Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8.17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
King Herod discovered two thousand years ago what so many today are discovering – that persecuting the Church is a crowd-pleaser. At least it pleases the crowds of those opposed to the Church. So Herod beheaded James and decided to arrest Peter. He had him put in jail under heavy guard and intended to try him in public.
Well, that seems straightforward enough. We know that the history of the Church is replete with similar stories of tyrants who performed similar outrages on similarly innocent Christians. Even today these outrages are being committed and it is even said that the number of Christians giving their lives for Christ today is greater than at any other time in our history.
So what is special about the incident described in the first reading today?
Firstly it involves Peter and therefore it involves the whole Church. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia – Where there is Peter, there is the Church. Herod had imprisoned a man, but not just any man. Herod had, in a sense, imprisoned the Church and so this simple matter of a Christian imprisoned and awaiting trial takes on a much larger dimension. Of course, Herod would not have been aware of this but we are.
Secondly, all this took place we are told ‘during the days of Unleavened Bread’ which means during the time of Passover and immediately this confrontation is plunged into and identified with the painful remembrance of the Passion of the Lord himself. Not only is Peter, the Vicar of Christ, being taken where he ‘would rather not go’ but the whole Church is being dragged through the purifying and life-giving Passion she must daily share with the Master.
Herod is very good at what he does and Luke leaves us in no doubt about this. He shows us with carefully selected details how, humanly speaking, the situation was entirely hopeless for Peter and, by implication, for the Church.
Herod assigns four squads of four soldiers to guard Peter in turn. That means that at any one time there are at least two soldiers with him and probably two standing guard at the main gate of the prison.
It was night (the time for the triumph of evil) and Peter was sleeping between two soldiers. The fact that he was sleeping was not just an image of Peter’s helplessness but also of his deep, childlike trust in God. The fact that he was sleeping between two soldiers is also significant because soldiers, or police, is the one thing the Church does not have. She is always, in every age, at the mercy of worldly power, and seeks to triumph solely through the truth of her message and her abiding trust in the help of her Lord.
Peter was fastened with double chains, probably to a ring in the ground and then to each of the soldiers. At the main gate of the prison stood more guards. As I’ve said, Herod is very good at what he does and things could not look any worse for Peter (and the Church).
But I’ve failed to mention something; something of decisive importance; something that is going to make all the difference. Can you guess what it is?
It is the Church’s secret weapon which she has been activating all this time, more powerful than Herod, more powerful than anything possessed by the rulers of this world: All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed to God for him unremittingly.
Our prayer and the Lord’s power make an unbeatable combination.
Suddenly, the dark cell in which Peter lay chained became filled with light. The jingling and clanking of chains falling to the ground and the screech of iron doors opening by themselves became the music of freedom as the angel told Peter to get up, get dressed – ‘Hurry’ – and ‘follow me’. What a moment!
Peter followed but had no idea what was happening. This was not some superhero making a bold escape from an impossible situation; this was the fisherman Peter, called by Christ to feed his flock the Church, being led by God into freedom, light, and life. It was the realisation of God’s promise to be with his Church always so that the gates of hell might not prevail against it.
For us, for you and for me, the lesson is absolutely clear. No matter the strength of the chains which bind us, no matter how dark the cell in which we find ourselves imprisoned, no matter how loud and certain the voices predicting our doom – our call is simply, like children, to go on trusting that ultimately God will restore us to eternal freedom, light and life.