Being the Church in Times of Terror: A Sermon on Acts 12.1-7, delivered 8.12.12

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August 13, 2012 by jmar198013

I preached this sermon yesterday morning on the question, “What Does it Mean to be the Church in Times of Terror?” The fingerprints of Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and John Goldingay are all over this. My text was Acts 12.1-17. My other sources were Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation (Philadelphia: WJK, 1988); Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987); and John Goldingay, Walk On: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him. The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’ As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, ‘Tell this to James and to the believers.’ Then he left and went to another place. (Acts 12.1-17 NRSV)

Intro: Living in times of terror

The headlines lately scream terror. Last month it was a gunman in Colorado mowing down theater patrons. This past Sunday another gunman massacred worshipers in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. We live in times of terror. Heart-wrench, stomach-churning terror. Senseless suffering. We get the sense that the victims got the shaft. They deserved better than that. One response, and perhaps it’s unavoidable, is to point heavenward and accuse: “What sort of God allows such pointless evil?” Yet we Christians, who know that we are made in the image of a Creating and Resurrecting God, understand that we also implicate ourselves when we ask such a thing. For surely our own senses of love and justice, our capacities for empathy and suffering, carry in them a resemblance of the God in whose image we are made. So perhaps a better question for Christians to ask in the presence of inexplicable evil is, “What does it mean to be the church in times of terror?” Then we are not speaking theoretically. We are speaking of what makes it possible for us to go on in the face of terror and suffering. Stanley Hauerwas has done much reflection on this very topic. He writes:

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that threatens to destroy all human relations.

To ask, “What does it mean to be the church in times of terror?” is really to ask a question about our identity. How does a people gathered by, in, and around the Crucified and Resurrected One respond to inexplicable evil and suffering? I chose Acts 12 as my text today because it tells the story of the church being itself in a time of terror. In Acts 12, church members were being rounded up and put in prison and murdered. I want us to examine how the church of Acts 12 was the community of care that Hauerwas described.

I. Why I am not focusing on Peter’s jailbreak

Probably some of you are skeptical just now. You may be protesting, “Jeremy, surely you are not reading this right. My Bible says it’s a story about God sending an angel to rescue Peter.” And it’s true, that does happen in Acts 12. But in times of terror, if we read Peter’s story as normative, we come away with unrealistic expectations of what God will do. We set God up for failure, if such a thing is possible. Because not everyone is rescued. Some suffer and die, some are damaged beyond repair. Others are left to pick up the scattered remnants. When we read Acts 12, if we rush ahead to God saving Peter, we neglect to notice that Herod did succeed in killing James. And it’s not as if James and Peter were the only ones touched by Herod’s violence. Other disciples, their names unknown to us, were also rounded up by Herod. Being the church in times of terror does not depend on God intervening to spare us from suffering or death. Being the church in times of terror means recognizing that our safety, security, and survival are not dictated by death, even violent death. I am not going to get into the end of Acts 12, where Herod is eaten by worms, out of a similar concern. Agents of terror being dealt with so swiftly and decisively is also not normative. Furthermore, it is not as if Herod’s demise was cathartic for those touched by his violence. Certainly it did not justify James’ death or redeem the suffering of those who loved James. I do not wish to exalt Peter’s deliverance at the expense of James’ suffering. During times of terror, what it means to be the church is to have the capacity to embrace both suffering and deliverance. We can do this because the church is itself embraced by the Crucified and Resurrected One. A community of care that absorbs the terror of evil is able to situate both James’ death and Peter’s rescue into its ongoing story. Otherwise, our retelling of Peter’s deliverance is just a form of whistling in the dark. We break into another chorus of “Sing and Be Happy” in the face of raw realities. That sort of piety might comfort us, but it dishonors and excludes those who suffer. As long as their suffering cannot be integrated into the ongoing story of a community, it really is pointless suffering. James and the other victims of Acts 12 deserve better than that. So i read Acts 12 not as an account of what God did for peter, but what God did in the midst of a faithful church being itself in a time of terror.

II. In times of terror, the church gathers to pray

In the aftermath of the Colorado theater shooting, one minister wrote: “The faithful response is to hold a vigil.” I remember being underwhelmed by his suggestion. Yet I, myself, could not imagine anything better to do. In fact, that’s precisely what the church did in Acts 12.In their time of terror, when some of them were being rounded up and imprisoned, James had been killed, and Peter’s odds looked grim, the church’s response was to gather and to pray. Being the church in times of terror means holding a vigil.

Why is it so important that the church gather for a vigil in times of terror? I think it has to do with becoming a community of care, as Hauerwas described. In times of terror, the function of the church is to absorb the terror of evil that threatens human relationships. In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff mentions a friend’s remark that grief isolates. “He did not mean only that I, grieving, am isolated from you, happy,” Wolterstorff writes. “He meant also that shared grief isolates the sharers from each other.” That’s “the destructive terror of evil that threatens all human relations.” The church is tasked with the absorption of this terror; that is what it means to be the church. Those suffering, those mourning–they cannot even bear their own burden. How can they be expected also to shoulder the burdens of others who suffer and mourn? They require less-burdened others to embrace them all, to unite them in their grief. I imagine that the prayer vigil of Acts 12 included the families and friends of those who had been arrested. They knew what had happened to James. They knew their loved on could be next. That’s terror. Heart-wrenching, stomach-churning terror. The church exists to gather up these terrified people and hold them together in prayer.

From Luke’s perspective, there was a literal test of strength between the church’s prayers and Herod’s prison. That’s how he frames it in verse 5: while the guards keep vigil over Peter in the prison, the church keeps vigil over Peter in prayer. God honors the church’s prayers by bending the universe in their favor and giving them a miracle. Luke wants us to see that our gathered prayers are not impotent. But I do not believe this means that we should always expect a miracle like Peter experienced. Being the church means depending on miracles, but sometimes the miracle is that we are held together. The terror of evil does not destroy all human relationships. I would suggest that this, in itself, is a proof of God’s intervening.

III. In times of terror, the church provides an alternative to the violence of the world

In the aftermath of the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, the bodies of the dead were not even cold before voices spoke up with a “solution” to the evil. “We all need to buy more guns,” the voices told us. “That will prevent these things from ever happening again.” I try to imagine what would have happened if the church of Acts 12 bought into that sort of solution. What if they had said, “In honor of our brother Peter, on the night our Lord was arrested, let us raise the sword against Herod. And this time, let us take more than an ear!” We all know how tragically ineffective that would have been. But effectiveness is the least of my concerns. Being the church means being more concerned with being faithful than with being effective. Let’s face it–any God who hides his Good News inside a bloody crucifixion isn’t terrible worried about nay human calculations of effectiveness. I don’t believe that the church in Acts 12 didn’t take up arms against Herod because they found it ineffective. It simply wasn’t an option for them. To have done so would have dishonored both Peter and the One who told him to put away his sword. Being the church in times of terror means being an alternative to the violence of this world.

Besides that, terror has many faces. The destructive terror of evil is a prodigious shape-shifter. Terror may take the form of cancer or infection or grave injury. It may be a wildfire or flood that wipes out entire communities. Or perhaps an addiction or mental illness that steals someone we love, making them unrecognizable to us. Point is, not every terror confronting the church will be unleashed by a madman who kills with a gun or a madman who kills by royal decree. And for a people determined by the Cross and Resurrection, I don’t know how much of a difference it makes if the terror that comes to us takes the form of a man with a gun, or starvation, or famine, flood, fire, or plague. Being the church means having the capacity to absorb suffering and evil rather than inflicting them.

IV. In times of terror, the church locates suffering in God’s story

I would offer, finally, that Acts 12 reveals that being the church in times of terror means being able to situate our lives within the biblical narrative. If we read closely, we will notice Luke’s comment that Herod’s campaign of terror against the church occurred around the time of the Passover. Luke also tells us that the Jewish people were pleased with Herod’s violence against the church. He does not want us to miss the bitter irony of a people celebrating God’s freeing of them from a tyrant by applauding another tyrant locking up some of their kinsmen. The tragedy of those who supported Herod’s persecution of the church is that in so doing, they could no longer locate themselves in God’s story. They didn’t know it, but they’d just wandered back into Egypt.

By contrast, the church of Acts 12 celebrated Passover by praying for their kinsmen like Peter who were not free. They truly became a prophetic community, a sort of corporate commentary on the scriptures. The church of Acts 12 found themselves living out the truth of the Passover. Their embodied interpretation of the Passover provides the context for Peter’s liberation: Peter was reenacting the Exodus, with the prison gate standing in for the Red Sea. It was a sign from God confirming that the church had rightly divided the word of truth.

The church’s task of situating its life in God’s story is ongoing and, I would argue, particular to each body of believers. I once read about a South African church during Apartheid that placed a set of chains, a passbook ,and a rubber bullet on the Lord’s table along with the bread and wine. That was their way of locating their exclusion, humiliation, and suffering in the story of Christ’s exclusion, humiliation, and suffering. That was how their community was able to absorb “the destructive terror of evil that threatens to destroy all human relations.” We need a community with a compelling story capable of bearing the weight of our suffering. Without that, all suffering is pointless. John Goldingay puts it like this:

In a community, we owe it to each other to allow people to give voice to the grief, hurt, and pain of the people of God and of the world. When we do that we will find we are a community in grief, a community in prayer. We will then find that one way or another the god of the signs and wonders of the exodus, of the wilderness, and of the Promised Land will be our God. We will find that we are a community in wonder at what God does in our midst, a community in answered prayer, a community in testimony that occupies the whole heart and mind.

Goldingay’s words seem to describe exactly what happened in Acts 12. The story begins with the church as a community in grief and in prayer. God intervenes and frees Peter, not solely for Peter’s sake, but as a sign that the God of the Exodus is still their God. Peter’s return transforms the church from a community of grief and prayer into a community in wonder, answered prayer, and testimony.

Conclusion: The God of Acts 12 is still our God

Acts 12 is so much more than a story about an angel getting Peter out of prison. It is a story about what it means to be the church in times of terror. It relates how the church was a community of care capable of absorbing the terror of evil. It is essential that we, as a church, continue to attend to this text because as long as we live in the world, we will be confronted by times of terror, whether it takes the form of a madman with a gun or the specter of cancer dwelling inside someone in our midst. Acts 12 describes the forms of our life together required for us to go on in the face of evil and suffering. Being the church in times of terror means gathering to pray. It means being an alternative to the violence of this world. It means being able to situate our suffering in God’s story, scripture, and providing a context for our members to do the same. Above all, it means being faithful to who we are and trusting God for outcomes. In grief, may we be a community in prayer. The God of the Exodus, of the wilderness, of the Promised Land, and of Acts 12 is still our God.


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