“While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him” (NRSV, Acts 12:5)
The New Testament reading for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul is the account in the Acts of the Apostles of St Peter’s miraculous release from the dungeon into which King Herod Agrippa had had him flung. The incident itself has also its own feast day, that of St Peter’s Chains on 01 August. A number of Anglican churches are dedicated to St Peter ad Vincula – St Peter in Chains.
The Apostle James, the brother of John, had already been beheaded and now St Peter’s turn had come. He was lying in prison in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish world, manacled to two soldiers, with two more outside the cell door – well-guarded indeed, for his execution was fixed for the following morning.
But “the church prayed fervently to God for him” and, in speedy answer to that stream of prayer, God’s holy angel released him from his chains and escorted him out of the prison into the city street. After calling briefly at the house where the Christians were holding vigil for him, he left Jerusalem and by dawn was well on his way to safety.
Thus did the will of God triumph over the will and power of King Herod, and Peter’s life was saved. But saved for what? For 20 years of strenuous and dangerous missionary and pastoral work, which reached its culmination in the first persecution of the Church by the Emperor Nero. You know the legend, how St Peter had escaped from the city of Rome and again was on his way to safety. He met Our Lord on the road. “Quo vardis, Domine?” he asked – “Where are you going?” And the Lord answered, “I am going to Rome, to be crucified a second time”. And Peter knew then that the time of his martyrdom had come, and the saying of his Risen Master by the Lake of Galilee, all those years before, was now about to be fulfilled, ”…when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (NRSV, John 21:18). So St Peter was crucified, traditionally on the same day that his fellow Apostle St Paul was beheaded.
That was God’s will for him and God’s answer to the fervent prayer of the Church, that he should not be put to death with St James in the capital of the Jewish world by the puppet King Herod Agrippa, but rather that he should be martyred with St Paul in the capital of the whole world by the Emperor Nero.
And looking back we can see why that was. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church (1), and of no one was that more true than of St Peter, the leader of the Apostles, the close disciple of his Lord, chosen to witness the Transfiguration and the Agony in Gethsemane, Peter who played so prominent a part on Good Friday, who denied his Master, who witnessed the Empty Tomb and, alone of the Apostles, met his Risen Lord in private by himself; who was restored by the Lake of Galilee and there entrusted with the pastoral oversight of the Lord’s flock; and who, on the Day of Pentecost, stood out as the leader of the Church.
Yes, the martyrdom of St Peter in the great city of Rome, the centre of civilisation for hundreds of years to come, was an act of witness which not only guaranteed the honesty and integrity of the Apostles – and therefore of the truth of the Gospel which he preached – but also was a shining inspiration for many a generation of Christians afterwards in the fires of the great persecutions through which the Church had to pass.
Those Christians in Jerusalem 20 years before did not and could not foresee the full answer to their prayer. They asked for what they believed was in accordance with God’s will and Peter was indeed released, but not for his own sake – rather for the sake of the Lord and of his worldwide Church which he built on the foundation of Peter the Rock.
Thus this incident of St Peter’s Chains illustrates the true purpose of prayer and the true purpose of life: in the one we seek God’s will and in the other we do God’s will. So the prayer, “Thy will be done” is not a sigh of passive resignation. Far from it. It is a request – positive, active, purposeful. It means in general, “thy will be done” in the world at large and in the Church; and in particular “thy will be done” for me (in the providential ordering of my life); in me (within my heart); and by me (in the service of God and of my fellow human beings).
For some, such as those engaged in the Church’s Ministry, that two-fold service of God and of one’s fellows for the most part runs along the same road without any sharp line of demarcation. For the majority, however, while it runs on the same road it is distributed between two adjoining lanes. In the one we live and work in the world, not as children of the world but as God’s children, and as such we are charged by Our Lord to let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify, not us, but our Father who is in Heaven (Matthew 5:16).
St Peter himself, writing from Rome to the Christians in Asia Minor a year or so before his martyrdom, made the same point. The Christians were living in a pagan world and he urged them to see to it that their way of life was exemplary. “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles,” he told them, “so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (Catholic edition RSV, 1 Peter 2:12).
But alongside our life in the world goes our life in the Kingdom of God; and there in particular the prayer, “Thy will be done” is a prayer that God will use us to advance his Kingdom, his Sovereign Rule, in our own generation. And that means doing our part in bearing true witness to the Gospel, the Faith, and the Church as they have come down to us through the Apostles from Our Lord himself.
So we move into the future, relying on the Lord’s guidance and support as we pray to him in the words of Psalm 5: Lead us, Lord, in thy righteousness: make thy way plain before our face.
1. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 230 AD) Apologetic Chap L. Available from:
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.iii.l.html (Accessed 27 June 2011) (Internet).