Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 15, 2022. Scripture: Acts 12:1-19
For those who attend mainline churches (and the Roman Catholic Church) and count on attendance at Sunday worship to make their way through the Bible, the focus scripture for this message will be unfamiliar. The twelfth chapter of Acts is not ever read in worship services at churches, like “mainline” Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, that use the three-year cycle of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary—because it has been completely left out.
It’s a difficult passage, to be sure, including the execution of one of the twelve disciples/apostles, James, and the imprisonment of another, Peter, who then escapes from prison with the aid of a heavenly being.
You might wonder, then, how this passage fits into a series on women in the early church. How can an executed apostle and then a jailed one have much of anything to do with women in the early church? If you went looking at commentaries, you would probably remain confused, since most commentaries seem to focus exclusively on what happened to James and to Peter in the passage. In fact, commentaries seem to title this section of Acts with headings like, “Persecution of the Church by Herod Agrippa I—the Martyrdom of James and Miraculous Delivery of Peter.”
Such headings leave the impression that there are no women at all in the passage, or certainly, no women worthy of attention.
And, yet. This story, so conveniently left out of the lectionary, containing the troubling stories of the execution of James and the imprisonment of Peter (and his amazing escape), also manages to convey an important story when it comes to women in the early church.
Let’s begin with a little background and context.
The reality of the early church has very little to do with the church that we know so well, especially in the United States, in the twenty-first century. Our experience as Christians is dramatically and significantly different than those who were a part of the beginnings of what would become known as the Christian Church. It’s important to absorb an awareness of how different our experience is as followers in the Church than what it was at the beginning.
Acts 12 offers a little window into just how difficult it could be to be a follower of Christ in the first century, just how precarious it was to live one’s life in the midst of the new faith. At the same time, though, the remarkable courage and commitment of those very early followers offered a compelling witness for many. And through that witness, all sorts of people came to join this new group, despite the very serious issues and dangers that were associated with the new faith.
This short passage from Acts 12 reminds us just how violent the authorities could be in trying to derail the new movement, in trying to quell any enthusiasm for this new thing. James was put to death, “by the sword,” the passage reports. That means that he was most likely beheaded. And, Peter was thrown into prison (but set loose miraculously, presumably by an angel).
What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with women and women in the early church? After the terrible news of what happened to James and then the amazing tale of Peter’s experience, the story continues with remarkable details regarding two specific women in the early church. What happened when Peter found himself sprung from prison? Where did he go?
He went someplace he knew he would be safe. He didn’t head for the closest church building, the building on the street corner with the tall steeple, because there weren’t any of those. He didn’t head to the nearest large sanctuary, with enormous pillars and a commanding organ. Such things didn’t exist.
Instead, he headed for the safest close place he could think of: the home of Mary, the mother of John. He went to the home of a woman. Her name was Mary and she was known as the mother of John.
That this home is labeled as a home belonging to a woman is significant. And, an extra bonus is that there’s not only a maid, but one who is named—Rhoda.
Women were a critical part of the early church, in a variety of ways. One of those points of significance was the offering of their homes for the gathering of those who were part of the movement. There were no church buildings, at least not as we know them. There were homes and part of being in the midst of the network of believers and followers, was knowledge regarding who could be trusted and whose homes were available for those who had come to believe in Christ.
Clearly Mary, mother of John, could be trusted. Clearly her house and her household were very much a part of the organizing and worshiping of those early believers, including a certain maid who was so completely overwhelmed at the sound of the voice of the man everyone believed to be in prison (and who was very likely next to be executed after James), that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate, running off to share the news first before letting him in.
That this detail is included in the story, this moment of so much joy for the maid named Rhoda that she left Peter on the other side of the locked gate in order to announce the unbelievable news that Peter was no longer in prison probably means that this little story was shared often and freely, among those who witnessed the event as well as those who didn’t.
Remember that Acts was written many years after this event occurred. But, this captivating and enchanting detail remained, suggesting an authenticity to the story. Can’t you hear it? “Hey remember that time when Peter miraculously escaped from prison and Rhoda was so overjoyed that she forgot to unlock the gate and let him in? Remember that?”
Women were important, significant, crucial, critical, for the life of, well-being of, and the flourishing of the early church, especially in the midst of persecution, which, at times, became violent unto death. Women were there, not simply recipients of the grace of Jesus, but trusted leaders in this new movement.
The challenge for those of us who are part of this movement so many years later is to find ways of sharing the stories of these women of the New Testament. How will we honor the joy of Rhoda? How will we endeavor to live with the courage of Mary, mother of John?
How will we not only honor and recognize the lives of these women, but seek be about the same sort of holy work, of sharing love and hope, hospitality and generosity, trusting in and lifting up the leadership of women?