2 Timothy 4: 6-8,17-18 and Matthew 16:13-19
I have been thinking a great deal over the past few weeks about different methods of communication. To a large extent this is because most of us have been cut off from meeting those people that we usually see and talk to frequently and for some the only form of contact has been the telephone. I know from the people I talk to regularly that the phone lines around Wincanton have been red hot at times, as so many people are ringing each other and this is good to know. For those of us who are comfortable with computers there have been alternative ways to deliver a form of church service or chat face to face, and these work well on the whole, although it is still not the same as actually being with people. How to communicate effectively with all our members, especially those who have not been able to leave their homes for the last 13 weeks has been a subject high on the agenda of the key team meetings of Wincanton church, and I am sure of Pen Selwood as well and we are doing the best we can, although again I am sure it is just not the same. People who are trying to describe an event to others often almost give up in despair with the words ‘You had to be there.‘ and this applies to us now.
National tv and radio have also done their best to make up for the events that we are missing by showing events of past national glory, including well-known football matches and snooker tournaments. We would normally now be expecting Wimbledon fortnight and the Glastonbury festival – perhaps that is why we recently had so much rain, making up for the dry spring. Something that the BBC has done which many of us value has been the broadcasting of extra acts of worship on BBC1 and local radio, and the Church of England has set up the Daily Hope phone service during this time when acts of worship in church have been forbidden by the government. I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the work that goes into producing something like this, but I’m afraid it really doesn’t work for me although it is much better than nothing at all.
The word broadcasting is interesting because it was first used in this context in this country 100 years ago this month. On 15th June 1920, a concert featuring Dame Nellie Melba was broadcast from Chelmsford in Essex, and the signal could be picked up as far away as Iran and Newfoundland. We were not the first country to have experimented with this new art form – as far as I can find out the Netherlands were a year of two ahead of us, but this was the British first – produced by the Marconi Corporation who had been experimenting with transmitting speech and music, and the Daily Mail who offered to fund and I assume publicise the event. It is said that Dame Nellie was shown the two 450ft high masts and told that from the top her voice would be sent all over the world, to which she replied ‘Young man, if you think I’m going to climb up there, you are very much mistaken’. The concert was actually broadcast from a hastily converted packing shed in the Marconi works. This use of radio technology was not initially popular with everyone, particularly the military who had up to this point been almost the only users of the airwaves, and found their communications interfered with, and it was a couple of years later that the Post Office who held the licence for mass broadcasting established the then British Broadcasting Company (later to become Corporation) and issued licences for use of different wavelengths.
The 18th of June this year was also the 80th anniversary of the BBC allowing de Gaulle to broadcast in French to occupied France. This anniversary is held in high regard by the French to the extent that the president visited this country this year to mark the occasion. Communication is a powerful and vital tool.
Before 1920, the word broadcast simply meant to scatter seed – as Jesus describes in the parable of the sower. Since then, the meaning has almost completely changed, and almost nobody thinks of broadcasting in terms of seeds any more, unless perhaps they are laying a new lawn. Nowadays if we wish to spread information we are almost spoilt for choice for the best means to do it, and yet with all this so freely available to us, I wonder if we are as effective at spreading the story of God’s love as Peter and Paul were 2000 years ago when all they had was the strength of their faith and their voices and the market place or synagogue. One thing they surely have in common is that they were great communicators.
Today we celebrate both Peter and Paul and I have always thought it odd that two such major figures in the history of Christianity should share a feast day. Their stories are very different, and although they did meet on occasions, it is documented that they didn’t always agree! What they do have in common though is an unshakable faith in Christ as Peter declared in our gospel reading, and from Paul’s words in the letter to Timothy ‘… the Lord stood by me and gave me strength’. They also share a burning desire to pass on, to communicate, this faith to as many people as possible – and we read a few weeks ago how at Pentecost Peter preached to a vast crowd of over 3000 people, and that was just the beginning!
Peter, we know was with Jesus from the beginning, possibly the leader of the original twelve, brought to Jesus by his brother and capable of great acts of bravery and almost equally great blunders. He earned his living out of doors, and although all Jewish boys at that time were educated in the scriptures, was probably not an academic. Paul on the other hand was more aristocratic – a Roman citizen by birth, a pharisee educated by Gamaliel in Jerusalem and so devout to his Judaic faith that he initially saw his task as being the eradication of this new sect – until he too met with Jesus, and that story you know well.
For the best part of 30 years, these two men dedicated themselves to spreading the word of the Kingdom. We don’t know exactly where Peter went, but he is believed to have established the church in Antioch which is the place where believers were first called Christians, and from where Paul and Barnabas set out on their travels, and he may well have visited Corinth as well. The travels of Paul are well documented in Acts, and from the maps in the back of my bible I calculate that he visited about 50 towns and cities, although as quite a few of these are return visits, the actual figure is probably nearer 20. He is said to have established 14 churches, possibly more, and to have covered over 10,000 miles on foot. That somehow makes his rather boastful sounding claims at the beginning of our first reading quite justified. Both Peter and Paul were imprisoned more than once, but this seems to have had no effect on their determination to preach.
They come together again in Rome, when Nero was emperor. We don’t know how long they were there, but we believe that Peter was imprisoned, and Paul under house arrest where he continued to preach. No doubt Peter did the same in his prison. They are both believed to have been executed in about AD67 and basilicas were built on the site of each death, which are quite close to each other. It is quite possible that some of their writing was done while they were imprisoned – possibly both of Peter’s letters that we have and the letter to Timothy which we have read from today. Peter and Paul were in lockdown, but neither of them saw this as a reason to give up, simply an opportunity to spend more time in prayer and in communicating with others while they still had the chance. I’m not sure I could say that I have used this time of lockdown nearly as profitably!
I have been interested to learn when studying today’s readings that I have always misunderstood Jesus’ words in Matthew 16. Jesus is playing with words when he commends Peter for his understanding – he is not saying that the church will be built on the rock that is Peter, but on the rock that is his understanding of and faith. This sounds a little bit like nit picking to start with, until you realise that we too can share that understanding and faith, it is given by our Father in heaven, and we too can continue the work of being the foundation on which the church is built. Paul talks of finishing the race, but in fact the race is not a sprint, but a relay. Each generation has passed on the torch to the next for 2000 years and now it is in our hands. We must ensure that not only does the light not go out, but that the race continues to the next generation. It is unlikely that any of us will walk 10,000 miles or found numerous churches, but each of us has a gift or talent. Let us be inspired by Peter and Paul to make good use of it.