Sunday, 29 June 2008

Peter & Paul

Lousy Choice (of followers)?

I am not in the habit of hanging around with Bishops or Archbishops – I have a healthy (Biblical) respect for those in authority, but I don’t make a thing of trying to meet up with them, or catch their attention. At the Bishop’s annual garden party I always say hello and make small talk for a minute then make myself scarce and chat to colleagues.

There is one exception to this – I used to know an Archbishop quite well. He was a very unprepossessing man, diminutive in stature, though very much great of heart. I knew him in the last years of his life, having been the Archbishop of Uganda, predecessor and friend of the African Martyr and Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum Bishop Leslie had returned to the UK and became Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich before returning to Cambridge.

Bishop Leslie Brown had done a huge amount in the reform of liturgy in the Anglican Church, he had been the first Archbishop of Uganda and oversaw the foundation of the province there and led it in its early years. In his later years at Westcott House, where he was a part of the worshipping life of the College, his eyesight was failing and a number of us had the joy of reading to him on a regular basis and chatting over pretty much anything with him. He was a sensitive, intelligent, wise and spiritual man, and a man of great humility.

A story which sums up this humility is one that he told at his enthronement as Bishop of Eds and Ips (as St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is known. Leslie told of a time when in Kampala he went to the Cathedral and found a young boy playing with the mud near the Church. The boy was very involved in moulding and shaping the mud and Archbishop Leslie was fascinated so he asked what he was doing. ‘I’m making a procession for the Cathedral’ the lad said – then pointed to the figures made of mud – ‘there’s the choir, there’s the dean. there’s the vergers, there’s the clergy’. ‘Oh,’ said Leslie ‘Where’s the Archbishop?’ ‘I haven’t got enough muck for an Archbishop’ replied the boy. This response, said Leslie, kept him humble!

We all need reminders every now and then of what we are made! We are a collection of elements that – through some great process divinely inspired – has evolved into living, breathing, speaking people. As the words for the Ash Wednesday Liturgy say ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.

And yet, out of these unlikely elements God is able to do great things. We may not be perfect, we may not feel we are very special, but God thinks we are amazing! In many ways, its not believing in God that is important in the life of a Christian, but the knowledge that God believes in us!

Today is the festival of Peter and Paul. It’s a day where we honour two of the founders of the Church, two martyrs, two apostles, two men used by God to change the world. And though Paul was very keen to stress that all God’s people are Saints, we call Peter and Paul Saints in a special way as we recognise and give thanks for the contribution they have made to the life of the Church and the importance of that contribution even up to today.

We remember that Jesus said of St Peter that he was the Rock upon which the Church of Christ would be build. We remember that he was told that he would carry the keys to the kingdom of God – hence the popular image of ‘St Peter at the Pearly gates’ so beloved of cartoonists and writers. Peter is the one who, in our reading for this morning, confesses Jesus as the Christ, a startling revelation that is the basis for Jesus statement that Peter is the rock that Peter will turn out to be!

We remember that St Paul was added to the apostles by divine call, having heard the voice of Jesus and been struck blind by the light of Christ he went on to write letters which form much of the Canon of scripture and as a Pastoral Theologian steered the early Church in its formation as he spread the good news of Jesus Christ and as he reached out to the gentiles in a way that the early followers of Jesus weren’t keen on doing!

Yet we remember too the unlikely materials that God built these two great saints from. Peter, a fisherman, often shown in the Gospels as the one who speaks before thinking, and who ‘dashes in where angels fear to tread’ as it were! It is Peter who cuts of the ear of the high priest's servant, it is Peter that contradicts Jesus immediately following today’s Gospel reading and who is rebuked with those words which must have been so painful to hear – “Get behind me Satan...” It is Peter who denies Christ three times. It is Peter who dashes into the tomb without waiting to be confronted with the folded grave clothes left behind by the risen Christ.

Paul fares little better, again and again in his letters he speaks of his own unworthiness and sinfulness. Despite his high standing in the pharisaic tradition and his great Jewish heritage, Paul sees that his persecution of the Church and his religious zeal made him an enemy of Christ and that it was only the divine intervention of that vision of Christ which made possible the transformation of grace which was the start of a new life in Christ. Paul – or Saul as he was known – was the one who looked after the coats for those who stoned Stephen, who was charged by the high priest with rooting out these delinquent Christians from the synagogues, who needed to hear the voice of Christ saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ before he could be changed into the faithful follower of Christ he would turn out to be.

The stories of these two great saints are not celebrated each year to make us feel worthless in comparison.. We remember Peter and Paul as two deeply flawed human beings transformed by the power of God and called into his grace in order that they might change the world.

And we remember that in the same way we are called to transformation – to leaving our past behind, to recognising that God wants to use us, and being open to that touch of Grace that can turn everything around!

We may feel that we are ‘muck models’ of faith, but in the end it us up to God to make us who are were meant to be, to make us more than the nothings we may convince ourselves we are. God chooses the most unlikely people to work for him – just look at your clergy if you are in any doubt of that – and he calls us all to be open to his transformation, in order that through us the world may be changed. Through our prayers, our worship, through our action and through our own faithfulness God can and will do great things.

I suspect that when Peter and Paul began their journeys in faith they had little idea of where God would lead them, as they grew in faith they grew also, it seems, in the knowledge that what God required of them was faithfulness and the willingness to go where he led, no matter what it cost.

May we have that same faith and be faithful to God. May the examples of Peter and Paul serve not to create a sense of unworthiness, but a sense of partnership in the work and life of Christ which has stretched from the first followers of Jesus until now. May we allow God to reshape us, and through us reshape the world. Amen!

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