A casual read of today’s text may find it to be a story about an act of persecution against Peter and God’s miraculous response. Yet a closer read may note there are actually two distinct acts of persecution recounted. The one is described rather abruptly and matter of fact. It ends in death. The other is detailed dramatically at length. It ends in rescue.
The one concerns James, disciple and brother of John. James suffered at the instigation of King Herod, related to the Herod who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth and to the later Herod who ordered the execution of John the Baptist. The Herod in this story had James arrested for following Jesus. It takes all of two sentences to tell the story of the arrest and its outcome. The outcome is not a miraculous rescue but beheading.
In contrast, the other story takes the vast majority of the passage. It covers in detail Peter’s arrest, the conditions of his incarceration, the liberating intervention by an angel, Peter’s exit from the prison, and his reception at the house of Mary the mother of John Mark. In the course of this telling is the observation that the church earnestly prayed for the imprisoned Peter. The outcome is not beheading but miraculous rescue.
Did not the church pray earnestly for James upon his arrest as was done for Peter? Undoubtedly the church did. Did not God care for James as he cared for Peter? Undoubtedly God did. Why then did James die and Peter live? Why did the story of James’s arrest and death take two sentences, and the story of Peter’s arrest and release take more than two dozen sentences?
I don’t know. Nothing in the text clues us in to reasons why James’s death was recorded one way and Peter’s rescue another. Yet the long narrative which is the book of Acts makes clear that God loves us. God cares for us, dwells in us, shapes and energizes us for faithfulness to Jesus, and bears us through death to life.
God’s love for us is miracle enough. This is the great miracle that grounds all the “little” miracles and even the “mundane” acts of God – in short, all the ways wherein God embraces us in Jesus’ life. And Jesus’ life overcomes all adversity, all suffering and death, beyond all harm the world thinks it can do us.