Very flat, Norfolk. That's the dismissive description of a character in Noel Coward's Private Lives. It's true, of course: I believe there is only one railway tunnel in the county. But the Broads and the coastal towns of Norfolk are proving very popular this year for coronavirus staycations. It's a county we love – we used to have a holiday shack there until it was reclaimed by the North Sea. What we and others particularly like are the huge, wide-open skies, visible from land or sea. You can sit on a chilly beach and sing Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heaven above; Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour's love.
For the people of the mountainous land of Israel, although there are references to the countless grains of sand on the seashore, it was more natural to speak of God as their rock – strong, dependable, a hiding-place from danger. Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee... The psalmist says, I will love thee, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my stony rock, and my defence, my Saviour, my God and my might, in whom I will trust. And again, as the hills stand about Jerusalem, so standeth the Lord round about his people, from this time forth for evermore. This God, the Ancient of Days, is as solid and true as a rock. And scripture says that we are somehow quarried from this rock. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug: to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you... Down the ages God has kept faith: and this passage stands as a reminder of the common covenant heritage of those of Abrahamic-Saraic faith – , Jews, Christians and Muslims – all chips off the old block.
But the people of the middle east also knew of the devastating power of earthquakes, when the most solid of foundations is shaken and the very earth is split open. The earth trembled and quaked, the very foundations of the hills shook, and were removed, says the same psalm I just quoted from. Our hearts go out to the victims of earthquakes all around the world, those who are entombed by the massive weight of crushing rock.
The wise man built his house upon the rock, said Jesus; but those who build in earthquake zones, along the planet’s fault-lines, are learning that foundations need to be flexible, and not too rigid, if they are to withstand tremors. In the same way, our faith needs to be firmly rooted and grounded in the love of God, but not so rigid that it cannot cope with the shifts and the fractures - what the collect calls the changes and chances of this fleeting world.
Jesus instinctively knew this when he chose to entrust his church to people like Peter. Peter, whose great confession is today's gospel reading, was a hothead, liable to get things wrong; yet Jesus was prepared to call him the Rock – not because he was super-human, but because was strong and tough enough to recognise his own weakness and his dependence on God’s strength. Woe betide the church if it ever forgets this, and tries to build in its own strength rather than in the strength which God supplies.
Scholars argue a bit about the significance of the new name or nickname, whereby Simon became Cephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek. Renaming someone or something to show a change of character was quite a common Hebrew practice; but in Peter's case, when and why did this occur? Furthermore, some say that Cephas in Aramaic originally meant a stone (perhaps a precious stone, a jewel) rather than a rock; and that in Greek Petros was a small stone (even a pebble, such as David used in his sling to kill Goliath) rather than a rocky mountain range. But most seem to agree that as a proper name Cephas /Petros denotes a tough character, we might even say a rough diamond; so perhaps it is not quite as complimentary as we might imagine.
A traditional holiday activity which some may have recovered this years is to watch them making sticks of rock: beating up the sugary mixture like skeins of wool, keeping it at just the right temperature so that it remains pliable; building up the letters in strips of red and white – Morecambe, or Bridlington, or wherever – wrapping it all up in a great parcel and then rolling it out on great long benches into a long thin sausage and chopping it up; and lo and behold, the letters run all the way through (and just occasionally they find that they’ve got the letters in the wrong order). That’s the sort of rock we are called to be: with the letters ‘Christian’ running all the way through, so that at whatever point we’re split open, it’s possible to read it, and see that we’re genuine through and through.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn.... From the cleft rock flowed springs of living water for the children of Israel in the wilderness, and this has long been taken as prefiguring Christian baptism. Some early Christian fonts were shaped like tombs, cut out of rock, as a reminder that in baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ, who according to the custom had been laid in death in a rock-hewn tomb. As one of the eucharistic prayers says, We proclaim the death that he suffered on the cross, we celebrate his resurrection, his bursting from the tomb, we rejoice that he reigns at your right hand on high and we long for his coming in glory.
In one of his hymns Brian Wren brings together the rock, the keys of the kingdom, the living water of baptism and the light: the final verse runs
Come break the rock, and bid the rivers flow
from deep unending wells of joy and worth,
for tears, for drinking, drowning and new birth,
and I shall find and give myself, and know
the keys, the living water, and the light