May 30, 2016

Who is It?

Even though a passage from the seventh chapter of Luke is before us this morning, I want to begin by looking at a passage recorded in the Book of Acts. While both stories come to us from the same author—a disciple named Luke wrote both books—and both deal with a similar theme—the power of God’s people to intercede in prayer on behalf of others—I think the passage from Acts is just a bit more accessible, so I begin there as a way of opening up the Gospel today. The story comes from Acts chapter 12.

Acts 12 bears witness to a frightening period in the Church’s history. Not too long after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the miracle of Pentecost, not too long after Gentiles heard the Good News and received the Holy Spirit, not too long after a fisherman named Peter came into his own as an effective and respected leader of people, the nascent church encountered fierce opposition.

This is how Acts describes the troubling developments.

About that time King Herod [Agrippa I] laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. [And]…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.
Herod was pursuing a strategic plan to eradicate the church by eliminating its most prominent leaders. However, his plan severely underestimated the power still held in the hands of the church’s rank and file members, a power foreshadowed in the text with one potent little sentence.

Luke writes, “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.
And the angel tapped Peter on the side. “Hey, get up. Let’s go.”

Peter’s chains fell off, the two figures walked passed the guards, and the prison’s iron gate swung open “of its own accord,” yet Peter thought it was all a dream.

[The angel and apostle] went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him.
And in that moment, Peter realized that he was unbound and unguarded. It wasn’t a dream. He was wide awake and free!

So Peter went to the house where the church was praying and knocked on the gate—and that’s where the story takes a turn for the farcical, like something from Monty Python or some slapstick comedy.

A woman named Rhoda came to the gate and got so excited when she heard Peter’s voice that she ran back inside without letting him in.

Rhoda told the others that Peter was outside while he kept on knocking.

The others accused Rhoda of hearing things. They said, “You are out of your mind!” while Peter kept on knocking.

Rhoda and the church argued for a little bit, while Peter kept on knocking.

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.
When the believers prayed the Spirit moved and Peter came through his troubles and came out of his prison.

Commenting on this story, I. Howard Marshall, the late Professor Emeritus of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, notes, “When the church prays, the cause of God will go forward, and his enemies will come to naught, even if this does not exempt the church from suffering... (p. 206).

The biblical truth Marshall identifies in Peter’s miraculous escape is also present in the passage from Luke’s Gospel we’ve read this morning, a passage that lacks the humor of the Acts account, yet speaks directly to the power of our intercessions.

Luke 7 centers on a Roman centurion’s plea for Jesus to come and heal his servant who was dying.

Though a Gentile, the centurion’s character and generosity earned him the respect of his Jewish neighbors who carried his request to Jesus. Their testimony prevailed on Jesus and he went with them…

but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed…When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
While Peter was asleep, the Church was praying.

While his servant was dying, the centurion humbly beseeched Jesus for help.

In both stories, the willingness of people of faith to go before God on behalf of another was a catalyst for change and blessing.

We’re not told anything about the dying man and we’ve only heard that Peter thought he was dreaming, but we know that somebody prayed for them and that God was present to them in their moment of need to offer healing, mercy, and grace.

And that realization sets up our encounter with the Good News this morning by bringing an extraordinary question to our attention.

If our prayers and worship were to compel God to take action this morning, to whom would we ask God to go?

Or asked another way;

Following the example of the church in Acts and the devout centurion in Capernaum, for whom will we intercede today?

This is an essential question for us.

While we’re all here, in part, because we recognize that we have benefited from God’s favor—we’re here because we’ve discovered God’s amazing grace for ourselves—ultimately, the Church’s mission and ministry must be directed outward, beyond those gathered together.

Yes, we’re here to give thanks for blessings that we have received, but, hand in hand with that, we’re here to pray and beseech and to intercede on behalf of the hurting ones all around this world that God so dearly loves.

This outward and prayerful orientation is fundamental to the People of God formed by the Holy Scriptures.

Moses repeatedly went before God for the sake of the Israelites, even when they were making him miserable.

Jesus prayed for his persecutors, his disciples, and he prayed for us.

Saint Paul urged “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions.”

And James called the Church to pray for the sick.

The witness is clear. Prayer isn’t some special action reserved for the giants of our faith and the heavyweight saints in our midst. Prayer is just what we do, even when we’re too hurt and confused to know what to pray for. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought,” wrote Paul to the Romans, “but [God’s Holy Spirit] intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Over and over again in the Bible we find examples and teachings that point us beyond ourselves and the boundaries that define our lives.

Over and over again we hear that the best that God has to offer can never be hoarded up and stored away, because God’s best is always meant to be shared.

“You’ve got to give it away,” sings Bono, “because blessings aren’t just for those who kneel.”

So who is it?

If our prayers and worship were to compel God to take action this morning, to whom would we ask God to go?

Following the example of the church in Acts and the devout centurion in Capernaum, for whom will we intercede today?

Let’s go to God for them today.

Amen.

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