Monday, 29 June 2009
St Peter's Day Sermon
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. In my last Diocese there was a Bishop’s annual garden party where I would always say hello and make small talk with the Bishop for a minute then make myself scarce and chat to colleagues. I did have a tremendous day yesterday listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the Dioceses’s 1100th anniversary, but more of that soon, I didn’t actually get to talk to him or chat to the many other Bishops and Archbishops around in Exeter yesterday.
There is one exception to this – I used to know an Archbishop quite well. He was a very unprepossing man, diminuitive 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 Edmunsbury 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!
This evening we celebrate the festival of St Peter, though strictly it is tomorrow (we are allowed to move some festivals of the Church to make a big thing of them), it is the patronal festival of this Church (which for those of you who, like me, don’t know these things and need to look them up, I will save you a job – its a celebration of the day a Church was dedicated and (I think) consecrated for worship). In the past few years St Paul has also been honoured with St Peter at this time, as we consider 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.
Today we consider St Peter in particular. 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 evening, 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!
This is also the weekend around which many begin their ordained ministry as many Dioceses around the country will be ordaining Deacons and Priests to serve the Church of God. It is the anniversary of Ordination for both Anne and Myself and we celebrate our calling as part of the ministry of the whole people of God.
So it’s a bit of a special event today! We celebrate lots of different things, the Church of St Peter here in Dalwood and our part in the Five Alive Mission Community and God’s worldwide Church, the ministry of the Church exercised by all God’s people amongst which we have our Orders of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, and of course St Peter himself.
But over and above all of that, we celebrate Grace, God’s life and love poured out on us. Something which I heard Archbishop Rowan Williams talking on yesterday, with a warmth and graciousness that I found profoundling moving, and some of which I want to share with you now. And I must give the Archbishop credit for leading me to what I am about to say, and apologies if I have misrepresented anything!
In order to do that I want to share a bit of Peter’s story with you. From the Gospel of Luke Chapter 5 – not part of the set texts for this festival, but the beginning (in many ways) of Peter’s journey with Christ; the background to this is that Peter had taken Jesus out from the shore of Lake Gennesaret in order that Jesus could preach to the crowds:
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’
What a strange reaction, it seems! Here we have what is often referred to as ‘the miraculous draft of fishes’, so many that the nets break, and Simon Peter’s reaction...
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.
Eh? Perhaps its one of those stories that we have heard so many times that it loses its impact upon us. I don’t know about you but the sight of fish, even a lot of them, doesn’t immediately bring me to my knees in penitence. There are lots of things which do, and more that should, but not fish! This seems a strange way to respond to a miracle.
But perhaps not. This miracle is not really about improving the fish catch, or about showing Peter new skills as a fisherman. It’s a sign of grace. Jesus is sharing God’s abundance, God’s desire to give beyond our wildest dreams. This miracle is not about fish, but about grace. It says, to quote Archbishop Rowan ‘this is a gateway to a new world’. And when Peter glimpses this grace, this life, this wonder he falls before Jesus recognising his unworthiness to be a part of it. Peter is then drawn into this new world, and continues to share in this grace as he shares in a new life being someone who fishes for people to invite others into a relationship with the love and grace of God seen through Jesus Christ.
The stories of this great saint are not celebrated each year to make us feel worthless in comparison.. We remember Peter as a deeply flawed human being transformed by the power of God and called into his grace in order that he 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 began his journey in faith he had little idea of where God would lead them, as he grew in faith he grew also, it seems, in the knowledge that what God required of him 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 and all the saints 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!