A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
1 Corinthians 15 v1-11; Luke 5: v1-11
“By the grace of God I am what I am”.
The late, great comedian Jeremy Hardy once made this claim about faith. “I was raised in the Church of England. I can’t say I’m lapsed. You can’t really lapse if you’re an Anglican. You don’t lose your faith, you just can’t remember where you left it”.
Faith as the equivalent of an umbrella, a bus pass, or that wretched set of keys. Faith as something intrinsically forgettable. It's a good line.
St Paul also once made three claims about faith.
- faith is what we receive;
- it is in faith that we stand;
- it is through faith that we are being saved.
I hope that today Paul the Apostle and Jeremy Hardy are filling Heaven with lively conversation.
The First Letter to the Corinthians was probably written twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and Biblical scholars concur that Paul weaves into its text the earliest known creed of the emerging Church. How it might have read had it survived in its own right we will never know: there is disagreement about how much of it Paul quotes in his letter. But it seems likely that these phrases were its core:
“..that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures”.
You’ll recognize a rhythmic, formulaic quality to those lines. They are familiar from the creeds that we say or sing here daily. That Christ died for our sins; that Christ was buried; that Christ was raised on the third day; all in accordance with the Scriptures. It is for this creed that Paul makes his three claims.
He is writing to Corinth because he has heard rumours that the church there has developed serious doubts about its faith: the faith that he had received, the faith that he had handed on to the Corinthians, the faith that is summed up in that creed. The acts of receiving and handing on are important to Paul. They constitute the first claim that he makes for faith. Faith is not something that he has invented and is not something that his friends in Corinth are at liberty to re-invent. Faith is what he has received; faith is what they have received
But ‘receiving’ is only the first of the three claims. We receive good news, Paul writes, and in it we stand. Faith is active. We receive it and we do not (as it were) place it in the umbrella stand and think no more about it. Or put it where we always put the keys and promptly forget where that is. The historical events of the death and resurrection of Jesus are fundamental to who we are. We stand in them and are willing to be judged by them.
Now: we don’t stand in the Norman Conquest. The Peasants’ Revolt is not fundamental to who we are. We are not willing to be judged by the Defenestration of Prague. Those are historical events whose legacies continue to be discussed and contested. Paul claims monumental consequences for the death and resurrection of Jesus because through them we are being saved. This is the third claim that he makes about faith. Perhaps as he makes it he is thinking of his colleague Peter, who appears in both of this morning’s readings, who embodies what it is to receive faith, to stand in faith, and to be saved through faith.
The passage from St Luke’s Gospel culminates in Peter falling down before Jesus and crying out “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” We might say that in that moment Peter receives faith. It’s taken him a while. In the previous chapter of the Gospel Jesus has come to stay at Peter’s house in Capernaum; he has healed his mother-in-law; he has cured many of the townsfolk and cast out many demons. But when his fishing-net begins to break he recognizes what is happening. He recognizes who is standing before him.
But if that is the slam-dunk ‘receiving’ moment the Lord has not finished with Peter. His faith, once received, is not something that he can simply stow away with his fishing tackle and forget about. It’s taken a while for faith to dawn upon him: now it will take a while for it to be perfected. Peter and his colleagues get up and follow Jesus. They stand in their faith, or, more exactly, they walk in it, run in it, sleep in it, eat in it. It comes to characterize who they are. They could no more forget where they left it than they could forget where they left themselves.
Through his faith Peter is being saved. On the night when Jesus is arrested Peter denies even knowing him. So it is that Paul relates to his Corinthian friends that the risen Jesus appears first… to Cephas. To Peter. I hate to label salvation a ‘process’. That sounds like corporate-speak on stilts. But that is what Paul describes. From fisherman, to disciple, to chief apostle and martyr; impulsive, passionate, fearful, triumphant; Peter receives the good news of faith; he stands in it; and it changes him. Through it he is saved. Paul recognizes the same dynamic process at work in himself. “By the grace of God I am what I am” he writes.
“By the grace of God I am what I am”. I was very lucky in my godparents. One of them, Roy, was a priest who served in Birmingham throughout his long ministry. On Thursday I attended the funeral of his widow, Mary, in the parish church where he had been Vicar. She died a few weeks short of her ninetieth birthday at the end of a life that had been filled with joy and with love. Her funeral was a very beautiful acknowledgement of God’s grace at work in a human life. In his sermon her parish priest remembered taking Holy Communion to her in hospital just after Christmas. Faith is what we receive; it is in faith that we stand; it is through faith that we are being saved. Mary had said to him: “Once I could have done without this. But now, I find I can’t”.
Sorry, Jeremy. There’s nothing forgettable about faith. Amen.