St Peter

I don’t know about you, but I for one, when faced with the saints, am confronted with my own sense of inadequacy and sinfulness – I just don’t think that I can live up to the example, I can’t quite come up to the mark. This need not however be sucha bad thing insofar as it points out our (your and my) need to rely upon God, and to trust in His mercy and grace, to trust in God to work in and through me, to trust in something which I do not deserve, but which nonetheless is poured out on me, so that in all things God may be glorified.
       There is something wonderfully transparent about St Peter: a man of imposing strength and stature, handy for the physically demanding life of a Galilean fisherman, a man of little learning (unlike St Paul) but much love and faith – a man who speaks before he thinks, but whose instincts are often right, a man who loves and trusts Jesus.
In this morning’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They report what people are saying ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Jesus then asks them the question ‘But who do you say that I am?’ The question He asks His disciples He asks each and every one of us ‘Who do we say that Jesus is?’ ‘A prophet?’ ‘A well-meaning holy man?’ ‘A misguided revolutionary?’ Peter’s answer is telling: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Saviour, the one who saves and rules Israel, and the Son of God. Peter is the first to confess the divinity of Christ, the first to recognise his Lord and Saviour. We need to do the same: to have the same faith and trust and love, to recognise Christ and confess Him as Our Lord and God.
       Our Lord’s response is simple ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ In his confession of the Divinity of Christ, in his reliance upon and trust in God, Peter is empowered to bear witness to the Messiah and to carry on God’s work of reconciliation. He will fail: in the verses which follow this passage he argues that Jesus should not suffer and die. After Our Lord’s arrest Peter, the rock, will deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. He will need to be reminded to ‘feed Christ’s sheep’. There is the story that during the first persecution in Rome under Nero, Peter flees, he tries to save his own skin. And yet in the end he bears witness to Christ, he feeds the flock, he values Christ above all things, and bears witness to Him even at the cost of his own life.
       St Peter is not the person one might choose to be in charge – that’s the point, he’s not a success, he doesn’t possess the skillset for management – he’s not a worldly leader, he probably wouldn’t get through the modern Church’s selection process (and that’s sadly telling), he’s basically a cowardly failure, someone who speaks before he thinks, but he’s someone who knows God, who loves Him, trusts Him, and confesses Him, who proclaims Him in word and deed. He’s someone that God can use and be at work in, to be a herald of the Kingdom.
       Above all else, and despite his failings, Peter bears witness to Christ, and we the Church are called to do exactly the same, some two thousand years later: we are to be witnesses to Christ: who He is and what He does, so that we can proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of God’s saving love. That is why we are here today, this morning, to be nourished by Word and Sacrament – to be fed by Christ, with Christ, with His Body and Blood, to witness the re-presentation of the offering of the Son to the Father, the sacrifice of Calvary, which restores our relationship with God and each other, which takes away our sins, which pays the price which we cannot, which gives us the hope of eternal life in Christ, so that we like St Peter can be healed, restored, and forgiven and strengthened in soul and body for our work of witness, so that God may be at work in us, in the proclamation of His Kingdom.

       So let us be like St Peter, and when we are asked ‘Who do you say that the Son of Man is?’ let us confess that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the God who saves us and loves us, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Dying to Live: Trinity I

The death of Our Lord on the Cross reveals that we are meant to be perpetually dissatisfied here below. If earth were meant to be a Paradise, then He Who made it would never have taken leave of it on Good Friday. The commending of the Spirit to the father was at the same time the refusal to commend it to earth. The completion or fulfilment of life is in heaven, not on earth.
Fulton Sheen Victory over Vice 1939: 99
Living a Christian life is at one level a very simple thing: we follow Christ – we do what he told us to do, we fashion our lives after the example of His. We pray because he told us to, we read Scripture which finds its fulfilment and truest meaning in Him. We are baptised like He was, we come together to do just what He did with His disciples on the night before He died because he told us to ‘Do this’, so we do – to be fed by Himand fed with Himso that we may share His life, nourished by Him and given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.
          He calls us to follow Him by taking up our Cross and prizing our relationship with Him over all the things of the world. It’s a bit more tricky, it’s a bit more of an ask, in fact for many people it’s pretty much impossible – such are the enticements of the world, and the fact that the world around us wants us to relegate religion to the private sphere: it shouldn’t affect our lives, it’s something which one can take out of its neat little box and wear for an hour on a Sunday morning, like a hat or some gloves, and then forget about, having done one’s public duty.
          While this may be tempting, it simply will not do. We cannot truly follow Christ if we are not willing to lay down our lives for the sake of Him who died and rose again for us. Baptism and the Eucharist are free, but living out the faith will cost us our lives. And yet we should give them up gladly, even though the world may well deride us, call us fools. In the Gospel Christ says to His disciples, he says to us ‘Do not be afraid … have no fear of them … Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’. We can laugh at those who pour scorn upon us for all that they promise is of this world, fleeting, and of no real value; whereas what Christ promises us is of God, will last forever, it is a glory which can never fade – it is ours and is offered to the whole world for free.
          To follow Him we need to die to sin, we need to turn away from all the selfishness which separates us from God and each other, and instead live out the radical love of the Kingdom – a love which forgives, a love which thinks of others before ourselves. It is no good seeing this in individual terms; it affects us as a society: we need to do this together – you and me, each and every one of us needs to live not enslaved to sin, but as slaves for Christ, whose service is Perfect freedom, freedom from the ways of the world and freedom to live the new life of the Kingdom of God, here and now.

          We are called as a church to live out our faith together, praying for each other, supporting one another, and relying upon God, and His grace, that unmerited kindness and free gift, which we do not deserve, but which has the power to transform us, to conform us to the pattern of His Son. This he pours out upon us in the Sacraments of His Church, so that we might be conformed to His will: fed by God, with God, to have life in Him. We can only do this if we rely upon God and do it TOGETHER, built up in love. 

Dom Gregory Dix on the Eucharist

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

Dom Gregory Dix The Shape of the Liturgy, (London: 1945) 744

Trinity Sunday

“One in essence, distinction of persons, such is the mystery of the Trinity, such is the inner life of God. The three angles of a triangle do not make three triangles but one; as the heat, power, and light of the sun do not make three suns but one; as water, air, and steam are all manifestations of the one substance; as the form, color, and perfume of the rose do not make three roses, but one; as our soul, our intellect, and our will do not make three substances, but one; as one times one times one times one does not equal three, but one, so too in some much more mysterious way, there are three Persons in God and yet only one God.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen (The Divine Romance)

Anglican Clergy can be strange. Amongst their peculiarities possibly the most galling has to be the habit of finding someone other than themselves: a curate, a visiting preacher, a lay reader, to preach this Sunday. On the First Sunday after Pentecost, since at least 1334 when it was granted an official place in the Calendar of the Western Church, and in some form since the Arian Controversy of the 4th Century, the Church has celebrated the mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal.

I suspect that the problem lies with fact that the clergy themselves are frightened of the thought of preaching about a theological concept which they do not really understand, and which they fear their congregations will not either. I cannot claim to understand the mystery of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, but I’m certainly not going to patronise you by assuming that you cannot or do not wish to understand it. At the start of this morning’s Eucharist our worship began by invoking the Name of the Trinity and making the sign of the Cross, just as Christians have done for two thousand years. As Christians we are baptised in the name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. We will soon say the Nicene Creed to profess our faith in the Triune God – it’s what makes us Christians and we express that faith in our worship of Almighty God. In the Offices of the Church, Psalms conclude with the Doxology: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. This is because we SAY what our worship DOES – we give Glory to God, who created us, who redeemed us, and who sanctifies and strengthens us. Thus we celebrate not a theological concept or philosophical proposition, but rather a relationship. When we say ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost’ we are expressing what we as orthodox Christians believe. You cannot truly worship God and deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, or the procession of the Holy Spirit, for what we say and believe affects our lives and our relationship with God.

At the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says to them ‘The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all’. They are words which we continue to use, to this day because they encapsulate our faith. We celebrate the fact that God the Father loves us, and spared not His Only Son for love of us, that His Son saves us by grace, through faith, so that we are built up in love, by the Spirit.

Our relationship with the Divine is intimate: the name Father speaks of a relationship, His Son taught us to pray to Him as Our Father, and dies for us, to heal us, restore us and save us from our sins, and sends His Spirit to strengthen us. This is the faith of our baptism, by which we enter the Church, in which we are nourished by Word and Sacrament, and which gives us the Hope of eternal life in the embrace of a loving God.

The words we use to worship God matter in that they express the faith which we believe, they form us into a community of belief where what we believe affects who we are and what we do. The gift of faith, and the life of love, and the hope of eternal life are something which we do not jealously guard but rather share with the world – we are called to make disciples, to share what we have received, so that others may experience the love of God.

And like all relationships, this goes beyond words, it is something which needs to be experienced, and which we can share. It is only in our experience of this relationship that we can begin to come to understand, and we will only do so fully when we experience this in heaven, in our contemplation of the beatific vision, when we see and experience the fullness of God’s love. So then let us prepare for this by sharing in God’s self giving love at this Eucharist – where God gives himself for us, to feed us, to strengthen us, to bind us together in love for one another and him, our bread for the journey which finds its end in the contemplation of God’s love in all its fullness, and which calls us to share with the world so that it may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsivenot initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.
Fulton Sheen Rejoice, 1984, 9
One of the great things about the Christian faith is that we worship a God whom we can trust, who keeps his promises. The prophet Ezekiel looks to a future when God’s people are sprinkled with clean water and gathered together. It is a promise which finds its fulfilment in the Church – we are given a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone – a generous, loving heart, one filled with the love of God, and are called to share that love with others.
          The event which the Church celebrated on Thursday, and continues to celebrate today: Our Lord’s Ascension, can be a tricky one with which to come to terms. However, just as Jesus came to earth, by the power of the Holy Spirit and took flesh in the womb of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to share our nature, and to heal and restore us, so now Our Risen Lord, having triumphed over death and hell, rises in glory to take our human nature into the Godhead, to point us to our ultimate destiny – eternal life  with God The words of the angels in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles also points to His second coming at the end of time. His words to his assembled followers apply to us as well – you be my witnesses to the ends of the earth and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Their reaction is to constantly devote themselves to prayer – they have an intimate relationship with God. They don’t simply say ‘Oh well that’s lovely, let’s get on with the rest of our compartmentalised life’ but rather they trust in God, they do what he tells them to do, and all of them pray together. In having prayer at the centre of their lives God can be at work in them, and through them in the world, in the power of His Holy Spirit.

          Thus, the prayer of Jesus before His Passion takes on a deeper significance in that it finds fulfilment in the day of Pentecost. We are called to pray, to stay close to God, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and in the power of the Spirit, poured upon us in our Baptism and Confirmation, to bear witness to Christ in the world. In the Eucharist we are fed by God, and fed with God, so that we can share His risen life, and experience the love of God, the love of God seen in Christ, who gives himself for love of us, as a sacrifice, where he is both priest and victim, to restore us and our relationship with God and each other. Having prayed and being nourished by the word of God we prepare to be nourished by God, to be strengthened to pray for His Holy Spirit, and to share the love of God with others, so that we grow together in love and unity.