In the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an American academic argued that we had reached the end of history. Communism had been defeated and liberal democracy and the free market had triumphed. All the big battles had been fought and the western way had won.
It’s hard now to believe in a post-9/11 world that anyone should have been so audacious has to think for a moment that the world had finally “made it”. The world of today seems in many ways far more dangerous than that of the days of the so called Cold War. In fairness to Fukuyama, he has since modified his position.
And the developments of recent times have impacted upon the church. Perhaps we had forgotten that governments in the communist bloc systematically persecuted the church. Torture and show trials were not unusual and having a meeting broken up by secret police officers and the leader arrested was a threat that went with the territory of praying or worshipping together.
Persecution has revisited the church, especially in the Middle East, with a vengeance. Not of course that it ever went away, it’s simply that it has come into focus again partly because of its connection to the so-called war on terror.
Persecution was part and parcel of following Jesus for Christians in the first century. Their rights were limited. If you were a Roman citizen like Paul, you had a trump card that you could play in some situations. Even so, the political weight of the early church did not count for much. So it’s main weapon was prayer – which counted for everything.
Acts 12 gives us some insight into the prayer life of a church under pressure.
James had been arrested and executed by Herod. Herod then arrested Peter and planned to have him executed. So the church turned to prayer. We are not told how intense their prayer had been when James was arrested. When Peter was arrested, however, we are told that the church prayed earnestly (v.5). The NIV translates earnestly as constant. Ongoing, relentless prayer.
The outcome was that the constant prayer produced a sudden answer (v.7). Peter is asleep and an angel appears to him. And before he knows it he is out of prison. He goes to Mary’s house and no-one seems able to believe that their prayers have been answered so dramatically.
On one level the constant prayer has been effective. The church received the answer for which it prayed. However, the chapter goes on to record that sometime later Herod met his end after accepting the kind of honour that belonged only to God. It’s hard believe that somehow through this whole event God has drawn an era to a close. Herod is gone.
Right at the end of the chapter, we are told that Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch after they had finished their mission to Jerusalem (v.25). This is the Saul who eventually became known as Paul. In a letter to the church at Thessalonica he wrote: “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5.17NIV) and to the church at Colosse: “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Colossians 4.2, NIV).
For Paul, constant prayer became more than a response to a crisis; it was a strategy for advancing the kingdom, a whole way of life for the church. Where did he get the idea? We know ultimately it was from the Holy Spirit. But was the seed sown during this visit to the Jerusalem church? Perhaps. If not, the importance of continual prayer must have been reinforced by Peter’s miraculous jail break.
Prison doors opened. An era of tyranny brought to an end. An apostle who would one day plant churches in the heart of the pagan world and impress on them the importance of continual prayer. And all because the church prayer constantly.
People say “Stuff happens”. Constant prayer makes stuff happen.