June 29, 2014
When you find yourself on death row, awaiting a show trial, chained up in a prison with sixteen guards, it is probably time to let go and prepare to meet your Maker. But “God’s perfect timing” might just interrupt your preparations. People often refer to “God’s perfect timing” to help us deal with the delays, failures and disappointments of life. However, in certain cases, his timing can work the opposite way, undoing what seems to be an inevitable disappointment. In this Sunday’s reading from Acts 12 for the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, we find St. Peter apparently about to die, until God interferes with apparent inevitability.
Peter is arrested by Herod Agrippa’s agents right before Passover. Herod has put one of the “pillar apostles,” James, to death by sword. Peter would expect to follow his fellow apostle to martyrdom quickly. Herod is on a persecution rampage to please the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem, and nip the nascent Christian movement in the bud. Herod’s violence reminds us that the Church was born in the midst of opposition and persecution. He arrests Peter at the time of Passover, a feast at which Jewish pilgrims would gather in Jerusalem. Herod’s purpose is probably two-fold: he wants to prevent a key Christian leader from preaching to the crowds at Passover and he wants to put Peter on a show trial to ingratiate himself with the opponents of Christianity and as a warning not to join the new movement.
Power of Prayer
When Peter, the Rock, is arrested, the Christian community does not launch a protest or a war, but they get down on their knees and pray. Acts describes the Church’s prayer for Peter as ektenes, “intense, zealous, instant.” They are praying hard and fast that Peter will be protected from a seemingly imminent fate. Praying in the face of such a situation would be a tough proposition. It would be easy to give up and start praying for a swift end rather than for deliverance. But the early Christians kept believing and interceding for Peter’s rescue. Their faithful determination (and their results!) can teach something about how to pray.
God Has a Plan
The Lord allowed James to die a martyr’s death and the Church could have accepted Peter’s martyrdom, but it was not in God’s timing just yet. Peter would eventually receive the martyr’s crown in Rome, but at this point in his life, God has more for him to accomplish. God is in control of the situation. He knows exactly where Peter is, what he’s doing and the odds he is facing. When the Church prays, and God responds by sending an angel to release Peter from prison, the Lord is demonstrating his mastery of the universe and the veracity of his plan. God’s plan included martyrdom for Peter, but not yet. At this moment, God wanted to save Peter so that he could keep working to build up the early Church. To me, this shows that God’s plan overrides our notions about how things ought to go. He knows what he is doing and when we entrust ourselves to him in prayer and faith, he responds in powerful ways.
Reversal of Fortunes
Herod wanted to publicly humiliate Peter, “intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people” (Acts 12:4 RSV), just like Jesus had been publicly tried by Pilate. After the public trial, Peter would be executed. Herod tries to assure that his wishes are carried out by taking many precautions, including guarding him with four four-man squads of soldiers. But again, God has other plans. After Peter is led out of prison by an angel who seems like a vision, he gets out of Jerusalem and harm’s way. As soon as Herod finds out that Peter has escaped, he has the sixteen guards executed (Acts 12:19). Then Herod, in his own self-aggrandizing way, puts on his royal robes and sits before a crowd whom he does not dissuade from flattering him by calling him a god. Instead of silencing them, his silence consents to the divine title. He thinks himself a god! At this moment of his bogus apotheosis, the moment at which he feels himself becoming a god, the real God sends an angel to strike him down. In a forceful poetic irony, the man condemned and imprisoned is freed by an angel of deliverance, while the man crowned and praised as a god is struck down by an angel of death.
Status Quo vs. Good News
The conflict and opposite fates of Herod and Peter reveal the power of the Gospel. The Good News disrupts the order that people are accustomed to. Herod stands in defense of the status quo which keeps the powerful in power and the lowly low. He realizes the upending, world-changing quality of the gospel that proclaims a new King, a new Lord, a new Way. The old alliances and power structures could (and eventually do) bend and break under its influence. Peter is the representative, the prime minister, of the new King and proclaims his Good News, a dynamic force whose relevance and power can threaten those in authority. Change is the enemy of the status quo and Herod tries to stomp it out with force. However, God wants to bring about a serious change, and Herod’s plan backfires on himself. The Lord sends his angels to both deliver mercy and execute justice.
The darkness of some situations can prompt us to give up hope and give in to despair. But when God delivers Peter out of a hopeless situation, we can see that he really is the one in control. Jesus even tells his disciples that they might be put to death, but still “not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18). God saves Peter for bigger purposes. His work is not yet done. When we are tempted to give up, we might think about what it felt like to be snuggled up with a bunch of chains and soldiers in a dungeon, and then to look into the eyes of an angel. Maybe we too have some work left to do.