At one time in early biblical history, the writings of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were combined. Luke, called the “beloved physician” by Apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14), was one of the most prolific writers of the New Testament. Luke’s record starts with the birth of John the Baptist (in the gospel of Luke) and ends with Paul back in Rome (in the Book of Acts), determined to continue the conversion of the Gentiles into the church of Jesus. In the record of Luke-Acts, we discover fascinating stories of men and women of the early church, who maintained the new faith called Christianity, that would outpace its original roots in Judaism, and usurp the power of the Roman Empire, as well.
The story of Rhoda, the young servant (or slave) of Mary, the mother of John Mark, is embedded within the narrative of Peter and his escape from a Roman jail. This much-preached text is a staple within the Christian church and most believers are familiar with this story. Peter is imprisoned in jail by King Herod, after Herod beheads James (the brother of John). It is obvious from the details of Acts, chapter 12, that King Herod is determined to break the established momentum of “The Way,” the small community of believers who are worshipping Jesus, as Messiah and King. Peter, the leader of the fragile community, has been jailed by Herod, as his life hangs in the balance. Within the tension of the narrative, a young girl named Rhoda becomes a part of the story. At the hand of another writer, Rhoda’s involvement in the events of Peter and the ecclesia (the community of Christian believers) may have been omitted; however, Luke writes more about the stories of women than any of the four evangelists. Rhoda’s story, while brief in length, highlights the importance and the involvement of women in the development of the early Christian community.
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor………………………………………………………………………………………….(Acts 12: 11-16)
“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 it was so. Meanwhile Peter continued knocking; and when they opened the gate, they saw him and were amazed.
The season had come. The time in which Jesus promised His believers would be persecuted for His name’s sake arrived. Once a small, intimate group of followers, the community of believers grew in number, and as their numbers expanded, so did the threats and violence towards their leadership and their movement. Interestingly, their “Underground Railroad,” the place of safe haven, was located at Mary’s house, the mother of John Mark. This large estate, with inner and outer gates, was big enough to hold their secret meetings and communions, with Mary hosting the believers’ gatherings. (Acts 12:12) The vastness of Mary’s home is indicated by the length of time it took Rhoda to arrive at the outer gate.
This community was huddled together, fervently praying for the safety and return of their leader, Peter. The news of James’ beheading, by order of King Herod, shook the gathering of believers to its core; so much so that the joyful news of Peter’s escape is rejected by the group and Rhoda, a young girl of possibly twelve to fifteen, who greets Peter is mocked instead.
So, what are we to make of Rhoda’s story? Is this just a connecting narrative, as many scholars posit, which moves the story along until chapter 12 bridges the entrance of Saul/Paul? From a womanist perspective, Rhoda’s story matters greatly, as it teaches us several important elements about the sacred meanings of faith and hope.
HOW is Rhoda (The Rose) used by God for the mission of “opening the door?”
The word “maid” in the narrative is the clue to Rhoda’s age and status. Rhoda is a girl, who is old enough to work independently of her family and also to be a part (albeit minor) of the gathering at Mary’s home. While the elders of the community dismiss Rhoda as “mad,” even as they are praying for Peter’s release, Rhoda is presented in the text as idealistic and youthful, with a fresh, hopeful perspective. Only Rhoda, a fifteen year old girl, is open to the possibility of the miraculous.
In Greek, Rhoda’s name means “Rose or Rosebush,” and the meaning of her name is not lost in the narrative. As the elders’ hope wanes and closes to the possibility of a miracle, the Rose/Rhoda opens up to the presentation of God’s signs and wonders, manifested in the miraculous release of Peter from Herod’s jail. While the task of opening the door may seem insignificant to some, God gives Rhoda the “usher’s” assignment of opening up the door to a new spiritual reality for the community of faith.
As in many of Luke’s narratives, women are used to announce the “Good News” of the Kingdom. Rhoda, the Rose is in familiar company, as she joins the sisterhood of the Lucan women (the Marys, Salome, Joanna, and “the other women) who offer to the world, the most important message of all: “Jesus is not here – He is Risen!” Yet, like her predecessors, Rhoda is mocked and not believed: (Luke 24: 8-12)
WHY Rhoda is used by God for the assignment of “opening the door”
In Rhoda’s story, there is a juxtaposition of two experiences of hope: the grounded and frail hope of what the community was experiencing in real time, verses the fresh and anointed hope of Rhoda, rooted in God’s miraculous signs and wonders, which ultimately becomes the new spiritual reality of the fellowship. Rhoda, the lowest in socio-economic status, is used by God for the proclamation of God’s intentionality for what will become the Christian church: “See, I am doing a something new! Now, it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).
Rhoda is used by God to demonstrate God’s sacred power and capacity to disrupt the status quo of Jewish religious tradition and Roman military might. These systems will be dismantled by the overwhelming Holy Ghost power of God, who can and will do the impossible. While some dismissed Rhoda as “mad” or “clueless,” she is given a kingdom assignment that her elders were not capable of fulfilling. In this, we understand that God often chooses the Joshua generation over the Moses generation – ushering in a sacred movement which gives leadership to those whom others dismiss as insignificant and inappropriate.
Alaina Kleinback explains this mentality and approach in her brilliant observation: “We pray for renewal, growth and revitalization of the Church, but fail to support and participate in the new ministerial ventures in our communities because they function outside of our institutional walls or ideals. We pray for reconciliation along issues of race, gender, sexuality, but insist that the power structures and traditional leadership remain in place. We pray that all will be welcome, but fail to make considerations and change for those with differences or impairment. We pray for young people to rise up in the church and instead fund our building project.” (Faith & Leadership – Alaina Kleinback, August 28, 2014)
So, WHAT does Rhoda mean to us?
God chooses Rhoda, as part of a new generation, who will bring their fresh hope to a seemingly hopeless circumstance – AND HOPE WINS! Rhoda is chosen to open the door to the new promise of the Messiah: “In the world you will have trouble; but be courageous – I have overcome the world!” (John 16;33) Rhoda teaches us, by her decision, you either shut the door on hope, or you open it to new vision and new revelation. One choice is grounded in rationality and intellect, where the mind responds instead of the heart, while the other seems irrational; but, responds to the possibility of God’s might and wonder of the Holy Spirit.
Unlike her elders, Rhoda’s youthful and hopeful perspective causes her to reject the possibility that God will fail. The others have denied the miraculous, even as they pray for the release of Peter (they indicate it is Peter’s angel signaling Peter has died). These seasoned believers have been in the vineyard for a sustained length of time, and they have experienced disappointment and dimming hopes. Rhoda represents those whose spiritual energy is visionary and unaltered. Both are valid and each reminds us of the prophetic words of Donny Hathaway:
THE ELDERS: “Hang onto the world, as it spins around.
Just don’t let the spin get you down.
Things are moving fast – hold on tight and you will last.
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free!”
THE YOUNG: “Keep on walking tall, hold your head up high.
And lay your dreams right up to the sky.
Sing your greatest song – and you’ll keep going, going on.
Just wait and see, someday we’ll all be free.”
Ultimately, at the door of God’s sacred intention for the people of faith, there is a sacred intersection of what is needed to usher in and sustain a new religious movement which will change the world: Those who represent the past and the present; and those who represent the present and the future. In God’s economy, both the elders (Peter) and the young (Rhoda) are required. Each one reminds us of the importance of the body of Christ. In the body of Christ, we all have an assignment and every one of us matters.
To God be the Glory! Amen!
Questions for our discussion and consideration:
How can we listen to the ideas of young people, even when we are uncomfortable with their vision of leadership? Explain.
As young people who are now given the responsibilities of transforming the world, where does the input and involvement of the elders fit into your vision?
Closing prayer and praise reports