Peter’s Accent (Matthew 26; Acts 2)

st-peter-preaching-at-pentecostApparently I have an accent.

I recently moved to Derby, forty miles away from where I grew up, and boy, do people know I’m not a local. “You’re not from the East Midlands!” people say when I give them my address, often just before imitating how I say “Dudley” and name-dropping Lenny Henry.

Now, I can live with this – it’s rarely meant in a negative way and it forces me to overcome my natural anti-sociability and actually interact with other human beings. But let’s not kid ourselves, accents are one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. Oh, we pretend to be all about equality and fairness, but then we read articles like “ESSEX ACCENT VOTED WORST IN UK POLL!”

(The Brummie accent, not a million miles away from my own, came second from bottom in that same poll, which is one of the few things to which we can be thankful for The Only Way is Essex.)

(I should also mention that it was felt necessary for my dialect to receive its own translation of the Bible.)

Anyway, you know who else faced this sort of prejudice? St. Peter, that’s who.

We see it at his lowest moment, as he sits in a courtyard and denies knowing Jesus. Those he sits with are suspicious; they ask questions, too many questions, and they know he’s from Galilee because they recognise the accent, and they keep pushing and pushing and pushing…

And Peter snaps and says he’s never met Jesus.

His accent gives him away, after all, he’s a Galilean, and therefore a working class bumpkin who could only possibly be in Jerusalem because he was following a Galilean rabbi, right? That’s how we tend to read the story, because our view of accents is that they play into certain social stereotypes.

But Galileans weren’t hicks. They lived on a trade route, in a centre of religious learning. Besides,┬áthere would have been plenty of visitors in Jerusalem for Passover. Yes, people are sneering towards the region throughout the gospels (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?!”, for instance), but at least some of this seems to be based on local rivalries. You know, like a poll that says I have the second worst accent in the country.

But maybe something darker is going on. After all, Jesus has just been arrested because he was allegedly fomenting, which ties in with current affairs: only a couple of decades earlier, Judas of Galilee lead the Zealots in a failed revolt, and the region was also a hotbed of Sicarii activity. Now here’s a stranger with a Galilean accent showing up just as an alleged religious terrorist gets hauled away by the authorities. Maybe people weren’t laughing at him because he sounded like a chav, maybe they were expecting him to pull out a sword and start swinging.

Peter’s distinctive way of speaking gets mentioned again, this time in Acts. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and crowds of pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in different languages, some dismissed them as uneducated drunks. But again, this seems to be down to local snobbery, considering how many important leaders and rabbis came from the area, and maybe this is the lesson of Peter’s accent, because accents are an easy way for us to judge people; sometimes that’s just in fun (frankly, I can cope with being called a Yam-Yam), but sometimes it shades into racism, fear and genuine prejudice – think of how attitudes to Muslims degenerated after 9-11 and 7-7.

And so the leader of the church that emerges after the resurrection has an accent that gets him in trouble – so what? God doesn’t see the world as we do, doesn’t fall prey to prejudice or stereotyping, doesn’t fit in with our class distinctions or our snobbery. He pours out the Spirit on all people.

Even those who talk funny.

“On This Rock…”: Identity (Matthew 16:13-20)

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I have a difficult confession to make. It’s a confession that may alienate me from my subculture, but nevertheless, I need to speak out. That way healing lies.

I have no desire to see The Goonies again.

As a 36 year old, The Goonies is one of the foundational cinematic texts of my generation, but it’s lost to me, simply because it involves the Truffle Shuffle, and when you’re an overweight school kid, the Truffle Shuffle stops being a scene in a film and becomes a weapon to hide from.

It’s amazing what shapes our identity, isn’t it? The things that people tell us and use against us with such consistency and vehemence that we start to believe them. We’re moulded by all those sticks and stones, creating identities that we can live with, because even though they’re damaging and restricting, they’re also somehow comforting in their familiarity. We’re already hurt, so stay in the cocoon, because breaking out will be even worse.

We find our identity shaped by others, parents or classmates or celebrities who don’t know we exist, and even years after the fact, when we’ve started families and careers, we’re still, say, a socially awkward fat kid in the playground, safe for now but forever waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This may just be me, but I don’t think so.

There’s a moment in which Simon is renamed as Peter, and it’s huge. Peter declares that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah and gets a new name in return. Now, Simon’s a perfectly good name, of course, meaning “he who hears God”. Given that Jesus tells him that God gave him that knowledge, maybe there’s still a significance to his old name. It’s his new name that really matters though.

There are some names I’m happy to own – I’m fine with being a geek, and I’m content with being an introvert. I have no problem with being called a Christian, although Westboro Baptist Church’s insanity adds a tension to that. But of course I’m happy with these names. They’re comfortable.

Simon’s new name spoke of anything but comfort. It was a destiny, speaking of his leadership role among the apostles. Peter – “rock” – was to become a foundation of the early church, but that was a role that would lead to persecution and a violent death. Receiving his new name was equivalent to receiving his ministry, which probably wasn’t common for a working class fisherman at the time.

We tend to think of the disciples as a group of old, beardy men, but in reality they were most likely teenagers, expected to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. Hearing Jesus’s words to Peter, following in his steps for three years, must have opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Suddenly they were no longer limited by geography and religion and the vicious words of others. They had received a new identity, one limited only by God – and God doesn’t have limits.

The identities we assume, the identities forced upon us by others… They don’t have to be permanent. They don’t have to define us. We don’t have to listen to a history’s worth of voices pointing out our failures and sins and inadequacies.

We can listen to God.

Hear his voice.

And receive a new name.