Today is our Patronal Festival, the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I’m trying not to think about the fact that in normal years, we’d have been preparing for a lovely strawberry tea this afternoon. It’s just one of many things that have gone by the board over these last few months of disappointment. Of course it’s nothing to the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, those whose health has been permanently damaged, those who’re desperately worried about their jobs, but sometimes the small things hit home in big ways, reminding us that life isn’t as it was, that nothing is certain, not even a strawberry tea.
At the moment, some people are emerging a bit from lockdown, as shops and other places open. We’re thinking about how we might resume some sort of worship in the church building in the coming weeks. But these podcasts will continue even when we do that, for as long as they need to, because I know that for many, that freedom is still far off. Some will need to shield themselves for quite a while yet, and will probably find this time even more difficult as they see others getting out and about. Even for those who can meet physically, there’ll be all sorts of restrictions we’ll have to observe.
It’s no accident that we’ve called this experience “lockdown”. Of course, it’s nothing like really being in prison, but for many it’s been lonely and miserable, especially if they’ve been in cramped or inadequate housing or if their homes are unhappy or abusive places. Even the luckiest among us, have had to deal with severe limits to our freedoms – and we don’t tend to find that easy to cope with.
That’s why, this year, from the vast array of stories about Peter and Paul in the Bible, I chose the one we’ve just heard from the Acts of the Apostles, and the reading from Philippians, because, as we’ll discover, they remind us that our Patron Saints were people who knew all about lockdown.
In the strange story from Acts, Peter is locked down very literally, chained between two guards in King Herod’s prison. James, one of his closest friends, had been killed by Herod, and Peter must have been fairly sure he’d be next. But it wasn’t so. In the middle of the night, an angel appeared to him, wreathed in light – I did say it was a strange story. His chains fell off and the doors sprang open. It wasn’t until he found himself standing in the street that he realised this wasn’t a dream, though; that he really was free.
It seemed equally unbelievable to his friends, particularly the maid, Rhoda, who answered his knock at the door. It’s probably significant that we’re told her name. We don’t need to be for the sake of the story - she could simply have been “the maid”. The fact that she is named probably means that those who first read this story would have known her. “Oh, that was Rhoda!” Poor Rhoda. I bet she never lived it down! The night she left Peter, the foremost apostle, the leader of the church, standing on the doorstep. But it’s a measure of how astonishing his release was that she did so. Peter shouldn’t have been there. And yet, there he was. Eventually he would be executed by the Romans, but for now he was free, and able to carry on the ministry he’d been called to.
The first reading we heard, from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, might not seem to have any obvious prison connections at first glance. But if we’d read the whole of the letter we’d have discovered that it was actually written from a prison cell. Paul had been imprisoned by the Romans– as he was several times – and he wasn’t expecting a miraculous deliverance. For all he knew these might be his last days, the end of the story for him. And yet, his letter is full of joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always”, he says – even now, even here. That little phrase sounds very different when you know it was written in prison – these aren’t glib, saccharine words from an inspirational poster, they are hard won wisdom. Paul talks about how he has learned to be content with whatever he has. In those days, prisoners only ate if their friends or family brought them food. The Christians in Philippi have, rather belatedly, sent him money, but he wants to reassure them that, though he appreciates their help, he will be ok, because, as he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” His body may be in prison, but his soul, his spirit, his heart is free. There are no bars that can confine him. He lives in the wide expanse of God’s love.
Freedom is a theme which runs right through the Bible. Near the beginning of its story, Moses led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Later on the Jewish people were delivered from imprisonment of another kind, their long exile in Babylon. The Old Testament was largely drawn together in that time or shortly after it, shaped by and for those who lived with the daily reality of oppression.
By the time of Jesus, Israel was dominated by the Romans, and once again people longed for freedom. They looked for a Messiah, literally an anointed one, who would defeat their enemies and lead them to political independence. If only they could break the yoke of Roman rule they thought that all would be well. At first, the crowds believed they’d found that liberating Messiah in Jesus, but when the Romans crucified him, that support ebbed away. Just a few of his followers stuck with him, and even they were none too sure what his message had really meant if it wasn’t about the overthrow of Roman rule.
It was the resurrection that revealed it to them. If death couldn’t hold Jesus prisoner, then what was there to fear from any other sort of imprisonment or oppression? The prisons which hold us most securely aren’t the ones made of stone and iron, but the prisons of fear we build around ourselves . Knowing that God hadn’t abandoned Jesus as he hung on the cross, even when all had seemed lost, meant that they were able to face the hardships that came their way too. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” said Paul, in another of his letters (Romans 8). That wasn’t just “pie in the sky when you die” to him, a consoling promise of something better to come in the hereafter. His experience of God’s presence set him free to live fully in the here and now, to “rejoice in the Lord always”, to find peace that passed human understanding, love that overflowed to others, even in a prison cell.
Today, we may not be able to enjoy a strawberry tea together. We may not be able to meet with friends, or travel off on holiday. We may be living with restrictions which chafe and frustrate us – in the short or the long term, because of Covid 19 or for a host of other reasons - but, like Peter and Paul, we are called to discover the true freedom which comes from knowing we are loved indestructibly by God, an infectious freedom which sets others around us on the road to freedom too. As Charles Wesley described it, in the hymn which will close our worship today, referring to that story of Peter’s release “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.”