A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Pentecost 8 (Evensong)
Christ Church St Laurence – 30 July 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the Twelfth Chapter of The Acts of The Apostles:
…An angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him saying, “Get up quickly.” …And the chains fell off his hands.
Acts Chapter 12 is one of the most dramatic, thrilling and action-packed episodes in all of Scripture. In just a few verses, we read about the murder of James, the brother of John; the imprisonment of Peter; the appearance of an Angel; and, what is perhaps the most effortless prison-break of all time. Much of this, and more besides, is captured in the marathon hymn that we have just survived. And can it be, by Charles Wesley is, for some, one of the greatest statements of faith and reformed theology, while for other Christians, it feels more like a lengthy visit to purgatory.
Of course, the hymn And Can it Be says as much about Charles Wesley as it does about the gaol- breaking Apostle Peter. It is claimed that Charles Wesley penned more than 5,000 hymn texts, of which only a handful are still being sung with great gusto in many Christian denominations.
In 1738, during one of Charles Wesley’s frequent periods of intense illness, he read Martin Luther’s book on Galatians, which had a profound and lasting effect on his faith, theology and ministry. A seriously ill Charles Wesley wrote, “At midnight I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe, whether sleeping or waking. I had the continual experience of His power to overcome all temptation…” Wesley also wrote in his journal, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in the hope of loving Christ.” And, it is claimed that 2 days later, feeling somewhat better, Wesley began writing the extraordinarily powerful and exhausting hymn And Can it Be.
Charles Wesley is not the only person to record an intense faith experience in the midst of illness or tribulation; he is not the only person to feel the power of God in very dark and trying times. It has been suggested that the darkest hour is just before sunrise. We can probably credit this very helpful and hope-filled concept to the 17th Century English Theologian and Historian Thomas Fuller, who wrote: It is always darkest just before the day dawneth. Sadly, from a scientific perspective, this is probably not true. Though, it is usually coldest just before the sunrise.
From a religious perspective, human beings do tend to cling to faith when it seems that things just can’t get any worse. Church attendance in Australia reached its peak during, and immediately following, the Second World War. As society reached its darkest or lowest ebb, it is hardly surprising that Australians looked for hope beyond the experiences of daily life. When an angel of the Lord appears in Peter’s prison and shines a light in his cell, what seemed like a completely hopeless situation is suddenly transformed into a place where the grace and power of God will be mightily revealed. In our own time, we see persecuted Christians in the Middle East going to the most extraordinary lengths to live out their faith—no doubt hoping that God will again break into the darkness of their existence, bringing justice and lasting peace.
In Acts Chapter 12, we find an example of the very unhealthy mingling of religion and politics; something that is still frighteningly common in our world. Herod Agrippa is the grandson of Herod the Great. By killing James, the brother of John, a no-doubt unpopular leader has picked up a few points in his approval rating with the Jews. Desperate to build on this success, Herod arrests Peter and has him thrown into prison. What seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be counterproductive. Like the crucifixion, this brutal act of hatred and political exploitation must have been devastating for Peter’s friends, and for the early Christian community. However, his freedom and reappearance would have only encouraged them in their faith.
Along with its fair share of drama and excitement, Chapter 12 also contains one of the few moments of humour in the Book of Acts. After the great escape, Peter appears at the home of Mary, the Mother of John, where many had gathered to pray.
13 When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14 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… 16 Meanwhile Peter continued knocking…
As Peter’s friends gathered to pray for his release, their bewilderment and disbelief would suggest that they didn’t for a moment expect that their prayers would be answered. And yet, there they were, holding onto the hope that God would break into their darkness, bringing light and life.
The decline of church attendance and professed Christian belief in Australia suggests that most people don’t live in darkness. People are living longer; the standard of living for most people exceeds anything that our grandparents would have wished for. There is a sense that we’re surviving perfectly well without divine intervention. Remaining faithful in comfort and prosperity is one of the great challenges for Christians in our time and place. And yet, some of us continue to gather day by day to pray for peace in our world; to pray justice and truth. As individuals, we may not experience the agony and anguish of Charles Wesley in the midst of extreme illness. We may not be capable of understanding the sheer terror of the imprisoned Peter, awaiting execution. And yet, as part of the Christian Community, we are called to look beyond our own needs and problems, or lack of them. While we may not be living in constant fear and complete darkness, there are millions of people in our world who are, as a result of violence, sickness, famine and disaster.
While there are times when we probably can relate to the experience of Charles Wesley, or perhaps even the imprisoned Peter, we are mostly like the group of friends, desperately praying for the deliverance of others. Hopefully, when God does break into world, bring light and life, we will respond with belief and acceptance, rather than with scepticism and doubt. As we gather again and again in this place of beauty and peace, we do bring our own needs, but more importantly, we gather to pray with and for those who really do live in the dark places of our world; those who carry burdens so heavy, that they may not be capable of praying for themselves.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.