So you belong to a “praying church.”
In our culture, that condenses into a formula of a having at least three prayers in the main worship hour – opening, offering and closing – plus a mid-week gathering where burdens, praises and prayer requests are itemized in “bulletins” (elongated word for bullet points?) and passed out to the tiny handful of congregants where it’s more a 45-minute Bible Study, quick run-through of the handout, updates and additions with five minutes of stale prayer to close it out. But, presto, you’re a praying church!
(As an aside, it used to be said that those who attended church on Sunday mornings love their pastor; those who return on Sunday night, their church; those who tighten ranks and gather at the midweek prayer service love Jesus. That’s what they say.)
Be that as it may…
Acts 12 recounts a rapid-fire, edge-of-the-seat, thrilling episode in the annals of the early (praying) church. One of them Herod dudes (hard to keep them all straight), not the Herod of the Christmas story but the one of the early Acts – Agrippa One, specifically – wanted to shut down the Church. His leadership in Jerusalem was coming under closer scrutiny from the higher-ups in Rome because those cultish “people of the Way” were gaining momentum in the empire.
Not cool, Harry.
So Harry began a scorched-earth policy. First, he killed off the Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Jerusalem. Then he started manhandling deacons (well, is that such a bad thing?), arresting committees, jailing worship leaders, framing the worship band, railroading trustees, thugging on staff and incarcerating members. He created a culture of fear. The church went underground.
What seemed like a brilliant move but would blow up in his face, was to arrest the darling of the Church, the first eyewitness of the Capital-R Resurrection, the preacher who brought a city to its knees, and the Apostle who moved the levers and ran the show. Peter. As Luther to the Reformation, so Peter to the Early (praying) Church.
The timing couldn’t have been more or less popular, depending on which side of the Passover continuum you fell. During the highest, holiest feast of the year, when scads and scads of people made their pilgrimage to the Capital, Herod took this high-profile quarry into custody. He sent 16, count ’em, soldiers to arrest him with plans to bring him out after the feast, try him and publicly execute him.
So he thought.
One night, while the (praying) Church gathered in secret and interceded non-stop for their apostle, an angel of the LORD kicked Pete in his sleep (sleep?!?) and led him out past two sleeping guards, an outer guard, a heavy door, another guard, another fastened-down gate, and all the way out through a final IRON gate and into the city. Luke tells us that the chains on Peter simply “fell off ” and that the gates opened “of their own accord” (?!?) and none, nada, zero guards stopped him. The angel, bathed in light, stayed with Peter out into the city and left him only when the coast was clear. Pretty much right up to another gate.
The Gate of a (praying) Church.
A dumbstruck Peter, who had up until this moment thought he was still snug in his cell, dreaming about a jailbreak, realized it was really happening! Wow! Wait’ll my church family hears about this!
He arrives at an outer Gate, the home of a prominent family in his hometown. Inside, his Bros and Sis’s were praying fastidiously.
Still not a movement. Is this the right house?
Another knock, this time more forceful and demanding.
A crack of light appears and a silhouette approaches stealthily. Rhoda. Rose.
“Who’s there?” There’s a whispered shrillness to her query.
“It’s Peter!” he announces.
The servant girl gets lockjaw. Maybe a squeak erupts as she adds voice recognition to his self-address and her eyes get wide. Peter can almost make out the whites in the darkness and smiles broadly. Five minutes earlier he was chained between temple guards, now he’s about to shock the living daylights out of a prayer meeting!
Luke doesn’t leave out a detail, he reports it exactly as it happened. He tells us that Rhoda wheels around and busts up the prayer meeting with the announcement that Peter is FREE! But she left Peter outside a locked gate, standing in the very unsafe outdoors!
Ah, good times, good times…
(COMMA ALERT) Meanwhile, as Peter, who earlier was gated and guarded from getting out, and was now gated from getting in, on the inside, in the (prayer) meeting, Rhoda’s news is not received with enthusiasm.
“It can’t be him…”
“It must be his guardian angel…”
Knock! Knock! Knock, knock, knock!!!
“WHAT IS ALL THAT KNOCKING!”
“Uh, guys…ummm…don’t know how to tell you this, but…uh…Rhoda’s right…”
Indeed. But the point of all this is to ask: if the church was gathered, praying earnestly (Acts 12:5,12), what, pray tell, were they praying for?
Is it possible they were only trusting God to encourage their brother, protect him from torture, give him grace to endure to the end, to finish well, to be gloriously received into heaven???
How uninformed to believe for a release, after all! For their brother to be restored to the ministry of the gospel!
The church had form. The church even had zeal. They even had determination.
What they lacked was faith!
Do we make our prayers too predictable and safe? Do we embrace a box and stuff our prayers inside its walls?
And, just one more thing…satan’s prisons have gates, yes, but so do churches! (see v13) Our gates are gates of “just enough.”
Just enough belief.
Just enough prayer.
Just enough zeal.
Just enough religion.
Just enough expectancy.
Just enough hope.
Just enough faith.
But that? Oh, it wouldn’t be prudent to ask for so much! Let’s just believe for…this much.
Is that how your church prays?
Is that how you pray?
Believe me, this story has me asking myself the same thing.
Wouldn’t His Kingdom come more powerfully to broken marriages, captive souls, prodigal sons, pervasive sin, cultural atheism, deceived minds, dark territory, impossible strongholds, aggressive rebellion, relentless attack and hopeless despair if we…
…could just hear what’s on God’s heart, to hear His intentions, to believe what He says on a matter, then pray that back to Him? If only…oh, if only…then, when no daunting prison or stronghold can contain our confident hopes…we won’t be taken by surprise.