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Sermon – Sunday July 2017
The sermon below was preached on the first weekend in July when we celebrated St. Peter`s Patronal festival and Joel Love`s 40th Birthday.
St Peter’s Rochester Patronal Festival
We are told that life begins at 40. That’s very good news for your vicar to whom we wish many happy returns on this special weekend for you as a parish celebrating your patronal festival and for him as he completes his forty year journey to the promised land of middle age.
But when does life begin? That’s a very complicated question for Christians. It’s complicated because Christians have always believed that there is a human life with a soul before point of birth, though quite when is a matter of disagreement. So we wrestle with all the questions about how unborn life should be treated.
But it’s complicated, too, because Christians have also always believed that there is another birth after birth. There is a clear message in the New Testament that every human life requires a new beginning, a moment when life truly begins.
Jesus says to Nicodemus in John’s gospel, “Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless they are born again.” And that’s how we the Church of England understand baptism. Baptism is a second birth, the point where Christian life begins and we are born again into the family of the church.
But of course there are different ways of understanding this. This weekend we celebrate the feast of your patron St Peter and jointly with him the great apostle St Paul. And these two heroes of the early church present us with two different ways of understanding how life begins in Christian terms.
For St Paul it was a moment as he journeyed on the road to Damascus – a moment of obedience, a moment of insight, a moment of repentance, all wrapped into one literally blinding moment. It was an absolute turning point in his life, signified by the changing of his name, and the yet more radical change in his attitude towards Jesus Christ and his followers.
In the life of St Peter, we see a different pattern. For Peter there is a series of moments, a succession of new beginnings where life is transformed in the company of Jesus Christ. There is the moment of obedience where he leaves his nets by the shore of Lake Galilee in order to follow Jesus. It is an act of almost blind faith, a submission to an unknown future. In Luke’s Gospel that obedience is coupled with a feeling of unworthiness as he witnesses one of Jesus’ first miracles and can only respond, “Get away from the Lord, I am a sinful man.”
Those are feelings that resurface at the end of the gospel when Peter betrays Jesus, claiming that he does not even know him for fear that he will suffer the same fate. But that quickly becomes the moment of repentance as he hears the cock crow and he remembers how Jesus himself had predicted this betrayal, but loved him anyway. And he broke down and wept. Then in John’s Gospel we are given the moment of reconciliation, as he reverses his three times stated betrayal with a three times repeated affirmation of love for Jesus who calls him to “tend my sheep”.
So life begins again for Peter at the moment of obedience. Life begins again Peter at the moment of repentance and reconciliation. But in between these two is the moment of insight, the moment described in this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Of all Peter’s moments of new beginning, this is the one where, like Saul on the Damascus Road, Jesus gives Peter his new name. He is no longer Simon, but Petros, a pun on the word rock. This muddled, unreliable, unthinking fishermen is now the foundation of the new community into which millions of future Christians will be reborn. And why? Because he has had a moment of insight about who Jesus is and about the significance of Jesus for the life of the world. Peter as many moments where life begins again. But this seems to be the moment where he is truly reborn.
So why? What marks out the moment of insight over the moments of obedience and repentance? It is surely that obedience and repentance are acts of human will. But insight is an act of grace. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” And that is a reminder to us that for all the necessity of our responses to God – for all the need on our part to make new beginnings – it is by God’s grace that life begins.
St Paul is often seen as the key figure in Protestant Christianity and St Peter (understood as the first pope) as the key figure in Catholic Christianity. And that was illustrated beautifully in two speakers I heard many years ago at an ecumenical event called “How I became a Christian” organized by the Churches Together group in the town where I grew up. One speaker was the pastor of a house church who said “I became a Christian at 4pm on 3rd April 1975.” He had a Damascus Road experience where obedience, repentance and insight were all wrapped into one. But the next speaker was the old Irish priest who stood up and said “Well, I became a Christian this morning, by God’s grace. And by God’s grace I became a Christian yesterday morning. And in all likelihood, by God’s grace I will become a Christian tomorrow morning.”
That spoke volumes to me about living out of God’s initiative in our lives. For some people the Christian life begins at a decisive moment, a moment that changes everything. But most of us, I think, are like Peter. There are many moments, of obedience and repentance. But new life truly comes out of the moments where we are given, by grace, insight into God’s great plan for us, God’s great love for the world, God’s kingdom of justice, peace and joy that is being revealed around us.
So give thanks this weekend for your vicar whose forty years have been shaped by moments of obedience, moments of repentance and most powerfully by moments of insight. And give thanks for Peter who shows us all how life begins, again and again, in the company of the one who is life itself, Jesus Christ.