Different Outcomes

By Ed Little

A Reading from Acts 12:1-17

1 About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 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. 5 While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

6 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. 7 Suddenly 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. 8 The 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.” 9 Peter 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. 10 After 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. 11 Then 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.”

12 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 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. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” 16 Meanwhile Peter continued knocking, and when they opened the gate they saw him and were amazed. 17 He motioned to them with his hand to be silent and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the brothers and sisters.” Then he left and went to another place.


As the Church broke down barriers in Antioch and preached the gospel to Gentiles, trouble erupted back in Jerusalem. “King Herod … had James, the brother of John killed with the sword,” and thus died the first of the Twelve. But Herod wasn’t satisfied; “he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” Would Peter share James’s fate — and Jesus’? Was this the persecution that would, finally, bring this Messianic movement to an end?

The Christians in Jerusalem did the one thing left to them: they prayed. Luke doesn’t tell us the content of the church’s prayer, but we can imagine that it was some version of Psalm 55:7: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” Lord, give Peter wings! And, wondrously, God answers their plea. An angel shatters Peter’s chains and deposits him in the street. When Peter suddenly realizes that he hasn’t been dreaming, he makes his way to the house of Mary, where the gathered church receives him first with incredulity and then with utter joy.

But what about James? After all, two Christian leaders experience persecution in this story. One survives, the other doesn’t. Both, we must assume, were the objects of fervent prayer. Perhaps, in juxtaposing the stories of James and Peter, Luke is reminding us that discipleship involves faithfulness, whatever the outcome. Heartfelt prayer does not always yield the result we desire, but it draws us into the heart of God’s purposes. Our model is Jesus himself. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” So earnest was his prayer that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:41-42). The Father’s answer: the cross.  Our call, like Jesus’ and Peter’s and James’s, is to say yes.

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).

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