Sunday 28th June 2015, Feast of St Peter, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
Charles Wesley – famous hymn writer – had a classic English clerical background. Educated at Westminster school and Oxford, he was ordained in his 20s as his father and brother before him had been. Three years later he came had a conversion experience. It wasn’t that he went from not believing to believing or anything like that, but he experienced the love and consolation of God in a first-hand way for the first time. A dry and academic faith became enlivened with an overflowing sense of God’s Holy Spirit, of God’s grace. In the same year he wrote the hymn ‘And can it be’ about that experience; we’ll be singing it a bit later.
In writing the hymn, he chose the story of Peter getting out of jail as a metaphor for his own experience:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
It would be difficult to imagine someone more different from Charles Wesley in background than St Peter, a first century Jewish fisherman, with limited education, and making a living from manual work. But they both had an overwhelming experience of Jesus, and became notable preachers. Somehow across the centuries what unites them is so much greater than their differences. Wesley recognised this kinship and celebrated it in his hymn.
I think one of the amazing things about the story of Peter is that it is a story that many people relate to, despite our radically different starting points. Peter is impetuous, accident-prone (to put it kindly), brave – and cowardly; insightful – and ignorant; wise, bumbling, flummoxed and so on. Like so many others, the raw material that God had to work with was of mixed quality. But God’s grace fashioned him into a great saint.
I say that with some hesitation, because I don’t want you to get the impression that God made him a figure fit for a stain glass window despite his failings. Rather, it was his failings that precisely open him to the possibility of God’s working.
In the Gospel reading we heard, Peter is insightful enough to name Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. But I’m not sure that this is entirely a display of his sanctity. I bet he was just brash and outspoken where the other disciples were cautious and defensive and fearful of looking stupid for saying the wrong thing. In any case, Jesus attributes his insight to God: ‘flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.’
Even though we didn’t hear it, just after this reading, Peter’s talk-before-you-think policy gets him into trouble. Jesus tells Peter that he will suffer. Peter argues: ‘No, you can’t let yourself be killed’. This time Jesus attributes his words to the devil: ‘Get behind me, Satan.’
His openness turns out to be openness both to God and Satan, to what is good and evil, to what is life-giving and life-denying, to what builds community and what destroys community. It is this ambiguity in Peter that makes him such a hopeful figure to many people who recognise this ambiguity in themselves. The alternative, pinched, narrow, fearful way is the compulsive need always to be right – which is usually expressed as extreme avoidance of getting it wrong.
God is happy to work with raw material of very mixed quality. The problem is that we are reluctant to do so. We punish ourselves for our failings, or try to beat them out of us, rather than expose them to God’s forgiveness and grace. The reason the story of Peter in prison works so well as a metaphor for true conversion is that it shows that such efforts at self-regulation are largely futile; the work of change is always God’s gift breaking into our powerlessness.
When it comes to powerlessness, the last two weeks have been especially marked by the stories of two shootings – in Charleston at a church and in Tunisia on a beach. The terrorist ideologies behind these shootings were very different, but just as grace looks like grace across cultures, so evil looks like evil in different cultures. But the even more significant story has been the refusal of the church in Charleston and its surrounding community to fall into the racial conflict that the gunman wanted. President Obama said at the funeral of its minister, that this was a place of grace – before leading the congregation in singing ‘Amazing grace’. Stories of bravery in Tunisia in the face of violence, or people willing to shield their loved ones at the risk to their own lives, or helping others escape rather than escaping themselves, are also stories of grace – of generosity, of giving, of service, of uncalled for sacrifice.
Grace is most often evident at moments of extremity. In a sense that’s why God’s love is most celebrated and felt in communities that have faced trauma or need. It’s also why the worst people can sometimes be overwhelmed with God’s love and forgiveness, whereas the ranks of the moderate and polite find grace most elusive. Peter’s failures and his sanctity are intimately related: he learns to love because he denies Jesus; he discovers his voice because he’s not scared of speaking rubbish.
For Peter, grace is made real in his life by the commission that Jesus gave him: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’. We tend to associate this commission with the founding of the worldwide church, and possibly with the Petrine ministry which successive popes have inherited. I’m not knocking that interpretation. But I think for a first century Palestinian Jew, the idea of a building on a rock would have been associated in their mind with the temple in Jerusalem.
Built of a large rock, the temple was the sign of God’s blessing and presence with his people. In an occupied country it was also a sign of defiance; it’s sacrificial cult, their celebration of Passover (the festival of liberation) were a protest against the idea that Rome was the ultimate authority their allegiance was to God.
But Jesus seizes these themes and applies them to human beings. The rock is a person, the Ekklesia – the assembly or gathering built on him – is simply people, and, again, imperfect ordinary human people. St Paul will later use the image of the temple to talk about the Christians in Corinth, a very imperfect lot. Despite their failings, they are the temple of God’s Holy Spirit.
Again the temple, as a great big building on one lump of rock in the Middle East, is easy to make a focus for security, defiance, a sense of victimization, of hostility, or defensiveness. But by embodying God’s presence in humanity – first in the incarnate Jesus and then in the flesh and blood people of the church – God opens up the possibility of vulnerability, openness, forgiveness, and love. The gunmen in Tunisia and Charleston needed a gun to perpetrate hate; but those who spoke of grace needed nothing but their humanity to do so.
Peter, Charles Wesley, a community in Charleston, a church in Wimbledon. God invites us to bring our humanity and nothing else to him. Our humanity which is wounded, fearful, proud, filled with mistakes, open to love, tempted to deny him, uncertain about the future and much more. And when we do, we will hear God’s words, ‘I love, I forgive, I commission’.