Saturday, 19 October 2013

Acts 12 - The Spirit of Encouragement

I have an apology to make.  Last time I preached on this chapter I got it wrong.  I fell into a trap of imagining that the Herod mentioned at the start of Acts 12 was the Herod who had put Jesus on trial.  Actually it’s a different Herod.

And the story of that other Herod makes this passage even more powerful, hard on the heels of the support we have been giving to Middle East Concern ant their work in supporting persecuted Christians throughout the Middle East.

Herod the Great’s reign came to an end shortly after the birth of Christ.  He divided his kingdom into four parts – his son Philip ruled over the part of the kingdom to the North East of Galilee – and built the city of Caesara Philippi.

Herod Antipas ruled over the Galilee itself and built the city of Tiberias.  It was Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist executed and went on to be instrumental in having Jesus crucified.

A third son took charge of Judea and Samaria, Archelaus.  He didn’t have what it takes to rule and the Romans deposed him while Jesus was still a small child.  They put in his place a procurator who by the time of the death of Jesus was Pontius Pilate.

Philip died shortly after Jesus – and the territory he had ruled over was simply put under the rule of Syria.

At the time of the birth of Jesus the Emperor had been Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.  By the time the ministry of Jesus began Tiberius was emperor.  Four or five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Caligula became Emperor in AD 37.

From the time of Herod the Great the Herodian dynasty spent a lot of time in Rome.  One of Herod the Great’s Grandsons became particularly close to Caligula.  His name was Agrippa.

As soon as Caligula became Emperor he rewarded Agrippa for his friendship.  He transferred Philip’s tetrarchy from Syria back to the Herodian dynasty, to Agrippa.   A couple of years later Caligula fell out with Herod Antipas, had him deposed and he placed Agrippa in charge of the Galilee as well.

Now it was that Caligula decided he wanted to bring the Jewish people to heel.  And so he commanded that an image of himself as son of God be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Petronius, the Syrian Governor, was commanded to carry out the deed.  But when he got to Jerusalem he realised that such a step would provoke a revolution among the Jews.

Agrippa was the one who succeeded in dissuading him.

That was in part thanks in part to Agrippa’s diplomacy but more to the fact that Caligula was murdered.  It wasn’t long before the new Emperor, Claudius, recognised Agrippa’s wiles and so it was that Claudius decided to detach Judea and Samaria from direct Roman rule and place it under the control of Agrippa.

This made Herod Agrippa king over a Jewish kingdom almost as big as his grandfather’s Herod the Great.  He gained the favour of the powers that be in the Jeewish world.  Like his grandfather he played both sides off against each other.  In Jerusalem he was very Jewish, elsewhere he was very Roman.

John the Baptist had been a prophetic voice in the wilderness crying out against the powers that be,  Jesus had taken on the mantle of John the Baptists and done the same – and now his followers likewise were standing out against the Herodian dynasty.

And Agrippa did not like it any more than Herod Antipas had done or his grandfather had done.

So it was as Acts 12 opens he laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.  He had James the brother of John killed with the sword.

And then he determined to mark the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus by arresting Petter during the festival of unleavened bread, just at the time of the Passover.

When he had seized him he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers go guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.

It was quite clear that what he planned to do was exactly what had happened to Jeus.

He would hand him over to the crowd and have Peter put to death as well.

 Then comes that scene we read earlier.

 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. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. 8The angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ 9Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’

The we catch a glimpse of something that goes right to the heart of what church is about.

As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. 13

This really resonates with me as I come to this passage hard on the heels of our focus on Middle East Concern.

One of the things our friend from ME Concern was sharing with us was the sheer importance of the solidarity of prayer.  People facing immensely difficult times that he meets value among many other things that sense of not being alone but of people praying not just for them, but praying with them.

IT resonates for me as well today as we welcome Lorraine and Diana as Pastoral Ministry Leaders.

Prayer underpins all we do as a church, and nowhere is that more apparent than in pastoral care.

It is only possible to sustain the work of pastoral ministry that I share in, that we are asking Lorraine and Diana to share in, that our wonderful team of pastoral visitors are engaged in through prayer.  How important it is that we uphold one another in prayer.  How good that we avail ourselves of that prayer chain that Lorraine co-ordinates.

We pray for people, but we also pray with people.  And that gives us a very real sense of being part of this wonderful people of God.

There is a breathless excitement as this story unfolds.

When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. 14On 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. 15They said to her, ‘You are out of your mind!’ But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ 16Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. 17He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison.

It was something Peter could not keep to himself.  It was something to share.  It was another James he wanted to share with.  The James who was the brother of Jesus, the one who later was to write that remarkable letter that bears his name.

And he added, ‘Tell this to James and to the believers.’ Then he left and went to another place.

There is a cruel streak in Agrippa that Luke in telling the story of Acts draws out attention to.  These people were up against a pretty awful time as they supported each other in prayer.

18 When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

Caesarea was that port city that was the seat of Roman government.

Josephus tells us of the death of Agrippa 1 within a couple of years.

Luke’s account implies grandiose ideas that had got the better of Agrippa 1.

He ruled with menace in that region.

And he began to think of himself as others of the Herodian dynasty had done as like the Roman Emperor, a son of God.

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’

Luke sees him as getting his just deserts for his abandonment of the things of God.

23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

Then comes one of those marker verses Luke likes to add into his story, telling us how the church was going from strength to strength.

After the unsavoury account of Agrippa 1’s death, it’s good especially when we are thinking today of Pastoral ministry to finish on this note.

But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. 25Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.

Our prayer for the life of our church here at Highbury as we take on a new framework and commission our Pastoral Ministry Leaders is that the word of God may continue to advance and gain adeherents here in this place at Highbury.

And we pick up the story of Saul as with Barnabas he returns to Jerusalem and brings John, whose other name was Mark.

Why finish there.  Because it’s with a good sense of partnership.  And a lovely sense of Barnabas – the son of encouragement, who was a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

That spirit of encouragement, those are the qualities that we see and we seek in those we call to share in ministry with us today as Pastoral Ministry Leaders.

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