Monday, 29 June 2020

A Sermon for St Peter - Paul Palmer - 28/06/20

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we know your living word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

I don’t know about you but Peter, whose patronal festival we celebrate today, fascinates me.  I look at Peter’s story and I am inspired, intrigued, confused and astounded.
Take a look at Peter’s experiences in the first few chapters of the book of the Acts of the Apostles;
Peter is there on the day of Pentecost, speaking in tongues and addressing the crowd; he’s preaching and healing and getting arrested.  He spreads the good news, speaks out, gets arrested again, is flogged by the authorities, his friend Stephen is killed, he travels, raises the dead, preaches to the gentiles, baptizes in Jesus’ name and then gets arrested again.
You can’t say he’s lacking in experience!  Yet even now, after all that’s happened to him, in our reading from Acts today Peter still can’t believe his own senses.  Imprisoned, he is woken by an angel and thinks that he is having a vision as he escapes.  I can just see him, scuttling along the darkened streets and alleyways, guided to freedom as if invisible, and still not believing that what is happening to him is real.  Then the angel disappears, and Peter comes to himself with a moment of realisation and surety.
And this is what I find so reassuring about Peter – despite his incredible experience he has times when he doesn’t understand and often gets it wrong.
Let’s have a look at our passage from Matthew – we’re right in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel and we have Peter’s declaration about Jesus; “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Peter has got it right!  The first definitive recognition of who Jesus is.  But then, just a few verses later, Peter gets it wrong as he rebukes Jesus for foretelling his death.  Jesus responds; “Get behind me Satan!”
Peter getting it right then wrong then right again appears throughout the Gospels; 
He shows remarkable faith and obedience in following Jesus in the first place – tick!
He tries to walk on the water – tick – but then starts to sink and Jesus reaches out to rescue him.
He understands the need for forgiveness – tick – but then asks how many times he should forgive – seventy times seven!
Peter is with Jesus at the transfiguration but then misses the point and wants to build an altar.
He falls asleep in the garden at Gethsemane when Jesus asks him to stay awake and he denies Christ three times on the night before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
So, in our Gospel reading today we have Jesus, identified as the Messiah and Son of God, founding his church on a person who he knows is fallible, human and, some of the time, gets it wrong.  Why does Jesus choose someone who, according to Acts 4:13 is “uneducated and ordinary” to be the rock on which he will build his church?  
Perhaps it is exactly that ordinariness that Jesus needs.  Jesus makes sure that the foundation of our faith is in his shared humanity with Peter.  Jesus knows that we will get it wrong and through Peter’s example, shows that it is OK to do so; time and time again if necessary; as he will always be there to pull us out of the mire or rescue us from the waves – all we need to do is grasp Christ’s outstretched hand, just like Peter did when he became frightened and started to sink.  Jesus will still the waves and bring us to our desired haven.
I have found, in these difficult and testing times, that it is so easy to get it wrong, even when I think I’ve got it right.  I’ve got grumpy with family and friends when I should have been understanding.  I’ve been impatient with people for whom social distancing seems to mean nothing when I could have spoken with them and tried to talk.  I’ve found it difficult to engage with challenges to the Black Lives Matter movement when what is needed is conversation, understanding, education and sympathy.  I’ve procrastinated and delayed and not called friends up when I should have.  I’ve not always followed God’s call to me.
How have we got it wrong in the last few weeks?  Have we made assumptions without trying to see both sides of the issue?  Have we ignored someone we know we should have called but just can’t be bothered?  Have we forgotten to pray?  Have we become too self-reliant?  Have we forgotten that God has us in his hands every second of every day?  
Now, when I sat down to write today’s talk, that’s where it ended.  And then on Friday night I watched the news and saw the pictures from Yemen where the civil war is killing thousands, where starvation is a daily threat and where the WHO say that COVID19 could kill more than the 100,000 who have died in the war due to the almost non-existent health-care system.  I watched images of a little five-year-old girl being fed sugar and water by her father.  He’d already managed to save her from the conflict and now has to save her all over again – this time from hunger.  And I also saw pictures of packed beaches and people ignoring pandemic.  And I listened to stories about the Pride events that are cancelled this weekend and of the people who have been and still are persecuted for their sexuality.  And I saw that the ecological disaster in the Brazilian Amazon is likely to be even worse this year than last.  And I started thinking about discipleship.  
Peter’s reaction to the challenges that he faced as a disciple of Jesus was to step up and make a difference.  He showed strength, he showed courage.  He was ready to go places that were dangerous.  He was ready to walk into the lion’s den.  How can we be more like Peter?  How can we express our discipleship with commitment?  I’d suggest that we need to take a look at what we can do, not what we can’t.  If you see a situation where there is injustice, speak and act.  If you see discrimination - speak against it.  Don’t leave it up to someone else.  If you’re shielding at the moment, write to your MP or Councillor.  If there’s a situation you’re passionate about join an organisation; make a donation, no matter how small; become an activist; even if it’s from your armchair for the moment.  I’m not encouraging you do go out and get arrested, but to do something!    As Peter has shown us - if you want to walk on water you’ve got to get out of the boat!         
I have a last question; why does Jesus give Peter the keys to Heaven?  I don’t ascribe to the image of Peter at the pearly gates letting people into heaven.  Keys unlock doors and the keys that Peter holds unlock the doors to a life with Jesus; a life of love, acceptance and inclusion – a life of prayer and support and action.  A life of outreach and social justice.  Peter, in his ability to get it wrong and yet still remain faithful, shows us the way.  The keys to heaven are in Peter’s and Jesus’ humanity.  If we can recognise when we get it wrong, bring that up to God and then learn in loving faithfulness then, surely, we are growing in the way God means us to grow.  We can all be stirred, strengthened, taught and inspired to actively live God’s love with generosity, joy, imagination and courage,
I’d like to close with a poem.  Malcolm Guite has been a psalmist of the times with his poems in the Church Times and I’d like to read his sonnet dedicated to St. Peter. 

St. Peter.
Impulsive master of misunderstanding
You comfort me with all your big mistakes;
Jumping the ship before you make the landing,
Placing the bet before you know the stakes.
I love the way you step out without knowing,
The way you sometimes speak before you think,
The way your broken faith is always growing,
The way he holds you even when you sink.
Born to a world that always tried to shame you,
Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,
I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
Before you knew how to deserve that name.
And in the end your Saviour let you  prove
That each denial is undone by love.

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