Ancient Modern Family, IV: Just an Idle Tale
While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
Our sermon series continues of the Ancient Modern Family—discovering and retelling stories from the early church—as told in the Acts of the Apostles.
Today’s passage is not in the common lectionary, the collection of readings prescribed for worship to follow, combining Hebrew Scriptures, Psalms, and Christian Scriptures. I doubt you would have ever heard this story in worship.
Let me set the context and remind you of the broader arc for this narrative. Acts was written as the second volume by the evangelist, Luke, for his benefactor, Theophilus, to set an orderly account of the details of Jesus’ life and the birth of the church. Orderly account filled with verifiable evidence and details of the truth. Much of what we read in both Luke and Acts is to be interpreted against the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, which as Jesus claims in Luke “is to restore sight to the blind and bring release to the captives.”
Listen to the details in this story. It is so thorough; it reads like a screenplay. Let your imagination fill in faces and scents. Hear the sounds and voices. Let the Holy Spirit inspire you as I read from Acts, Chapter 12.
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Could you imagine this in your mind’s eye? Unlike some of the more ethereal or obtuse passages of scripture, you can easily color the scene and cast actors for the characters.
Years ago, in the movie Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones; a woman played the part of an angel, hovered in the shadows, and was dressed in a white trench coat. That was the angel in my mind’s eye rescuing Peter. But, since the gendered pronoun for this angel was masculine, perhaps the angel was more like Peter Faulk with a dirty beige raincoat like Columbo.
Was it real? Is this fantasy? Why don’t we read this in the lectionary? Why was it not a part of academic research until of late? In the minds of the theologians and church fathers who crafted the lectionary, setting the stage for what would be read in worship; this was just an idle tale.
During the modern period most scholars considered the story of Peter’s imprisonment and subsequent escape quite incidental to, even an interruption of, Luke’s narrative of the birth of the church in the Acts of the Apostles. For example, scholar, I. H. Marshall, comments that “at first sight the story is unnecessary to the developing theme of the expansion of the church; had it been omitted, we should not have noticed the loss.”
The author of Luke-Acts is considered one of the most gifted writers in the entire Bible. His craft in poetry and prose, narrative structure and nuanced skill in Koine Greek is unparalleled. Could the writer have thought the reader needed an interlude amidst the tension and chaos of the story of the early church, particularly if conveyed in the form of comic relief? It is a bizarre story peppered with unusual details—before the Passover celebration, Peter is imprisoned, for the second time, but is able to escape two chains, 16 soldiers, iron gates, and pass through the wall of the city. But yet, he cannot enter the door to his friends’ home and is left on the street?
Perhaps this idle tale was inserted to be consistent with other tales of prison escapes that were common in Hellenistic writing of the same period. Heroes were often imprisoned—doomed to death—and yet found release through divine or superhuman powers. This writer may have just capitalized on the popular literature, crafting an escape to steer the reader towards believing in God’s redeeming power. Yet, the story we read is bookended with the disciple James’ death and concludes, in later verses we did not include, with Herod’s death—two events substantiated in other historical writings.
We too enjoy a good tale, but reading scripture, we also bring our hearts and minds to wonder at the richness and layered meanings these stories have for us and to be skeptical when told by others what they may or may not mean.
Some will attribute to Mark Twain an observation: “history does not repeat itself; history continually rhymes.”
History does not repeat, it echoes, it rhymes and in the long arc, these reverberations reveal the truth.
This particular event echoes to the earliest Israelite stories in scripture. Peter was imprisoned during the Festival of the Unleavened Bread. This festival celebrates a long-remembered story of the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery and pharaoh’s bondage contained in the Book of Exodus.
We teach this story to our children and hear it with some frequency in worship. The Israelites had been enslaved by Pharaoh, but by God’s power Pharaoh was forced to let them go. They were able to flee in the dark of night, with soldiers in hot pursuit, pass through the Red Sea, narrowly escaping death, before the sea swallowed the soldiers. If you don’t remember the story from worship, it is forever seared in memory by Charlton Heston in the movie The Ten Commandments.
History rhymes. Our faith tradition rhymes. The underdog can win: David slew Goliath. Life springs from unlikely sources: Sarah gave birth to Isaac. The righteous will triumph: Daniel survived the lion’s den. Hebrew Scriptures offer other stories of those unjustly imprisoned or bound to a particular position in life, but are set free. Through these memories of God redeeming and bringing new life out of sorrow or famine or imprisonment, our faith tradition not only remains intact, it grows stronger.
History also rhymes in that oppressors eventually lose: Pharaoh and the Egyptians lost and all those who bore the name and title of Herod suffered eventual defeat.
The faithful told and retold these stories through the ages to remember God’s covenantal care endures over and beyond the cruelty humans can conceive. These faith stories are of flesh and blood people who persevere. Platitudes do not persuade. Witnessing the truth through the lives of those around us, brings us to believe.
You too may have seen the New York Times front-page obituary last week for Edward Thomas. When Thomas, an African American, joined the Houston Police Department in 1948, he could not report for work by entering the front door of the police headquarters.
Thomas could arrest only black people. If he apprehended white suspects, he could merely detain them until a white officer was dispatched to make the arrest.
He patrolled his beat—a wide swath spanning largely black neighborhoods—twice a day, alone, on foot: The department long refused to issue him a squad car.
Houston police chief, Charles A. McClelland said, “the very first time (Thomas) was given permission to drive a squad car, when the sergeant gave him the keys, his instructions were: ‘You better make sure that you don’t wreck it, but if you do’—and he referred to him by the N-word—‘you better pin your badge to the seat and don’t come back.’ ”
Yet, in 2011, when Officer Thomas retired with the rank of senior police officer, McClelland claims he was “the most revered and respected officer within the Houston Police Department” and the police headquarters, housing all officers, now bears his name.
In 1948 before Civil Rights legislation and at the height of Jim Crow laws, had someone told Thomas or anyone that he would be an agent among others with the courage to release us from the bonds of racism, that the police headquarters would be renamed to honor an African American, they could have been dismissed for telling an idle tale.
We need to read and know these stories of people who represent the evidence of God’s goodwill continuing to be fulfilled in our world today—God’s covenant of bringing all of creation into a place to flourish.
One brief line in our scripture reading today may have gone unnoticed of Peter’s imprisonment and escape; it paled next to the graphic detail and surprise with the rest of the story: “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him” (Acts 12:5).
Against Roman soldiers and prison, the church clung to their remembrance of God’s care through the ages, Jesus’ ministry, and the promise of the Holy Spirit. With this confidence, they appealed to a power they believed was greater than anything Herod could muster. Too many had died before and they knew many would yet die for the sake of the gospel, but still they prayed. They prayed as a whole church for Peter and for the fledgling Christian movement to survive.
The writer of Acts presents Peter’s escape as a decisive statement of the power at work in the world, a power capable of removing obstacles for the church. This story of deliverance is one of many in Acts and rhymes with the stories told in the long history of God’s redemption.
Prayer remains a powerful force in our lives. In prayer we have the ability to freely speak to God, to layout our weaknesses and faults, to lament—really cry out in pain when we are hurt and afraid. Prayer is the one time we can let down our defenses and open our hearts to confess that which is most precious and dear to us, what we truly need in life that is beyond our ability to create or attain.
Author Kathleen Norris acknowledges we want what we want and in the exact ways we prescribe and yet “prayer stumbles over our modern self-consciousness and self-reliance, a remarkably ingenuous belief in our ability to set goals and attain them as quickly as possible.” She concludes by offering the best prayer she knows of as Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
Prayer humbles us. Prayer reminds us God is God, sovereign creator and redeemer, loving us before life and beyond the horizon of death. God is God and we are not.
Through the intimate conversation with God, our prayer brings us closer to God and further from what the world tells us about our future and ourselves.
Prayers for Peter’s deliverance were answered this time, but we also know that prayer is not always answered as we would like. In the early church, the prayer God answered was for the good news to spread and dwell in the hearts of believers, then and now, even if those who carried the word were not always spared. Eventually the Roman authorities execute Peter for his witness.
We need to retell the story of Peter’s escape and Edward Thomas’ redemption to remind us of the long arc of release from captivity does prevail as too often tragedy occurs.
This past week, another beheading by ISIS made the news. An 83-year-old scholar of antiquities, Khalid al-Assad, who was imprisoned, tortured for information and then publically executed. Respected worldwide for his knowledge and reverence for hidden treasures of Syria, Assad died protecting the history and artifacts that tell the story of faith and oppose the lies of ISIS.
The Herods and Hitlers and the ISISs of the world will not triumph, but tragically there are more pious disciples, Bonhoeffers and Assads who die in the search for the justice and freedom God desires for us.
Jesus did not say our lives would be free from suffering, instead, he suffered the cross and death. Jesus professed in his ministry and in his resurrection; the powers of this world do not have the final answer, God does.
The story of Peter’s escape rhymes with the story that defines the core of our faith. Peter was imprisoned during the Passover, just as Jesus was taken after the Passover meal. Peter was thrown into darkness, as Jesus’ death was ultimate darkness. Peter escaped in ways we cannot conceive and a stone was rolled from the tomb: Jesus was raised.
In Luke’s Gospel, when women, who were the first to learn of Jesus’ resurrection, shared the good news with the disciples who had hidden, they were accused of telling an idle tale. When Peter escaped, the group gathered at Mary’s house feared the worst news, declaring Rhoda was “out of her mind,” when she announced he was free and standing at the gate. Even those who had prayed for Peter’s release could not believe it was true.
These tales, told throughout history, of the righteous escaping prison, the underdog winning, and the outcasts becoming blessed, added together, reveal it is not an idle tale to believe God’s love. The early Christians risked their lives to tell a story, with their lives, of God’s love for people that cannot be snuffed out. This idle tale is what guides our living and gives us courage to live boldly.
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As we move to a moment of silent reflection, please pray with me. God, we hear of your power to release the chains that bound Peter. We hear again and again of your power to heal the broken places in our world. We lay before you the ways we are bound. Help us trust we too may be released from all that holds us back.
Guide us with your steady hand to believe…Amen.
 Robert W. Wall. “Successors to “the Twelve” According to Acts 12:1-17” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol 53, 1991, p. 642.
 Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina Series, vol 5, ed Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992, 218.
 Margalit Fox. “Edward Thomas, Policing Pioneer Who Wore a Burden Stoically, Dies at 95,” The New York Times. August 14, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/15/us/edward-thomas-policing-pioneer-who-wore-a-burden-stoically-dies-at-95.html?_r=0 Accessed August 17, 2015.
 Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, 58.
 Ben Hubbard. “Shielding Syria’s Antiquities, to His Grisly Death,” The New York Times. Vol. CLXIV, No. 56,964, August 20, 2015, A1.