SS Peter and Paul

The city of Rome is famous for many things, and chief among them is that the city is the final resting place of two of the Apostles, SS Peter and Paul. Both were martyred there during the persecution of the emperor Nero, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. They bore witness to their faith even to the point of death because it was that important to them. And while everyone knows St Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, built over the site of his tomb, many people do not even know that St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles is buried there too, just outside the City Walls, on the great road south to Capua, the Via Appia. While Paul is remembered for his letters and St Luke’s account of his missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, his resting place attracts far fewer visitors and pilgrims.

Now 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 such a bad thing insofar as it points out our need to rely entirely 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. Likewise St Paul goes from persecuting the Church to being the most zealous proclaimer of the Good News of Jesus Christ, through the power of God.

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.

Jesus’ 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, and is rebuked. After Our Lord’s arrest Peter, the rock, will deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. After the Resurrection Peter will need to be reminded to ‘feed Christ’s sheep’. There is also the story that during the first persecution in Rome under Nero, Peter flees, he tries to save his own skin. And he sees Christ carrying His Cross towards Rome. So Peter turns back and 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 exactly 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.

TWELFTH SUNDAY OF YEAR C (Zechariah 12:10-11, 13:1, Gal 3:26-29, Lk 9:18-24)

The Jews in Israel in the time of Jesus knew what to expect of a Messiah: he would be an anointed king, of the House of David, who will unite the peoples, rule them and usher in an age of peace. Peace and freedom was what the people desired. First the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans had taken control of their land. The Messiah was their only hope for peace and freedom.

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples a simple question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’.They reply, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets’. He then asks the question, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ Peter answers, ‘The Christ of God’ By this Peter means a Messiah in the traditional sense. But Jesus commands that they tell no-one about this, because He is not going to be that kind of Messiah. He will fulfil the prophecies, but not in the way people expect.

Today Christ asks the same question of each and every one of us. Who do we say Jesus is? What we say matters. What we believe matters, and affects our life. Jesus goes on to say that the Son of God must suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and be raised on the third day. That’s all a bit strange, really. He’s the Messiah, the Anointed of God and yet He will be rejected by Israel.

Throughout Israel’s history recorded in the Bible the people have turned away from God, worshipped idols and false gods, and it looks like they will again. As Zechariah prophesied, ‘when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.’ (12:10) They will look on him whom they have pierced, on the Cross, on Calvary. But Zechariah goes on, ‘On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.’ (13:1) Christ’s death will be the fountain to cleanse us from sin and uncleanness. This we experience in our baptism, in the confession of our sins, and in the Eucharist: the fulfilment of prophecy.

Zechariah points forward to Christ, the Word made flesh, the Word of God who fulfils God’s Word.

To those who come after Him, which includes us, Christ says, ‘let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.’ (Lk 9:23-24) As those saved and made free by the Cross of Christ, we take up our cross and follow Christ. We imitate Him, in selfless love and devotion, and bear the weight of the cross in life’s difficulties and disappointments. Following Christ is hard, as we lose our lives for Christ’s sake. If it were not, we would be surprised. It’s a struggle, and we cannot rely upon ourselves to get through. Instead it needs to be a corporate effort, something we do together, as a Christian community, trusting in God. Trusting in His Grace to be at work in us, both individually and as a neighborhood.

So we have a very different kind of Messiah offering us a very different way of life, which we see expressed perfectly in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. As children of God we are in a relationship with our Heavenly Father. We are saved through our baptism where we put on Christ, we are clothed with Him, so that we can be transformed more and more into His likeness. Now all human distinctions disappear. They don’t matter, because we are all one IN CHRIST. That was a radical thing to say when Paul preached nearly two thousand years ago, and it still is today. We are all one in Christ: young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or anything else. As Christians we are all one in Christ.

To a world that is concerned with wealth, privilege, education, popularity, and all sorts of worldly things, the Church says: none of this matters. None of it does, other than belonging to Christ. How refreshing! How deeply counter-cultural! We can counter the emptiness and the vanity of the world, and offer it something meaningful and wonderful: new life in Christ.

This is why Christ died for us. To heal us, and restore us, to make us free to live in Christ, and for Him. Christ wants us to lose our lives for His sake, and find freedom in His service. We need to be humble enough to accept what God offers us, and be prepared to try to live it together. It isn’t about us, but rather letting God be at work in us. We co-operate with God, and live in love, and joy, and peace. We flourish as human beings. It’s liberating. It is what God wants for us. This is what true freedom is like, and we can live it together. So let us, and thereby 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.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday, or the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, has been kept throughout the Western Church on the Sunday after Pentecost since 1334. It was the Sunday on which Thomas Becket was consecrated a bishop in 1162, and he commanded that the anniversary of his consecration  should be celebrated in honour of the Holy Trinity. The Feast was popular, so popular in fact, that the remaining Sundays before Advent were numbered after Trinity, rather than after Pentecost, in England and Wales.

The word itself, Trinity, coined by Tertullian in the second century AD combines the words for three and unity, three persons and one God, and this should not surprise us. Christian worship is Trinitarian, we worship One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are baptised in their names, and our eucharist this morning begins ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân’. The Creed which we are about to say has a tripartite structure, and expresses our belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are so used to it that we rarely stop to notice what we are doing, and why we do it. Our worship as Christians helps to form what we believe, and who we are. We believe, we put our trust in the God who created all that is. His Son, Jesus Christ, teaches us to call Him, ‘Our Father’ and so we pray to the Almighty Creator of all things knowing that He is Our Father too, we are in a relationship with a loving parent.

The Father begets the Son, and from Them the Spirit proceeds. Both the Spirit and the Son can be understood as the Wisdom of God described in our first reading this morning, thus the Son is eternally begotten, and the Spirit proceeds, moving over the waters as God creates the universe in Genesis. And between the first and second readings we have the entirety of salvation history, from the Creation of the Universe to the Day of Pentecost. Now, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Church we experience God in a profound and new way, as St Paul says, ‘because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5 ESV) This is reality of the Church, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, a spirit of love and joy. Jesus promises the Spirit to His apostles in John’s Gospel. Jesus promises us a Spirit who will lead us into all truth.

As Christians we worship One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: they are not three Gods, but one God. That the three persons of the Trinity are one God is itself a mystery. The mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal. We know God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died upon the Cross for our sins, and was raised to New Life at Easter, who sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Christ God discloses who and what he is, we know Him as someone who pours out LOVE, who is interested in reconciliation. The wonderful thing about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is that we can know and experience God in a full way. We can know Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who speaks to us in Scripture, and who comes to us in Bread and Wine, so that we may be fed with His Body and Blood. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, and the point of all this is OUR transformation, by the power of God. We are not celebrating an abstract concept today, but rather a generous and loving God. Our God is not simply remote and transcendent, but one who makes His home with us, gives us His life, and transforms and heals us in LOVE. This is all possible through the relationship God has with us, through His Son and His Spirit, something concrete, personal and real.

In Christ, God becomes human, and can understand us from the inside, so to speak. This is not a distant, impersonal divinity, but one who lives a human life. One who understands our frailty, and who loves us. He sends His Spirit so that we may be encouraged and led into all truth, in the Church. We will face difficulties and hardships. Christ promises us no less, as does St Paul in our second reading. But the point is that these experiences, while painful, can be positive: we grow and develop through them. We become not jaded and embittered, but more loving and forgiving. We become what God wants us to be, so that we can be transformed by His redeeming love. God offers us all the opportunity to be something different, something more than we are, if we let Him change us. If we co-operate with His grace, so that filled with the Holy Spirit, and nourished by Word and Sacrament, God may be at work in us, transforming us into His likeness. So as we celebrate the mystery of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, let us pray that we may be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others so that they may come to 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.

Pentecost 2019

The world in which we live can be a strange and confusing place, but it is fair to say that for the last fifty or sixty years we have not generally been that keen on having people tell us what to do. Now this makes things difficult for those of us who preach, precisely because moral instruction is our stock in trade. In other words, we tell people what to do, and how to live their lives. We do this because the Bible, as read and interpreted by the Church, shows us how to live in such a way that leads to human flourishing. Hence Jesus’ words in the Gospel, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ (Jn 14:15 ESV) If we love God, we will listen to what He tells us, through His Son, and do what He says. We will not be like the world, which cannot receive the Spirit of Truth, because it refuses to listen, or obey.

The disciples have been to told to wait and pray. It is the feast of Pentecost, some fifty days after the Passover, Shavuot, the feast of weeks, a week of weeks, or fifty days, celebrating the grain harvest in Israel, and Moses giving the Law to Israel on Mt Sinai. It’s a time when Jews would come to be in Jerusalem. They would come from all over the world, to be there. And what they experience is something like the undoing of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Instead of division, we see unity, and all the peoples of the world can hear and understand the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, and has sent His Holy Spirit.

It is this same Holy Spirit which we receive in our Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination, which makes us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are part of God’s family, and through Christ we have an inheritance, the hope of heaven. Good news indeed! The same Holy Spirit, which brought about the Incarnation in the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, through which Christ became incarnate in His mother’s womb, to be born for us, has been given to us. We have been filled with the same Spirit: you, me, every one of us here. And because of this God can do wonderful things in and through us. It helps us to be who and what God wants us to be, to have life in all its fulness.

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples, which includes us, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’. In other words, we will love God and our neighbour and live lives like Jesus, exhibiting the same costly, sacrificial love that He does. Not for nothing does St Paul say, ‘provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom 8: 17 ESV) To follow Christ is to live a cross-shaped life, and we must expect difficulties, hardships, and sacrifice. And we embrace such things with JOY, because they bring us closer to Christ, and His sufferings. We need to love Jesus and keep his word so He and the Father will make their home with us. In St Paul’s Letter to the Romans we see what life in the Spirit is like. It is a turning away from the ways of the world and the flesh: not despising it, since Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ came in the flesh in the Incarnation, it was in the flesh that Our Lord ascended into heaven taking our flesh into the life of the Godhead, so that where he has gone we may also go. We are to sit lightly to the world and its ways, and through submitting to God to find perfect freedom in him. In the service of the Triune God we can be truly free, free to live for Him and to proclaim His truth to the world. If we love God this is what we are called to be, how we are called to live. Only in the Spirit can we enter fully into the divine life of love, and live out this love in the world. In the power of this love we can begin to understand the mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation, His life, death, and resurrection, and we can let these mysteries shape our lives as Christians.

God will make his home with us in His word, Holy Scripture and the sacraments of his Church – outward signs of the inward grace which he lavishes on us in the power of his Spirit. That is why we are here today: to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, to see the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, to stand by the Cross so that we may be washed in the blood and water which flows from his side. In this we see God’s love for us, and we are strengthened to live the life of the Spirit: we can remain close to the God who loves us and saves us. We can be taught by his Spirit to remain in the faith which comes to us from the Apostles who first received the Spirit on this day. Let us live strengthened by Spirit, nourished by word and sacrament, in holiness and joy, proclaiming the truth and love of God, 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.