Revd Dr Jeff Lake

A miraculous invitation

Written by
The Revd Dr Jeff Lake
Associate Priest of St Bride's
Sunday 30th July, 2023

Reading: Acts 12: 1-17

Listen to Sermon

On Tuesday I’m planning to visit the Prison Chaplaincy Service at Wormwood Scrubs which has come about after meeting an Imam who is part of the team there at a work event. I can’t previously recall an appointment that I’ve looked forward to but also dreaded in such equal measure. I really don’t know what to expect, the prospect feels a bit unreal.

Well, the passage from the Acts of the Apostles that we’ve just heard tells of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison as he awaited his execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa. The account has something of dream like filmic quality about it. We are told that Peter thought this incident to be a dream before he came to himself outside the iron gate and hurried to meet his brothers and sisters.

Barton and Muddiman in their biblical commentary suggest that this is one of the most sensational episodes in the book of Acts. The timing is precise they note. Despite his perilous, and doubtless uncomfortable position, Peter is sleeping peacefully between his guards. The sudden appearance of the Angel is reminiscent of Christ’s nativity and scholars suggest that the style of the writing recalls passages in ancient literature of marvellous portents or escapes. What are we to make of it?

It’s helpful to recognise I think that the gospels teaching about the purpose of miracles is paradoxical. In his book ‘The meaning of miracles’, Jeffrey John, former Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral explains this very well. At first sight, miracles seem to be intended as straightforward demonstrations of Jesus’ divine power and evidence of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. At the same time though the gospels contain strong warnings about the dangers of being impressed by signs and miracles. As the story of his temptation suggests, Jesus refused to use his powers to further his own ends.

There is a particular theology, or understanding of the nature of divine revelation, that it’s helpful to recognise here, namely that faith is a gift from God and challengingly, God may choose to withhold that gift. Our receptivity though is important. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to the crowds ‘you people will listen and listen, but you will not understand. You will look and look, but you will not really see’. He suggests to us the minds of these people are closed. They have ears, but they don’t listen. They have eyes, but they refuse to see. If their minds were not closed, he says, they might see with their eyes; they might hear with their ears; they might understand with their minds. Then they might turn back to me and be healed.

Jeffrey John suggests that there is a paradox about miracles that corresponds to the paradox of the suffering, dying Messiah. Those around Jesus must understand not only his identity as Messiah but also the true nature of his messiahship. Their commitment to him must not come from the attraction of power, or if it does at first, it must soon change to a deeper commitment, and they must ultimately be prepared to follow in the same way of sacrifice, to take up their cross and follow him. A personal belief in Jesus that goes deeper than self-interest and the mere worship of power is at least part of what the Gospels mean by ‘faith’. It is for lack of this kind of faith, or of the potential for it, that Jesus sometimes refuses to do miracles such as in his own hometown or for Herod. It is the evidence of such faith, often in the most unlikely characters (the centurion, the haemorrhaging woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the Samaritan leper) that seems to compel Jesus to perform a miracle even when his instincts as a loyal Jew make him initially reluctant. Faith, understood as openness to a relationship to God in Christ, is what makes the miracle ‘safe’ for the recipient, and not an idolatrous ‘wonder’.

John reminds us that whilst discussion of miracles is often trapped in consideration of whether they are literal accounts of actual events or not, their significance lies instead in the implications for our lives. This points to work that each one of us needs to undertake to prayerfully reflect on the scripture. What then of this particular miracle, of Peter’s release from prison? It surely includes the understanding that the way of Christ can provide us a release from the things that bind us. We may hear examples of this at work in our prison chaplaincy services, of lives turned around. Jonathon Aiken, formerly a member of John Major’s cabinet, went to prison for perjury before later becoming an Anglican minister. Speaking of his experience he says – “I discovered, as monks have discovered down the centuries, that cells are a wonderful place to pray. I was blessed by never feeling claustrophobic. I was in a tiny space, the cell is. But … it was a wall of space, rather than just a kind of cubicle with bars. And in that privacy, and in that stillness, I did feel close to God in prayer. I had never had so much leisure that I can remember, hours and hours of time, so I structured a certain prayer discipline. I kept morning, and evening, and midday prayer. I slipped into that so easily”. There it seems he turned his life around. We each have psychological prisons of course and whatever they may be, Christ provides release.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Whatever it is that we find keeps us individually and collectively from the glorious liberty of the children of God let us look to prayer for ourselves and one another in the knowledge of Christ’s promise of release.

To him be all glory, how and to the ages of ages. Amen.

congregation sitting for service


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