware that his absence would be noted at the prison. Finally, hearing the noise, disciples open the door. Despite Rhoda’s insistent declarations and their own fervent prayers, they are shocked to see Peter.
I’ve heard Christians pray for surgeries to go well, then express amazement when the patient recovers: “I never thought she would make it.” This episode from Acts demonstrates that shock when God says, “Yes!” is not exclusively a modern phenomenon. Early disciples, admittedly dazed by James’ execution and Peter’s arrest, reacted in the same way.
These early Christians gathered together and called for fire in the face of a threat to their community of faith. Their action reveals again the prominent role of prayer in early church practice as a response to attack. It also shows us the resilient nature of these disciples, a resilience that kept them praying even as they doubted. The reaction of the praying disciples to Rhoda’s revelation of Peter’s release unveils a skepticism that we may admit today: “Will God really say “Yes” to my improbable request?
The early church continued to pray even against a backdrop of persecution-induced fear and skepticism. They met together and gathered strength from association with fellow believers. Mary, like Lydia later (Acts 16), invited disciples to her home. Some leaders went into hiding; after his release Peter went “to another place.” James the brother of Jesus and others emerged as leaders in the Jerusalem church. How would your church react to persecution? The early church prayed.
O God who provides, Forgive our shock when you grant our requests. Loss, fear, and grief numb us; we forget your power that overcomes all. Remind us to pray and to worship with other believers when under attack: “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Thank you for loving us even when we doubt. Thank you for giving us a victory we did not earn. In Jesus’ name, Amen.