Am I awake? Am I asleep? Could I be both?
I have sometimes found myself in that strange, shadowy realm that lies between dreaming and wakefulness. I can be dreaming but aware that I’m dreaming, as if watching myself sleep.
Or something happening in the real world can be incorporated into my dream. When I was a kid, my father was the one to wake me up for school each day. One morning, he did it a little differently. He had taken to squeezing a rubber ball to strengthen his grip for bowling. On a whim, he decided to wake me that day by bouncing the ball repeatedly off my leg as I lay sleeping. Eventually, I awoke — but not before dreaming that I was a baseball player who had just hit a single against the home team, running the baseline while being pelted with balls by booing fans.
If we’ve ever had an experience like that, we might forgive the apostle Peter for not being able to make out the line between being asleep and being awake.
Peter had been arrested by Herod Agrippa. The apostle James, the son of Zebedee, had already been executed. Peter was still alive because it was Passover; Agrippa was probably planning to have a show trial and execution as soon as the festival was over.
Most likely, Peter was being held in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem. He was shackled to a soldier on either side of him, with two more guarding the cell door from the outside. The squad of four would be replaced every three hours. Agrippa was taking no chances on such a valuable political prisoner.
He didn’t count on divine intervention.
Egotists in power seldom do.
The context is serious and tense, but Luke’s story is leavened with humor. Peter is fast asleep. Suddenly the cell blazes with light as an angel miraculously materializes. Peter snores on. The angel has to hit Peter in the side to wake him up. “Get up!” the angel commands. Peter does, and the shackles fall from his wrists.
“Put on your belt and sandals,” the angel tells him. Peter does so. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel says, as if trying to get a child out the door for school. Peter obeys.
But he thinks he’s dreaming.
They walk past the first guard without incident. Were the soldiers asleep? Awake, but terrified? Were Peter and the angel invisible? Luke doesn’t say.
Then they pass the second guard without trouble. Then they come to a large iron gate leading into the city — and it swings open of its own accord. Peter and the angel walk down the street a short distance, then — poof! — the angel disappears.
Then and only then does Peter realize that he’s not dreaming. “Now I’m certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod and from everything the Jewish people expected,” he says to himself (Acts 12:11, CEB), and he goes in search of his friends.
A story like this makes you wonder: how often do we sleepwalk through the Christian life? Externally, circumstances seem dire or even dangerous. But we might find ourselves smack dab in the midst of a miracle, if only we could see with waking eyes.