St Bride's: Sermons

Forty Years On

Matthew 16: 13-19

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13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

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I wonder if you can remember what you were doing on 29th June 1973? It was a Friday if that helps.

Well the answer is "probably not". Some of you weren't even born then. But I can remember that day and remember it very well - because it was the day I was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Oxford with eight others at Christ Church, Reading, where I served my title.

So this weekend is a significant one for me - not only is it my birthday but more importantly I am celebrating forty years of ministry. It is both scary and humbling to reflect on this milestone: where have all the years gone? It seems that not long ago that a young and inexperienced curate began to have the corners knocked of him as he learnt his trade in a very mixed part of Reading, with then one of the largest housing estates in Europe stretching from the University campus down to the M4 motorway: Happy Days!

And what a tremendous privilege it has been to have been an ordained minister in the Church of England for all that time.

It is certainly the case that the church is a very different one from that into which I was ordained in 1973. Over the past forty years a lot has changed. We have seen a decline in institutional religion, and the rise of secularism, the marginalisation of the church as an institution, and the privatisation of religion. (Forty years ago I could go into my local hospital, ask to see the admissions list and visit any patients from my parish whose names I recognised: I cannot do that today.)

Yet in spite of this, churches are in many ways livelier, more engaged, more community-minded than they were forty years ago. In spite of the wariness of institutional religion there is an acknowledgement that science and technical progress haven't delivered the brave new world that was hoped for in the immediate post-war years.

There is a consequent yearning for spiritual understanding and for something that will help find the answer to life's big questions. So I am still confident, after forty years of ministry, that the Christian story is worth sharing and that the Christian community has good things to offer society. In particular, the more I read and re-read the Gospels I find that the person of Jesus whom I encounter there, still has power to take me by surprise with His freshness and His wisdom and His love and forgiveness.

Yesterday was the Feast of St Peter and its no coincidence that this traditionally is the main time in the church's year for people to be ordained, because Peter was the rock on which Jesus founded the church. Peter was the one who said, "Lord, to whom shall we go: you have the words of eternal life."

Peter was the one who made the great declaration of faith we heard in this morning's Gospel reading: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," thereby putting into words what the rest of Jesus' followers had half-understood but were struggling to express.

But Peter was also the one who, in a moment of weakness, denied his Lord and said to Jesus "Depart from me for I am a sinful man O Lord."

Maybe G.K. Chesterton had it right when he wrote:

All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historical Christian Church, was founded on a weak man and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link."

For all his weakness Peter was the rock on which Jesus began to build his emerging community of followers.

The Community that Jesus was intent on building began at that moment of Peter's declaration and Jesus' subsequent affirmation and it has continued and grown, and I was ordained into one branch of it in 1973, and we are all part of it today, and George, baptised here this Sunday, is its newest local member.

I give thanks today, as I hope you do, for the Church of England with its breadth, its tolerance, its rich inheritance of liturgy, art, architecture and music, an for the nurture that it has given me over forty plus years.

I pray that this church will continue to nurture and strengthen all of us through its sacraments, and that with all itsfrailties and failings, an with all our human weaknesses, it will continue to be a place where we encounter GGod and make our own hesitating response, as Peter die: 'You Lord, are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.' You have the words of eternal life. Amen.

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