A sermon preached on Thursday 29 June by Revd Canon Simon Weeden, Team Rector of the Whitton Team Ministry.
Acts 12:1-12 & Matthew 16:13-19.
‘The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.’ 1 Thessalonians 5 v24
Today we remember and celebrate the lives and ministries of Saints Peter and Paul. Here are two giants of the early church, whose lives were woven into the warp and weft of the ministry and the mission of those early Christian communities. Ministries which challenged the assumptions about whom God might be calling; challenged the foundational practices of the ceremonial law as it applied to non-Jews; and began a mission of evangelism and church planting which continues to this day.
These two men were significant leaders of the early church but whose backgrounds were very different: Peter, a relatively un-educated man, whose livelihood was based on fishing but who had followed Jesus since he was introduced to him by his brother Andrew. Paul, a highly educated man, at ease in Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, but who had only become a committed follower of Jesus Christ in the early years of the Christian church: from persecutor to church planter. They had their moments of agreement and disagreement but, in so many ways, their different life stories have much to say to us in our own Christian journeys and ministries.
In one of the readings set for today from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we hear the phrase that “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” And later, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat...” Just think for a moment about Paul’s journey from the road to Damascus across the known world of the Roman Empire.
It began with an immediate trust in the Lord. When he was struck down and heard the voice of Jesus, he allowed himself to be guided to the city and there he waited for what would come next. Over the following years, Paul found himself in Asia Minor, on the Greek mainland and on the islands, in mortal danger, in prison and, finally in Rome. He trusted and experienced the Lord standing by him on his journeys and, under house arrest in Rome, he trusted the Lord to rescue him, not literally from bodily death, but to the safety of being in the hands of God.
A question that surfaces in our reflection could well be, ‘Do I trust this much? Could I be so confident in the guidance and calling of God?’ We may not be called to be Paul, but perhaps we are often too timid, too complacent and too bound up in our own lives to be prepared to step out in sharing our faith and meeting the needs of others; only so far and then no further.
And then there is Peter; a man who left his family business to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. A man with whom we may feel a certain empathy – enthusiastic but with a gift for getting hold of the wrong end of the stick; having times of profound insight but also capable of missing the point and the moment. As Bishop Michael Marshall observed: Simon, called Peter by Jesus but sometimes more of a ‘sandy’ than a ‘rocky’, and yet, in the event, a key part of the foundation of the church.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the account of how Peter is freed from prison by an angel. A couple things might strike us here. First, Peter must have been fairly relaxed or unconcerned to be able to sleep so deeply that he was not fully awake until he was outside the city gates. Perhaps that speaks of his trust that things would be alright. Secondly, his proclamation at the end of the passage, “Now I know for certain that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod and from all that the Jewish people had been expecting.” His experience bolstered his faith and trust in God.
For us, encumbered, as the hymn says, by ‘pleasure, wealth and care’ we may well ask, ‘What is binding me, how am I imprisoned? Do I expect or look for God to set me free from the things which get in the way of my spiritual life and journey? Do I trust that the Lord will free me? Do I want to be set free?’.
In Peter and Paul we find people whose lives had been touched profoundly by God. Their ministries and spiritual journeys were both a consequence of and a part of the reality of being ‘in Christ’ and He in them. The more time he spent in the presence of Jesus, the clearer Peter became in his understanding of who Jesus might be.
In the Gospel reading we see how he was gifted with the knowledge that Jesus is the Christ. Just as Paul was to respond in trust and obedience, when he met with the spirit of Jesus on the road to Damascus, Peter’s introduction to Jesus by Andrew led to a life of trust and faith in Jesus. At the outset, Peter “dropped his nets and followed.” Peter got out of the boat. He followed Jesus through his earthly ministry of preaching, healing and personal care. Peter returned to the Christian community (and Jesus) after he denied Jesus at his death. He trusted he would be accepted back and forgiven. Peter wasn’t perfect but we can see that he had a deep faith and trust in Jesus. More importantly, Jesus could see that faith and trust as he drew him back to his side.
Peter and Paul had faith not just that Jesus was the Christ or that he would rescue them from bodily danger or pain. But more importantly that Jesus and his Father would always be there with them: in the prison cell, when they were blind or without vision, when they were sinking, struggling, dying.
God’s calling to Peter and Paul was rooted in their faith and trust. They were not perfect – which of us is – but they had the depth of relationship with God which sustained them in times of conflict, times of failure and in the times when they went beyond the accepted boundaries emboldened by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Today, as we prepare for the ordinations of deacons and priests, let us remember the lives of St Peter and St Paul and pray and consider:
Can I trust this much?
How am I imprisoned?
Where might God be calling me?
And so, at this time of ordinations, I conclude with a verse from St Paul, given to me by my spiritual director before my Petertide priesting more than 25 years ago, ’The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it’.