In Chapter 31 of Genesis, Jacob runs away from his father-in-law Laban taking with him his two wives, Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters. Before she goes, Rachel steals her father’s household gods. Laban ran after him, and said: “Maybe it was foolish for you to run off with my daughters, but why did you steal my gods?” Jacob didn’t know Rachel had stolen them, and said “If you find anyone who has them, that person shall not live”. So Laban searched around. When he got to Rachel’s tent, she hid the gods in her camel’s saddle and sat on it while he searched the tent and found nothing. Rachel said to her father “Don’t be angry, my Lord, that I can’t stand up in your presence. I am having my period.”
Then again there’s the story of Balaam and his ass. You have to imagine Balaam riding along, and the ass pushes him against the wall and won’t go forward, and eventually collapses under him. Balaam hits the ass, as you would if you were angry. Suddenly the ass starts talking—and when this happens, Balaam simply starts a conversation. It is hard to imagine that this story was told with an entirely straight face.
We’re so used to being solemn about the Bible, one could even say po-faced, that we fail to see irony or humour or rhetoric when it’s there. So now we come to Peter. His name meant rock or stone, approximately, but he wasn’t exactly someone you could rely on in a crisis. He was typically impulsive—so when Jesus called him to walk on the water he did, but very soon he became frightened and began to sink and was criticised of being of little faith. And later he would deny Jesus three times. If stone came to mind, it would be more like in the parable of the sower, where the seed that fell on stony ground would come to nothing. No wonder when Peter suddenly comes up with the unexpected true answer to the question “who do you say that I am?”, Jesus says, perhaps with exasperation: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” What is Jesus to do with the fact that his most unreliable and mercurial disciple is exactly the one who reveals the deepest truth: “But you are Peter—on this rock am I to build my church?” Was that really spoken without any irony?
Humour, comedy, irony, of course are a very powerful way of conveying a deeper truth. It really is the case that the church is built of impulsive and unreliable people, people of little faith, people who take two steps forward and one step back, people who set off to do things right and do things wrong, who get themselves into hot—or in Peter’s case, cold—water. In short, people like me and, I dare even say, you. We are the very people to whom God has entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We are the church of which Jesus said “And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.
Our reading from Acts speaks of the way that Peter’s chains fell off his wrists when he saw the angel and the light. There are various ways of reading this passage, but if Peter represents the Church, we can think of the Church being in chains and needing to escape by recognising its light, by getting up quickly, by fastening its belt and putting on its sandals, and getting moving. In other words by displaying exactly the impulsive behaviour that Peter always did, turning it to a good use.
Instead, we see our institutional church tying itself up in knots, allowing itself to be chained and put in prison, and failing to escape. Membership of, attendance at, and confidence in, the Church in this country has been declining inexorably for decades or longer. When asked whether they thought the Church was a positive or a negative force, most people say “neither”. A recent article wrote convincingly “Examined from a variety of perspectives, the standing of both Church and clergy in the eyes of the general public has diminished over the last half-century, whether quantified in terms of perceived importance, influence, confidence, admiration, respect, trust, veracity, corruption and extent of being ‘in touch’ or a positive or negative force in society. The Gates of Hades seem to be doing rather well, winning about 10-nil, I think. When we look at it this way, we’d better find some irony in the situation, or we will simply cry.
But when I see a church like this one, it’s hard to recognise all that negativity that all that research genuinely demonstrates. And that’s because here, and in many other churches of all different stripes, there’s a genuine spark of confidence, of imagination, of sitting light to those who take life too seriously and who tie themselves and us up in knots.
We can be like Peter was before he saw the angel. Sit there in prison awaiting our fate. So depressed about our faith that we can’t see humour in “sacred texts” even when it is staring us in the face.
Or we can see the angel and the light and rise to the challenge. We can build on the inspiration of worship in churches like this one. We can speak out and act when we see injustice in the world not least within our own church. We can learn not to take ourselves or our institutional structures too seriously.
We can each one of us accept the offer of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. We can confidently hear the truth through the irony of Jesus’s words to the impulsive and unreliable Simon son of Jonah, as if spoken to each one of us today, knowing what sorts of rock we all are: Upon this rock will I build my church, and the Gates of Hades will not prevail against it.