About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”
As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. When he knocked at the outer gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. On recognizing Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the gate, she ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, “It is his angel.” Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed. He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, “Tell this to James and to the believers.” Then he left and went to another place.
What About James?
Preached on the 50th Anniversary the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, AL.
To me, preaching is not about maintaining our comfort level, maintaining our religion, maintaining the status quo, or being timid. Preaching is about coming into contact with the reality of God, a reality that challenges, convicts and restores us.
1) This text could’ve allowed me to preach on godly collaboration and how we need more collaboration at the individual, collective, and theological level. I could have underscored how the church prayed, how the angel of the Lord intervened, and how Peter followed directions and escaped, which shows that the movement of God in this world requires us to participate at an individual and collective level. But I’m not going to talk about that.
2) I could have preached from the observation that Peter thought he was having a vision and was not actually being delivered. I could have turned the tables on conventional wisdom, and helped us see that it was not such a bad thing that Peter had a vision of escape and that, in itself, nothing was wrong with dreaming about escape. Because a vision is necessary for escape. A lack of vision is a lack of hope. I could have stressed the importance of resisting the temptation of saying “it is what it is” and preached about holding on to the vision that things can change. I could have linked that up with the verse “My people perish for a lack of vision.” But I’m not going to preach about that.
3) I could have spent 20 to 25 minutes preaching a sermon that talked about the comical and tragic moment of Rhoda and the gang being flabbergasted at the answering of their prayer, even though they prayed for Peter and had seen the power of God evidenced in their lives over and over. I could have posed the question, “how many acts of God do we need in order to believe?” But God didn’t give me that sermon to preach,
4) I could have prepared a teaching sermon on the dangerous use of the term “the Jews.” My sermon could have been about how the New Testament sometimes makes you forget that Peter and Paul were clearly Jewish, and that not all Jews were out to get Christians because the first converts were JEWISH. Jesus was JEWISH. I would have told you about the painful, violent, and contentious issues between Judaism and Christianity. I could have preached about the pressing problem that pervades America these days. Feeling like you need an enemy in order to maintain your identity. In other words, we could have explored the biting question, “why do I need to hate you, in order to feel good about myself?”
5) I could have preached a sermon detailing that no power can succeed against the plans of God. I could have ended with a flourish that in this life, you can be sure that God will successfully deliver you from each and every situation that seems bad, but I can’t. Because that flourish, no matter how fervently and melodically I deliver it, would be a lie. I can’t preach that sermon. Because of the sermon God gave me to preach today. I can’t preach that sermon, because of one question.
What about James?
What about James? This question is not an attempt to be negative or throw cold water on Christianity or this worship service. This question is not offered to derail the goodness of God by asking why James was killed yet Peter was saved. This story has stayed with me. And as I think about the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, in my home state of Alabama. When I think about how Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and murdered in a café by Alabama State Troopers… When I think about how Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian pastor from Boston was murdered by angry white men… I have to ask the question… What about James?
This question is not given to make us feel hopeless. On the contrary, unless the church, unless the Christian remembers James, unless we ask the question, “What about James?” our faith is suspect, and our humanity is on the ropes. This question, I contend, makes our faith, hope, and love STRONGER, not WEAKER.
I’ve stopped by to tell you that ignoring this tidbit about James’ execution has weakened, even killed a portion of the gospel. Reading Peter’s escape without James is like beans without cornbread, Kool Aid without sugar, life without collard greens, hot sauce, or sweet potato pie. Something is just missing. Focusing on Peter at the expense of James turns God into a magician. Pushing James aside makes salvation become a formula and not a process. Leaving James out of the picture makes all Christian responses to the challenges of our time unconvincing and hopeless. Dismissing that question turns Christianity in a self-help book. Quieting James makes living the American Dream synonymous with being a blessed and highly favored Christian. When we forget about James, we cannot understand Bloody Sunday. When someone asks us “what about James?” and we point to Peter, Lord have mercy upon us.
What about James?
©2015 M. J. Sales