A Sermon from Sherborne
Upon this rock
A sermon for Morning Service at Cheap Street Church, Sherborne, preached on Sunday 27 August 2017 by the Rector of Sherborne, Canon Eric Woods
I suppose my favourite Apostle – if one is allowed to have favourites – is St Peter. There’s nothing original about that choice: countless Christians down the centuries have been drawn to this very human, most appealing figure, at once so strong and so weak, fallible, often impetuous, sometimes frightened, and yet a man touched by the finger of God and by the holiness of God.
We had a glimpse of this Peter in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, the celebration of which on 6th August fell on a Sunday this year. You remember the scene. Jesus goes up the mountain, taking with him Peter and James and John. And there he prays, and as he prays he enters into his glory: ‘His face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ [Matthew 17:2]. For Christ’s prayer to the Father was mind to mind, heart to heart and will to will, the prayer of union, and in the glorious mystery of the Transfiguration the whole conflict of Christ’s mission – and the suffering and the pain and the apparent failure of it – were taken into the glory which gave meaning to it all. Christ’s hidden glory – the glory he had with the Father before all worlds – stood revealed upon the holy mount. And hence the appearance of Moses and Elijah, both of whom had suffered, and both of whom had glimpsed the glory of God.
And the three disciples, St Luke tells us, were sore afraid, terrified – and so should we all have been – terrified and overwhelmed. Yet at that moment there was nowhere they would rather be, and Peter could not contain his wonder and his awe. “Lord”, he blurts out, “it is wonderful to be here”. And he longs somehow to stop the clock, to freeze this marvellous moment in time, to arrest this wonderful event and stay with it for ever. “Lord, it is wonderful to be here – so let us make three dwellings, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” That is the impetuous, the foolish Peter all over: the idea of building ‘dwellings’ is just plain silly. We find his words almost embarrassing. Yet we know what he means, and his outburst reaches into the springs of our own yearning to hold on to the experience of God and never let it go.
So like Peter, we have to learn that God comes to us in this overwhelming way but rarely, to transfigure our lives and open them to being changed into Christ’s likeness: as St Paul puts it, to be changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another [2 Cor 3:18]. The brief glimpses of God that you may have had, the profound spiritual experiences that may have come from time to time, that moment years ago when your heart was strangely warmed – these are to be taken as lamps, lamps for lighting the way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in our hearts.
All this St Peter had to learn, and is what he in turn teaches us: that for most of the time we do not live by our religious experiences or by our beliefs and doctrines, but rather by the simple fact that God is always loving us, that he is always thinking of us, that his love for us will not let us go. Peter gradually learned that during the months he spent with Jesus, and above all after the resurrection, when he was out fishing and saw the risen Lord walking towards him on the sea. With all his old impulsiveness he cries “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you over the water.” But then he sees the wind and the waves and begins to sink. And at that moment Peter is not a man full of faith, a man with a mastery of Christian doctrine and belief. He is drowning, and he is afraid. All he can cry is “Lord, save me!” but for Jesus it is enough. He reaches out his hand and catches Peter, and holds him fast.
“O love that wilt not let us go.” Christian life is not a matter of living in constant remembrance of the faith we possess. It is not a matter of chasing a regular spiritual ‘high’ from which to live. Most of the time we are hardly conscious of our faith in God. We do not live with him constantly in our thoughts. But we do live from the fact that we are constantly in God’s thoughts. Our faith’s grip on the Father may loosen. But he holds us fast in his grasp.
And so Peter – sometimes weak and fearful, sometimes rash and foolish – learned what it was to be touched by the finger of God, to be held by the hand of God, and upon that rock Christ built his Church. This is the wonder of today’s appointed Gospel reading [Matthew 16.13-19] – that Jesus chooses perhaps the most flawed of his true disciples, the most headstrong yet often so weak-willed – he chooses this flawed human being to be the rock on which he will build his church. And why? Because Peter is also the most big-hearted, the least small-minded, the most loving, the one least constrained in his spiritual and emotional imagination. We should all take great comfort from that, especially those of us who are well-aware of our own flaws and failings.
And of course the legend is that, thirty years later, Peter’s fears got the better of him again, and he fled from Rome to escape the savage persecution of Christians then going on. And on the Appian Way he met the Lord going in the opposite direction. Peter asked him “Quo vadis?” – Where are you going? And the Lord replied “To Rome, to be crucified anew”. And Peter realised that the Lord would be suffering in the suffering of all those persecuted Christians, and that he should be there with them too. He came to himself, the legend says, and turned back towards Rome, towards death, rejoicing and glorifying God. He had learned the final lesson of faith, that we cannot come to our own resurrection cheaply. We can only come to it through living a costly life. We come to resurrection by way of the Cross. And though we will probably never have to suffer for our faith as Peter did for his, nevertheless we do suffer, we do feel pain and we do know what it is to be in the darkness and to lose sight of the light. And then Peter teaches us not to be afraid, not to fear the way ahead, for we are held in the love of God, and that love will never let us go.