The Fortunes of Discipleship

July 30, 2017

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley, using Acts 12.1-17 at Mattins on Sunday 30th July 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity.

The fortunes of discipleship. James is killed and Peter is dramatically rescued from prison. That’s what we’ve just heard.

James wasn’t the first Christian martyr – that was Stephen, who you may remember was a deacon who preached the faith fearlessly and was stoned by the mob for his pains. That was the beginning of a wave of persecution that resulted in some Christian refugees fleeing to other countries – an occurrence not dissimilar to other events over history and today. But James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, in about AD 44 in Jerusalem. He was killed on the orders of Herod Agrippa who ruled Judaea on behalf of the Romans. Herod Agrippa may have been himself at least nominally Jewish, and certainly took the Jews’ side against the upstart Jewish Christians. So James, ex-fisherman and brother of John, was martyred, and is now known as James the Great, or Greater, to distinguish him from other James’s.  His feast day was last Tuesday.

And then we come to Peter. It was when Herod Agrippa found the Jews rather liked what he had done with James that he had Peter locked up in gaol.  And what follows in the Acts of the Apostles is a dramatic rescue. A sudden light and voice in the night, as Peter slept, chained between two guards. The chains removed, he was given clothes as a disguise, gate guards stood back, gates mysteriously opened, and then his rescuer left him to find his way back to his friends. They were utterly amazed at his sudden reappearance.

My guess is that many of us are watching Poldark on Sunday evenings.  Part of the story has been Dr Ellis, a ship’s doctor, being taken prisoner by the French revolutionaries. He was locked up in appalling conditions, with prisoners dying around him and others being summarily shot on a whim by the guards.  But then, of course, enter the gallant Ross Poldark, who mounts a daring and successful rescue mission, with plenty of gusto and risk. Rather like Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine around the same time, for any who read her novels rather watching ‘Poldark’. In both cases the surprise element and the derring-do are reminiscent of Peter’s real-life rescue in Jerusalem.

So what was the nature of Peter’s rescue?  Luke, writing the Acts of the Apostles, describes the rescuer as ‘an angel of the Lord’. But the Greek word ‘angelos’ has two meanings, either a supernatural angel in the picturesque sense, or else simply a delegate or messenger. So Luke may have been describing a human agent, like Sir Peter Blakeney (the Scarlet Pimpernel) or Ross Poldark, but an agent who was working as an agent of the Lord. He brought a lantern, he unlocked or cut the chains, he had bribed the guards, and so on. In all of this, he was an agent of the Lord, and he was certainly doing the Lord’s work in rescuing Peter, who was already a formative influence in the new Christian Church.

So what we have is a fantastic story of courage and heroism in the Church. Of course, it is only one example of such courage and devotion. Many thousands of Christians were to die for their faith under Roman persecution. This included Peter himself some twenty or so years later.  And it has been the same ever since. Even today, as we are reminded sometimes in the news, martyrdom, or imprisonment or torture or exile are the prices Christians must pay in some countries for standing by their faith. Sometimes, they’re not simply cases of Christians standing up for the faith itself, but rather for standing up against wrongs or injustices that fly in the face of Christian principles.

Thomas Becket engaged heavily in the English politics and intrigue of his day, but there is no doubt that his martyrdom in 1170, in his cathedral at Canterbury, was connected with his defence of the Church against royal interference.  There’s a local touch to the story, by the way, in that the immediate cause of his death was his refusing the four knights’ demands that he come to Winchester to answer charges against him. In Germany in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian, was hanged for his persistent resistance to Nazism and his implication in a plot to kill Hitler. And more recently still, Mariam Vattalil, whom I’d not heard of till a few days ago, but whose canonisation process is currently in progress: an Indian Franciscan nun, killed on a bus in 1995, in the Indian city of Indore, for standing up to unscrupulous landlords and undermining their inhuman practices.

So these, and countless other Christian martyrs, were killed not so much for preaching their faith in words as for preaching their faith in deeds. And there we have it.  For that was the fate of Jesus himself. Jesus infuriated the Jewish authorities by preaching, for instance, against nit-picking tithing principles: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith’[1]. But Jesus also infuriated the Jewish authorities by acting on his beliefs, most notably by healing people on the Sabbath, in the name of compassion but in defiance of formal rules.

So where does that leave us.  It leaves us with sources of inspiration and reasons for gratitude for the legacy of faith that the martyrs of the centuries, and above all Jesus himself, have left to us. And it leaves us with an almighty challenge, to stand up for our faith and to live out our faith.  Preaching at people doesn’t usually get us very far.  But listening and being prepared for an equal dialogue can sometimes get us somewhere.  We may not see our interlocutors in church next Sunday.  But, by listening and with dialogue, on a foundation of our faith, we can sometimes help people along the road, and often help our own thinking along at the same time. Above all, as you will know, it is often quiet and unselfconscious living out of our faith that carries most weight with people. Quietly helping out, even in the face of ingratitude, speaks volumes for Christian care. Again, there may be no response in coming to church.  But remember one thing – Jesus came to proclaim and to build his kingdom, a kingdom of justice and mercy. And building his Church and going out to baptise are means to that end, the end of building the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. The consequences for us in 2017 Britain are unlikely to be martyrdom.  But the implications can be sacrifice of time and money and patient attention to people. And these can be costly, too – not as costly as martyrdom clearly, but still costly.  And this may be our Christian vocation.


[1] Matthew 23.23