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27th September 2020

Destination Unwanted

Passage: Acts 12; 1-17


Do you know what this story reminds me of? The TV show “Would I lie to you?” Each contestant tells a highly improbable story about themselves and the others have to decide whether it is truth or lie. So, Peter, what is your story? “I was in prison, locked in a cell, chained to two guards. An angel took off my chains and got me out of prison. Back home, my friends were praying for me but when they saw me, they thought I was a ghost.”
Over to the team….. “So, Peter, why were you in prison?” Good question.

Basically, King Herod had decided that Christians were dangerous and needed eliminating. But this was a small group of insignificant people who had stirred up no riots, planted no bombs, attacked no buildings. Why were they such a danger?
True Christians are always going to be a subversive element in a secular culture. Because true Christians worship God and Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This means they do not worship the Emperor, as the Romans had to do; nor do they worship what P.D James called our modern Holy Trinity of money, sex and celebrity. True Christians are not terrorists. They do not go around trying to murder either the Emperor or the people with money, sex and celebrity but they do have an alternative set of values and every now and again these different values will show themselves, whether in the workplace or the corridors of power or the neighbourhood or in the way they bring up their children. And this may spread uncertainty: that what seemed like hard and fast rules for living are not quite so hard and fast; that what looked like the Roman or the American or the British dream as declared by the Emperor or the President or the media might not be quite so wonderful.
Christians in the UK today may not be put in prison but they can be made to suffer at work if they stand by Christian principles rather than the CEO’s code of ethics; they can be pilloried in Parliament for standing up for their faith; they can be looked at suspiciously by neighbours and they get no support in their efforts to give their children a Christian upbringing.

King Herod was one of several Kings called Herod, all equally nasty. This Herod had expanded his territory, mostly by the charming family habit of killing off your relatives. He wanted to keep his position. Anyone whose ideals seemed alternative to his would be locked up. And Herod would have heard the story of how Jesus had been laid in a sealed tomb, yet came back from death. He may not have believed this, but he was taking no chances. He had Peter locked in a cell chained to two guards: “get out of that one, pal!”

Right, so what about this angel, Peter? “How did you know that this ‘being’ was an angel?” “Perhaps, I did not, until the chains fell off. “
You cannot really argue for or against the existence of angels. Science cannot prove they do exist, and neither can it prove that they do not. In the Bible they are the messengers of God and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are clothed in dazzling white; others look like ordinary people; some even take the form of animals. So how do you recognise an angel?
I guess that most of us have some idea of what it is like to feel completely trapped in a very dark place; when you can see no way at all that you will ever be free of the pain or the sickness or the fear or the guilt or the addiction that has you in chains.
And I would guess that most of us have encountered some kind of angel who has set us free. I have known these angels. And yes, they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a friend turning up to support me through a crisis; fellow Christians holding me in prayer; a few lines in a book; a piece of music; a character on the television: a casual word in a supermarket queue; something or someone has lifted me up when I have not been capable of lifting myself up. And this help has been unexpected, unplanned, sometimes even unnoticed until after it has been given. When we realise that the chains have gone and that we are being guided through the locked doors until we are free.

It is possible that Peter’s “angel” might simply have been a sympathetic guard, a Christian insider working in the jail. Herod suspected it of being an inside job: he ordered that all the guards on duty that night be executed. (I told you he was nasty). The angel might equally have been some kind of supernatural being. God has many messengers and many who are channels of his power. And we know them by what they do.
Remember the blind man healed by Jesus in John’s Gospel. He was cross questioned by the religious leaders as to who had done this and how he had achieved this. And the blind man said, ‘I only know one thing- once I was blind and now, I can see.” So, with Peter- “my chains fell off and I was free. There is no point asking me any more questions.”

Right, Peter, you are out of prison. Now you head back to the house where all your Christian friends are. Would not that be the first place the soldiers will come looking for you?
There were times, before the lockdown, when occasionally I wondered why Christians in countries where they can be arrested and imprisoned for their faith, still persist in meeting together. It is far easier for the police to find a gathered group than a single individual. Why take that risk? Why not practice your faith alone?
Lockdown has given us the answer to that. You cannot practice your faith alone, not for long. Jesus called his followers into a community- partly for the sake of being an effective witness to the world yes, but also for the sake of every individual member. Faith needs encouragement and support, or you start doubting whether you have really got this right. Faith needs both the challenge and the commitment of a faith community or else it turns in and becomes purely a matter of your own personal comfort. Faith needs to find expression in action and action is far better achieved in company. And, finally, our faith is ‘incarnational”- it is about God becoming human. Therefore, we continue to encounter God as we meet our fellow human beings.

The early Christians took huge personal risks for the sake of meeting in community. But it was worth it to them. And it was worth it to Peter- to risk even his precious liberty again, to go back to the place where he knew he would find his fellow Christians.

Next Sunday we re-open for worship in our church. And this is not some form of spiritual blackmail. There are some of you who would be ill-advised to return to a public building just now. But there are also some who believe that the time is right for them to get back to the gathering place, to meet with other Christians and those seeking a place of worship. We want with all our hearts to re-establish the visible community of faith again, so that it will be there when, in time, all are able to return.
Remember, in The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel addresses the company of nine who are on a mission to destroy the ring of all evil power. The quest stands on a knife edge, she says, but there is still a chance, so long as all the fellowship remain true.
Please pray for those of us who will gather in church as we shall pray for those of you who cannot be there, that our fellowship may remain true.

So, final question, Peter. Your friends are all praying- for your release. Why then did they think you must be a ghost when you turned up on the doorstep?
In some ways this is the most unbelievable part of the story and in others, sadly, the most believable. How many prayers have we made, not really believing that anything awesome will happen?
I suppose we still see a lot of bad things happening; fervent prayers are made which are apparently not answered and you cannot help wondering if prayer really does achieve anything. And yet, and yet …. Tennyson wrote that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…” and he was right. Awesome things DO happen when people pray. And I have been as surprised as Peter’s friends when something amazing has happened and I have had to remind myself that actually, this was what I had been praying for.

I think the scary thing about prayer is that its results are out of our control. We cannot make things happen through prayer. And nor can we control the effect that prayer might have on us. If we truly pray for God’s Holy Spirit to inspire and empower us, then there is a chance of our being hauled right out of our comfort zone-remember what I said about true Christians being subversive in a secular culture- and that scares the life out of us. And if we pray fervently for the healing of someone we love and they are not healed then we are also dragged right out of our comfort zone because we have to face the inner fury, the pain, the confusion as to WHY God apparently did nothing and the questions which may well remain with us for the rest of our lives because I for one, have not yet found an answer which I could bring myself to offer.
So maybe it is safer all round to pray without a particularly deep conviction that anything amazing will happen? It is just…., well, amazing things do happen even when our prayers are not as powerful as we think they are. Because the results of prayer are out of our control. Take that on board and, funnily enough, your prayer life becomes a whole lot more fruitful.

So, is Peter’s story a lie or is it the truth? The team have to vote, so it is over to you. But given that we are all in a place we do not want to be right now ; a place we never intended to end up in, it is worth looking out for the angels who can release our chains; it is worth keeping as close as you can to the faith community; it is worth persisting in prayer; it is even worth being a subversive influence in a secular culture because that subversive influence-that alternative culture might just be that which saves the world.