H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
May 16, 2004
KING HEROD, PETER AND RHODA:
BUT THE WORD OF GOD GREW AND MULTIPLIED
Texts: Acts 12:1-24
is one of the wildest chapters in the Bible. There’s grisly violence and
high comedy. There’s faith and blasphemy, there’s ruthless power and
there’s the strange power in weakness called prayer. Let’s get started.
One sets up an extraordinary contrast between Herod and the church. “About
that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the
church.” He had James, the brother of John, killed and now he has Peter
arrested for execution.
the church? Verse 5 says: “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed
fervently to God for him.”
it is: Ruthless power versus fervent prayer. We might say, In face of ruthless
power prayer doesn’t have a chance. But there are more kinds of power than
the power of the sword, and the church is called by God to engage in the
strange power in weakness called prayer.
Nancy Hastings Sehested told us a story during the Marney Symposium. Part of
her ministry last year was as a chaplain in a high security prison for men.
The head of the guards did not want her, a woman minister, there, but she
began to win him over. One day there was a threatened riot and the head guard
got her safely out.
came to her and he said, “You don’t like it, but you need me. And I
don’t like it but I need you.” She said, “I know why I need you, to help
me on days like this. But why do you need me?”
said, “Because you are in touch with a different kind of power.”
laid violent hands on the church. Literally it says, he “stretched out his
hand to do evil.” All he had to do was stretch out his hand. Others down the
chain of command did the dirty work.
the church prayed fervently to God for Peter.
Section Two, vv. 6-11
is the night before his execution. Peter is asleep. He is chained between two
soldiers. Usually one was enough. And outside the door are four squads of four
soldiers each. Herod is taking no chances. This pesky apostle had escaped at
least two times before.
Peter slept soundly an angel suddenly appeared. Light blazed. You might expect
this with angels: Light, music, a gloria
or two. But this angel was different. His name was not Gabriel. It should have
been something like Bubba. The
text literally says that when the light didn’t wake Peter up, the angel shoved
him in the ribs.
him awake the angel said, “Wake up, Peter, hurry, wake up.”
chains fell off Peter’s wrists and ankles. Peter was not yet fully awake. He
was in that foggy, fuddle-headed, half-asleep, half-awake state. The angel
pushed him to get dressed – practically putting his clothes on for him. You
know, like mothers and fathers do on a early school morning or Sunday morning:
out of bed, Peter. First put on your shirt; then your pants. That’s right.
Now your socks, now your shoes. No, that’s the left shoe, put it on the
other foot. Now your coat. Yes, you have to wear a coat. Okay, finally. You
look great. Oops, let me slick down your hair. Okay. Let’s go.”
now dressed but still in a daze, stumbles out following the angel. He didn’t
think this was really happening; he thought it was a dream.
passed the first squad of soldiers, then the next. The soldiers were fast
they came to a big iron gate leading to the city. It seemed to swing open all
by itself. Then they walked one block and the angel suddenly left Peter all
seems like a dream, doesn’t it? Light flooding in a jail cell, chains
falling silently off, an angel jostling Peter away and then playing Mr. Mom to
him, then almost floating past a series of sleeping guards, all quiet as the
night mist, the gate opening for them, then they are free.
thought it was a dream until
the angel suddenly left. Then just as suddenly Peter woke up. Did he feel the
yank of separation?
did I get here? This isn’t a dream, I’m free!”
then headed to Mary’s house, mother of John Mark, where the church was
gathered in prayer for him.
Section Three, vv. 12-17
could call it “The high comedy of the church!”
knocked on the door. “Are they going to be surprised to see me!” He
knocked as loudly as he dared, he a prison escapee in the middle of the night
in a strange neighborhood.
one who heard the knocking and came to the door was a maid named “Rhoda.”
That’s right, Rhoda. (Finally a name in the Book of Acts I can pronounce!)
Rhoda Morgenstern was her name, or something like that, but she was just known
behind the locked door she asked, “Who is it?” When she heard Peter’s
voice she recognized him and ran to tell the others the great news. But she
was so excited she forgot to open the door and left Peter standing there in
the night air.
told the group, “Peter is at the door!” Picture this. There they are
huddled together praying fervently for Peter in prison. Rhoda runs in to tell
them that Peter is at the door. What do they do?
didn’t say: “God has answered our prayer . . . . Hallelujah! Praise
God.” Nope. They said, “Rhoda, you’re crazy! You are out of your
they went back to praying, “Lord, pullease; pullease, Lord, help brother
Peter who is locked up in Herod’s prison and will be killed tomorrow.
Pullease, Lord, pullease!
Peter is still outside the door, getting more nervous by the minute. Who will
spot him? Has his escape been discovered? Are Herod’s soldiers already in
search of him?
back at the prayer meeting inside: Rhoda is insisting that it is indeed Peter
at the door. They argue, “It’s not Peter but Peter’s angel you see!”
Then they go back to praying, “Pullease, Lord, help brother Peter . . . .”
still outside. He probably muttered: It’s easier to get out of Herod’s
prison than into a house of people praying for me. He kept knocking.
they got off their knees and followed Rhoda to the door. When Rhoda opened it
they were amazed. Some gasped, some squealed, some whispered, “Praise
said, “Shussh! Be quiet.” and then described to them what had happened.
“Tell this to James and the other believers.” Then he left.
story tells us several things. One of them is: God
can open prison doors.
Some prisons are made of brick and iron. How many times was Martin
Luther King, Jr. in jail? How many years was Nelson Mandela in prison.
we are our own prisons. God opens prison doors we’ve constructed for
Campbell once preached a sermon called “Locked in a Room with Open Doors.”
It told of two brothers, one of whom had a terrible fear of open doors. His
brother taunted him one day and said, “One day I will lock you up in a room
with open doors.”
we are locked in a room with open doors, and we need an angel of some kind to
come, shove us in the ribs, and say, “Get up. Let’s get out of here.”
story also tells of the comic disbelief of the church. They are like the
Keystone Kops at prayer. They are praying for Peter and they can’t believe
he’s at the door.
good news here is that we don’t have to pray perfectly for God to hear our
prayers. It is that we don’t even have to pray “believing” as some make
a condition of true prayer. Pray as you can, any way you can.
I talk to you for a moment about intercessory prayer? This is a hard one
intellectually and emotionally. We’ve all been bruised by life, and by
unanswered prayers. We’ve all had our hard questions about why God would
intervene in one instance and not another, and whether then God does in fact
make special intervention.
don’t have to have our theology of prayer figured out in order to pray.
Kathleen Norris says that when we pray we say, “I mean these words even if I
don’t know what I mean!” 1
church is called to prayer and to action: Ora
is how the medieval monks put it.
today are much more comfortable with action
than with prayer. But when the
church by-passes prayer on the way to action it tends to mimic the actions of
the world: fitful, violent, reflexive action. Prayer leaves us less vulnerable
to manic activity and compulsive action (Hurry, let’s do something), less
vulnerable to the impatience of violent action and the never-ending circle of
revenge. Prayer helps us to act out of the true self formed by God rather than
the false self shaped by the world.
have given up prayer because they’ve seen it used as a substitute
for action. So it has been. But may we consider today that prayer itself is a
kind of action, the strange power in weakness of the church who depends upon
God for its life.
cannot begin to penetrate the mystery of it all, but prayer lays hold of a
different kind of power.
Temple, the great Anglican theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, said that
he could never understand the effects of prayer but in his observation when he
prayed coincidences happened and when he didn’t, they didn’t happen!
African-American friend from Fort Worth, Frances Morrison, put it this way:
“When the church prays, something
Williams, today’s Archbishop of Canterbury, offers us this helpful image of
of intercession at its
something in the
As Dick Sheppard asked a friend: “Would you spend a bit of
time thinking of nothing but Jesus and me?”
is one way we are priests to one another and priests to the world. It is part
of our battle against what is wrong in the world. How do we think of Jesus and
the falling towers of 9/11, Jesus and the war in Iraq, Jesus and
a Palestinian suicide bombing, Jesus and that awful prison in Baghdad? Jesus and
the death of a child to leukemia? Jesus and
priest seeks to bring God to the world and the world to God. Rowan Williams
says that intercessory prayer is
. . . the
struggle not to let God and
fall apart from
because that is
of this prayer, the
that, in spite
appearances, God and the
Section Four, vv. 18-24
last scene I will tell quickly, but it is very important. It tells us: Evil
always overreaches and in that overreaching destroys itself. It
pretends to the throne of God. Tillich said that the demonic was anything
finite given the place of the infinite. Something can be good, but when taking
on the role of the infinite it becomes evil.
Revelation 13 people bow down before the Beast – which is a code word for
Rome – and says, “Who is like the Beast?” a perversion of the
Psalmist’s “Who is like Yahweh? Who can compare with Yahweh?!”
last section is as grisly as the morning newspaper. When Herod finds out about
Peter’s escape he has the guards killed. The guards do Herod’s dirty work,
and then they are the most expendable when something goes wrong, cannon fodder
in the economy of war.
we hear how Herod died. The people of Tyre and Sidon come asking for food. It
says that Herod is angry with Tyre and Sidon but we don’t know why. Perhaps
they opposed his imperial reach. Herod stands up to make a speech. The
representatives from Tyre and Sidon bow and scrape before him and say: “His
voice is like the voice of God!” Herod liked the sound of that, and its
equation: God = Herod; Herod=God. It is the temptation of every nation with
great power, the temptation of empire. We try to do what only God can do.
power is potentially corrupting and the greater the power the greater the
danger. It is the inclination of Caesar to say: I will remove all evil in the
world. (A Caesar always wants to define what is evil.) I will remake the world
in my image.
text says that because Herod took on the role of God and refused to give God
the glory, refused to bow beneath another, an angel of the Lord struck him
should interject, in the radical monotheism of ancient Judaism and
Christianity, to say it this way means no more than saying, “It
happened was that he “was eaten by worms and died.” Exact details are not
given, but that may already be more detail than we care to hear. I think the
“worms” part was put in to keep fifth-grade boys interested in the Bible.
here’s the truth of it all:
what we eat eats us, what we consume consumes us, what we ingest devours us.
Sometimes what we take on, because we deny our human limits, ends up doing us
text began with a vivid contrast: Herod laid violent hands upon the church . .
. But while Peter was in prison the church prayed fervently for him.
ends with another most vivid contrast: “Herod
was eaten by worms and died . . . . But the word of God grew and multiplied.”
Evil always overreaches and is destroyed in its overreaching. But the word of
God, the word of God, the word of God goes on forever. The word of God, the
word of God, the word of God marching on!
1. "Kathleen Norris," Poets and Writers Magazine,
25, no. 3 (May/June 1997): p. 71.
2. Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), p. 138.
3. Ibid., p. 139.
Return to Main Sermons Page