We find here James the Apostle martyred and Peter imprisoned. The “days of unleavened bread” reveal it to be at the time of Passover. And we see Peter imprisoned while the Church gathers together to offer constant prayer on his behalf. And a miraculous thing happens, Peter is freed from his chains. This serves as an amazing display of the power of the intercessory prayer of the Church. Could God have freed him otherwise? Of course He could have, but, we all know that everything that the Lord does is for a purpose. So when we consider that, consider for what purpose He allowed Peter to be imprisoned and left until these prayers were offered up, if not to display to all believers the importance, and the power, of our liturgical prayers offered up on behalf of another.
All too often, we undervalue the power of these liturgical prayers. And more importantly, we underestimate the power of these prayers to evoke miracles. We think of the outcome of our prayers in the same manner as we think of motivational speeches. We pray for someone to quit smoking and through the knowledge of the support offered, someone manages to do so. We pray for someone to find a job, and through encouragement build up their confidence to a point of where they are able to acquire gainful employment. And each of these are the purpose of fellowship, to edify and build one another up. But, that begs the question then, do we truly believe in truly miraculous answers to prayer? Or are we basically functional, close-knit atheists when it comes to the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit working in someone?
Consider this. The Church gathered together in constant vigil and liturgical prayer, praying for Peter’s safe deliverance from his imprisonment. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appears to Peter, freeing him from his chains and leading him safely out of the prison. The Scripture says that it was so miraculous that even Peter himself questioned it’s validity while it was happening, thinking it was a dream or a vision showing him how to escape. The works of the Lord are not always clear when we stand in the midst of them. I’m sure his mere arrest itself would have caused some of weaker faith to stumble. But the Church and Peter himself became even more resolute about their faith because of it happening. They increased the fortitude of their prayers, they increase their conviction. In the midst of the works happening, it’s often unclear why something is happening, but in hindsight, they become abundantly clear, especially those miraculous works which we are incapable of understanding.
When Peter has escaped and goes to the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, Scripture tells us that “many were gathered together praying.” Again, it’s this idea that prayer wasn’t an isolated event, it wasn’t an email list where everyone sort of finds time to fit a quick word or two into their schedules. Rather, it was a gathering together of many in the Church, leaving jobs and families and all else, to gather together in liturgical prayer. He knocks and a girl named Rhoda answers and, recognizing Peter’s voice, she goes and tells the others.
Now, imagine this situation in your own life. You and ten others have left everything and gathered together at one person’s house, praying together for the freedom of someone who is not merely in prison, but is scheduled to be executed the next day. After a few hours of constant vigil and prayer, someone says that the very person that you are praying for is at the door. See, it’s so easy for us to read this passage and immediately condemn them for their response. However, I feel as though so many of us would respond the same. “You are beside yourself,” they said to her. Basically, “you’re crazy, you’re imagining things, there’s no way he’s here.” So, here I pose a thought, is it disbelief which causes us to doubt that your prayers evoked an actual miracle? I believe that we evidence a lack of faith more by not believing in the power, or willingness, of God to perform these miracles, than we do for any sin that we commit. I heard once someone say that “the opposite of faith isn’t atheism, it’s doubt,” and I feel that statement to be inherently true. I think that we indict ourselves of disbelief when we distill the power of God down to what could easily be attributed to human ability. They questioned if it were truly Peter at the door; but at the same time, they took time away from every part of their life to pray for that exact miracle. We condemn them for the slightest amount of doubt, and yet defend ourselves for displaying even less faith than they. We condemn Peter for looking at the water upon which he was walking much more than we praise him for being willing to step out of the boat in the middle of the lake.
All too often, we look towards the weaknesses of others because they blind us to our own weaknesses. We look at this group of people who questioned whether such a miracle could be performed, and yet the majority of our generation would never even have gone to the prayer meeting. We condemn Peter for realizing that he was walking on water and sinking, but we would never have believed that Jesus would have made us to walk on the water to begin with. We condemn our co-worker for going to the bar and drinking, because it blinds us to our own faults; rather than being so focused on our own shortcomings that we are unable to see the sins of others. We call a child immature because they see a miracle in everything; while in our “maturity” we don’t believe that any miracle at all can happen. Perhaps that’s why Jesus admonishes us that “unless we become like little children we will never see the kingdom of heaven,” because we deny Christ every time we deny that He can and does perform miracles.
Hebrews tells us that Elijah was a man just like us, but through his great faith, he was able to call down fire from the sky. When did we determine that those miracles stopped? Or did we just stop believing that they could; did we lose the great faith that allowed them to happen? Did God really change, or did we? James tells us that when we pray, we must “ask in faith, with no doubting.” When we don’t believe that He can do what we ask, then He’ll never do it. The “prayers of a righteous man availeth much,” but the only righteousness that we can attain is through true faith in God. And if we don’t believe that He is able to do what we are praying for, then our prayer is not righteous, neither are we.
Jesus tells us that where two or three gather in His name, He is there. A group of believers can accomplish, through His grace, what is truly impossible. If it were possible, then it wouldn’t be a miracle.
Christ is in our midst!