Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, 17th April 2016 – Evensong


5th Sunday of Easter

Dr Ruth Shatford

Revelation 3:1-13;  Psalm 107:1-3, 10-16;  Acts 12:1-17

On the eve of another Anzac Day, Fr Ross has spoken this morning about the impact of war on our service people and we will have our brief commemoration at the end of this service.  Last year at this same service I preached on Anzac Day and so tonight I would like to go with the readings which indicate rather an emphasis on the continuation of the season of Easter and the ongoing life of the infant church.

The main focus seems to be on the reading from the Acts of the Apostles where there are accounts of the persecution of the Jerusalem church.  “It was about this time,  (that is about 43 or 44 AD,) King Herod arrested some who belonged in the church, intending to persecute them.”   This Herod, grandson of the Herod who had the baby boys slaughtered at the time of Jesus’ birth, and nephew of Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptist, was held responsible by Rome for keeping peace and order in his territories.  So he pursued good relations with Rome, but also sought the favour of the Jews, recognising they were always a hard people to govern.  He did his best to make them happy, even going so far as to attend the temple on high festival days and to participate in worship ceremonies, representing himself as a believer in the God of Israel.  To arrest Christians not really with the intention, not of trying them for some alleged crime, but for the purpose of persecuting them, shows how he was prepared to flout the justice system and use it for his own ends. His first act here was to have James slain.  Probably Herod hoped this would make other church members frightened into silence and inactivity.  The Jewish leaders were delighted that he had moved against the church and loudly praised Herod for doing so.  Their approval was just want Herod wanted and it probably encouraged him to step up his persecution and to single out Peter as his next target.  He had the wit or perhaps cunning, not to move against Peter during the high feast days, but clearly intended to put on a show trial once the sacred days of the Passover were over and he could then summarily execute Peter too.  We remember that the sensitivities of chief priests who had not wanted Jesus dealt with during the Passover, in case the people should riot.

It seems an extraordinarily heavy-handed way that Herod had Peter guarded.  Sixteen men in shifts around the clock, with Peter chained between two even to sleep.  We understand that there was no real charge laid against Peter nor was there anything that signalled he was dangerous or violent or even an escapist who needed such close guarding.  Probably Herod remembered or had been warned about the earlier episode, when Peter had been arrested.  Back in Chapter 5, we read that when the Sanhedrin had arrested the apostles a few years before, and put them into prison, they simply disappeared from the locked prison during the night and the authorities still regarded that as an unsolved mystery.  Herod could not afford to look so foolish this time!  It is rather ironic that such heavy guarding was the recipe for looking even more foolish.

Why had these Jews turned against James and then Peter?  Why did the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea turn against their fellow Jews who became Christians?  Several years earlier, after Stephen’s death, the Hebraic Jewish Christians were apparently not persecuted or suppressed.   The apostles at that stage were respected, because they remained observant Jews.  In fact, when they were seen to be associated with miracles, the people rather held them in awe as God’s instruments for good.

It is thought that one reason the people now turned against them was Peter’s evangelising work.  He taught among the despised Samaritans.  Perhaps worse still, he associated with the Gentile Cornelius and baptised him without additionally requiring him to live as a Jew.  So the word got around quickly that Peter was eating with uncircumcised men and no doubt this was a scandal for the Jewish converts to Christianity, seeing other new Christians not respecting the Torah and committing a grave offence against the customs of the community.  Because the Jews were making an issue of it, Peter’s actions had the potential to cause riots and stir up serious political problems for Herod, whose policy was to support the majority and ruthlessly suppress any minorities that became divisive and disruptive.

So Peter, on the feast of the Passover, when the Jews celebrated their release from captivity in Egypt, was languishing in captivity in Jerusalem!  The irony does not elude us!  Meanwhile the church was earnestly praying to God for him.  Here as elsewhere in Acts, Luke points out that prayer is central to the life of the church.  The intention of Herod is clear – the goal is to eliminate the leaders of the church and to persecute believers who accept non-Jews.  The church has no weapons against the forces arrayed against it.  All the church can do is to call on God and depend on God to rescue Peter and save the church.

We note in the narrative that Peter is sleeping in these quite frightening and cramped physical conditions with chains attaching him to two soldiers.  I wonder what enabled him to sleep… was his confidence in God such that he could switch off as it were and leave all in God’s hands?  I wonder if he recalled the earlier words of Jesus to him that he would live to old age.  The interesting part of the narrative now begins and I understand the commentator who describes it as almost a slapstick story!  Have you ever heard a command less pious and religious-sounding than “Quick.  Get up.” and then “Put on your clothes and your sandals.” from the angel who appeared.   So earthed, taken together with the thump on the side.  The bit about putting on his cloak sounds more like a mother to a child on a cold night, than what we might imagine an angel would say.

With his chains then falling off, getting past the guards without incident and the city gate opening as if by itself, no wonder Peter felt as if he was in a daze or a dream.  Once they had got a block into the city, the angel left him suddenly.  It is interesting to see the way Peter then comes to his senses and says “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”.  He then seems to realise he has to take responsibility for himself and what he does, so heads off to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where we are told many believers were gathered together praying.  We sometimes see people get very excited and lose their wit and common sense for a bit and perhaps this is the most slapstick bit of the story.  The servant girl, recognising Peter’s voice at the door, did not immediately open up for him to come in, but left him standing there while she rushed back in and told everyone that Peter was there, only to be accused of being mad.  When she insisted that it was Peter, they said it must be his angel and it seems to have taken some time before they opened up to the insistent knocking and admitted him.   I would love to know the thoughts running through Peter’s head as she stood waiting to be let in.  The relatively abrupt ending to the story is very unsatisfying.  Peter, not surprisingly, had to shoosh the house full of people to describe how God had brought him out of the prison and safely to them.  Then he instructed them to tell James, his brother, and the other brethren about it and Peter left.  We have no idea where he went or why.  He seems to have been committed to getting the church onto its feet in the faith and moving on to spread the good news.  He may at this time have gone into hiding but who knows?  There is some evidence further down the track that at some stage, Peter went to Rome.  Perhaps this is when he went to Antioch in Syria, or as he seems to have been known to the Jewish-Gentile church in Corinth, perhaps he went there.  Not much point in speculating.  But we do know that he did not simply try to take refuge in the house of Mary, but went forth from there virtually straight away.

So what do we learn from this incident?

Poor Rhoda was accused of being out of her mind when she effectively told the gathered community a piece of news that was tantamount to saying that their prayers had been answered.  We know that they were intently at prayer and we can only think that the focus would have been the release and safety of Peter and the good of their fledgling church.  When that release and safety came, they were slow to recognise the God had indeed specifically and generously answered their prayers.  Our faith and credulity are stretched too when what is happening seems to tax our earthed view of reality.

Apart from the interesting and encouraging story of Peter’s release, why have the lectionary compilers chosen the letters to two of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation to accompany it?  I found that a bit of a puzzle, but perhaps it helps us apply the Peter story to our situation rather more than we could otherwise have done.  The words to the church of Sardis are very salutary.  She has a good reputation, but that appears to have been without foundation.  Everyone regarded her as a flourishing, active, successful Church – except Christ himself.  She is accused of failure to complete what she should be, to confess.  What does this mean?  John says that she feels secure and complacent, that she is unthinking so is untroubled by persecution or heresy, and so has slipped into setting herself the task of avoiding hardship, by pursuing a policy based on convenience and circumspection, rather than whole-hearted zeal.  The experience of the church of Sardis will be like the citadel of the city – never taken by assault, and thought to be impregnable, but more than once, captured by stealth.   Once, a soldier dropped his helmet over the parapet and scrambled down a large crack in the spur the city was built on to retrieve it.  He climbed back up to safety, but was watched by the enemy who realised they could enter the city by this same means.  They did so at night and found not a guard or watchman on duty and so were able to take the citadel.  One commentator describes the city at one point as revealing a melancholy contrast between her past splendour and her present decay.  In some ways the church at Sardis is seen as being like the city itself.  A wise Greek visiting the city saw amid the luxury and magnificence that demonstrated its wealth, the seeds of softness and degeneration.   John says to the church the words given him from Jesus:  “Wake up!  Strengthen what remains, and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.”    So, with Sardis, Christ has in his hands, both the unaware church in its need and the life-giving spirit.  If Sardis becomes aware of the reality of what it is like, Christ can revive it from the creeping death it is unwittingly facing.  Very sobering words.

And the church of Philadelphia…  where the words sound stern, its tone is not designed to find fault, but to face facts.  A testing time is approaching a church which has no great strength to meet it.  The city had experienced the tremors associated with a great earthquake nearby in the year 17AD that destroyed ten towns and it faced the fear of continuing, frequent tremors for many years.  Most people actually lived outdoors at this period because of the fear of collapsing houses or further falling masonry in the semi ruins.  The church faces both opposition and opportunity, and Christ’s intention is for it to overcome the one and to grasp the other.  In Revelation, John frequently adds his voice to that of the other apostolic writers in teaching that the privileges and promises given to Israel in the Old Testament, have now been inherited by the Christian Church.  As Isaiah had said, the gates are open that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.  The doorkeeper’s authority is transferred to the apostolic church with a strong urging to make disciples who will enter the gates.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, …you shut the kingdom of heaven against men;   for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter, to go in.”  The Jews, and others, are to “learn that I have loved you.”  The church at Philadelphia is encouraged as it obeys his word because he has first set his love upon them.  The final result of his loving care is that this church of “little power” will be established as an immovable pillar in the temple of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The tradition with pillars is interesting.  When a priest died after a life of faithful service, he was honoured with the erection of a new pillar in the temple where he had served, with his name and his father’s name inscribed on it as a lasting honour.  I guess it was a bit like adding the Christian name and surname of our clergy on the honour board over the door.  God makes this tender promise to those who are painfully aware of weakness and insecurity, that they will belong and be honoured forever.  Until they and we reach that destination, he calls them and us to endurance and to service.  They are called on again to take heart.

In our own church community, it is certainly a time when we are in focussed and consistent prayer for God to direct us to the person of his choice to be our new rector. May I ask you to include in your prayers the request that God will remove any blinkers that we have on that would prevent us from recognising when our prayers are being answered or indeed have been answered.  We need to be open to being surprised by God as Peter’s community were.  We need to pray in faith and go forward in expectation.

From the Revelation reading, we need to take heed, as we prepare a strategic plan, and as we look for a rector who will lead us in our tradition and style, to remember to be watchful, not thinking in a self-satisfied way that we are as the reading says “complete”.  Sardis was reminded of its first hearing of the gospel and told to remember that and turn back.  The urging is towards whole-hearted zeal and not to self-satisfaction or complacency.  The reminder is given of our inheritance in Christ and the obligation this brings to us in service and worship in our faith community.

I feel that apart from being buoyed up as a nominator by the prayers of individual parishioners and the gatherings in the prayer circle, we have been drawn together to reflect and perhaps articulate what we sometimes take for granted in this congregation, where we have been so well served in ministry.  May these readings tonight remind us to be alert for when God does answer our prayers, alert for perhaps unexpected ways in which God answers and may they remind us too to continue faithful and zealous in service to the God, whose word we seek to obey, who first set his love upon us.


Dr Ruth Shatford