Whenever there’s trouble, the faithful gather and pray. Some pray aloud, some pray silently. Some pray boldly, and some a little tentatively, not wanting to seem presumptuous.
But they pray.
Will they know when or if their prayer has been answered? Do they expect it to be answered?
As we’ve seen, Peter had been arrested and imprisoned by Herod Agrippa. He may have languished in his cell for the whole of the Passover festival. Then suddenly, the night before he was to be publicly tried, an angel was sent to free him. Peter and the angel waltzed right past armed Roman soldiers, until at last, he found himself standing alone in the night air.
Given the situation, though, it wasn’t safe for Peter to be out on the streets of Jerusalem. He therefore went to one of the Jerusalem house churches, perhaps the one where he himself had been involved. The house was owned by Mary, the mother of John Mark (his Jewish and Roman names, respectively), a disciple who will have a later role to play in Luke’s story and who was probably well known to Luke’s readers. Mary, likely a widow, had a home spacious enough to hold a gathering of believers — and to have an outer, gated entrance.
The scene that follows is even more humorous than the one before. The believers were inside Mary’s house, praying for Peter, praying for…what? They probably remembered the events of Acts 4, in which Peter and John were released unharmed. But that had happened overnight, and this time, Peter may have been in the pokey for as long as a week. Were they still hopeful that he would be let go?
Peter came to the outer gate and knocked — quietly, I imagine, perhaps a bit furtively. A servant girl named Rhoda came to the gate. “Who is it?” she asked, wondering who could be knocking at that hour. “It’s me, Peter,” came the whispered answer.
Rhoda got so excited that she ran back into the house with the news.
She forgot to open the gate.
Inside the house, Rhoda interrupted the prayer meeting: “It’s Peter! He’s here!” Cue the triumphant music, the high fives and the hallelujahs, as someone chided her for not letting Peter in and ran to the gate.
Nope. Instead, the group got up off their knees, looked at her crossways, and says, “Girl, you be trippin’.”
That’s the polite version.
But Rhoda would not be deterred. She insisted she wasn’t imagining things. It was Peter. Period. Seeing her determination, the group finally gave in; then there were high fives and hallelujahs all around.
“It must be his angel,” they said. Scholars and translators differ as to whether they meant his guardian angel (who had to have sounded a lot like Peter, to Rhoda, at least), or a visitation from his spirit, in which case Peter was presumed dead. The latter seems more likely.
And this from the people who were praying for him.
Meanwhile, back at the gate…
I imagine Rhoda dragging them outside, where they can hear the knocking for themselves. They open the gate, and there he is, Peter, in the flesh. They are astounded (and Rhoda is thinking the Aramaic equivalent of “I told you so”).
Now the high fives and hallelujahs? Probably.
And Peter shushes them.
Quietly, he tells them what happened. He instructs them to pass the news on to James, the brother of Jesus (who by this point probably had assumed leadership of the Jerusalem church), and to “the brothers,” probably meaning the other apostles.
Then Peter slunk away into the dark, to go into hiding. To this day, no one knows where he went.
Luke doesn’t seem to tell the story as an indictment against the believers’ faith, anymore than he means us to scoff at Peter for thinking he was dreaming as the angel led him to freedom. This is simply the church as it is in real life, not as we idealize it. We pray as an act of faith, partly believing, partly not, and not always knowing for what we should pray in the first place.
James, the son of Zebedee, after all, had been arrested and executed. No doubt the believers prayed for him as well. They could be forgiven for expecting that Peter would share his fate.
Luke’s story, once again, makes God the Prime Mover of the action, while the believers just try to keep up. It’s not an either-or; we’re not either faithful or faithless. We reach out with what faith we have, with what limited vision we possess. It’s always been that way, even when we kid ourselves otherwise. It always will be, this side of Jesus’ return.
Hopefully, though, we get better at seeing what’s there, one miracle at a time.