St Bride's: Sermons

Faith

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On this rock I will build my Church - a fairly straightforward statement isn't it? Yet much in the way of Christian disagreement has resulted from it.... Did Jesus mean that on the rock of Simon Peter He would build His Church? - Peter the disciple named by his parents Simon but re-named, christened Peter by Jesus. 

Petros - Cephas - rock in Latin and Greek respectively - possibly 'Rocky' in American! A name foretelling his great role as the foremost disciple - the Apostle who became the first Pope. It is the interpretation that most of Christendom would have held onto until the Reformation in the 16th CE. So far, so Catholic.

However, an alternative understanding of this sentence is that it is not Peter himself but his faith, the faith that has seen that Jesus is 'The Messiah, the Son of the Living God', which is the rock on which the Church will be built. And that fits right in with the great Lutheran and Protestant claim to justification by faith alone.

So, far from being straightforward, this statement sits at the heart of some of the divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Yet can't both be true?

For it is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that Peter played a fairly major role in the spread of the Gospel after Jesus' ascension to heaven - giving rise, if in historical terms alone, to the Papacy and the centre of the church being found in Rome. There is no claim at this stage that the Papacy is infallible - simply an issue of inspired leadership. Yet it is because of his faith that Peter is chosen to lead the Church; it is his faith, that Jesus is the Messiah, that marks him out.

Sadly however, the polarised positions of the Catholic and Protestant wings of Christianity have led these two, potentially complementary interpretations, of this Gospel passage to harden into opposed understandings. They have been used as the basis of arguments between Christian factions, holding up faith positions as concrete certainties used as a basis for alienation and exclusion. It is sad, because that was never the point of Jesus' ministry, which was above all about welcoming and including anyone who was seeking God.

It is also important to note that to look at Peter's faith as a rock-hard certainty doesn't bear much analysis. Although on occasions, like the meeting at Caeserea Philipi, Peter did glimpse these insights about Jesus' divinity - and followed him loyally - for much of the time he did not really get it - his faith was confused and stumbling and wavering.

Only a few weeks ago we heard, in our Sunday Gospel, about Peter jumping impetuously off the boat to walk on water - only to sink and require Jesus to rescue him - and be called 'Ye of little faith...' Above all he ran away - as did all of the disciples - when Jesus was arrested and things looked like they had gone horribly wrong. So much for a rock - whether Peter himself or his faith - not the sort of leader you'd trust to build a church or start a new project today - his CV wouldn't even make the shortlist.

Malcolm Guite's Sonnet about Peter sums him up beautifully:

 

Impulsive master of misunderstanding

You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,

Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove

That each denial is undone by love.

 

Yet God has a tendency to choose the unlikely, the unready, the flawed characters to lead His people. It is interesting to compare Peter with another great Biblical leader from today's first reading. Moses, who escaped Pharaoh's cull of Hebrew babies by being placed in the reeds, rescued by Pharaoh's daughter and by sleight of hand nursed by his own mother, presented as a servant to the royal household.

Moses grew up a Jewish boy, raised in the court of the Egyptian rulers, who were oppressing the Jewish people to the extent of killing their children. He, like Peter, showed an alarming streak of the impetuous: as a young man, growing into an awareness of his heritage, he murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew - only to find that he was suspect rather than a hero amongst his people for doing so and fled into exile rather than risking facing the music.

Yet against all the apparent odds he was then called from exile to lead his people out of the country of his privileged upbringing and to the Promised Land, despite his history, his stammer and a lack of enthusiasm for leadership that he strongly protested to God.

And yet, Peter's faith ended up enduring to the point where he went to prison and then his death for preaching the Gospel. And Moses' faith endured the 40 years wandering in the Promised Land, repeatedly challenged by a disgruntled people frustrated about not knowing what they were doing there and where they were going - and not quite making it into the Promised Land after all.

The picture that the Bible paints of both Moses and Peter is of faith that is wavering, sometimes impetuous, yet that holds on despite challenges of prison or stroppy followers. It is a faith that follows without having a clear plan or knowing fully where it will lead; and yet it is not a faith that is blind or sycophantic or unquestioning. For Moses argues with God about whether he should be leading his people and in his turn gets stroppy with God about the rebellious people he's been called to lead.

Peter questions Jesus - challenges him for washing his feet - suggests that he should not go to Jerusalem because it's dangerous, leading to Jesus telling him, "Get behind me Satan!"

Faith is absolutely not about clear and sorted out certainties; nice rational explanations of life, the universe and everything. Rather faith and Christian discipleship is an act of love, an act of commitment to the glimpse of God through Christ, that leads us to church and baptism or confirmation or ordination in the first place; just as Peter's glimpse of reality that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, is the rock on which his faith is founded and ultimately takes him to leadership in those very first days of the Church of God.

For some people that rock or touchstone is a particular life-changing event or glimpse of understanding; for others it is a more gradual sense of faith or presence of God. When I was working with students in Birmingham - inevitably quite a transient congregation, at a point in their lives which is about finding one's feet and identity - one of the exercises I did with them was to consider what it was that had brought them to the chaplaincy.

What had led them, now that they had left home and were no longer bound by parental expectations or a school timetable, to carry on going to Church whilst at university. In each case there was something - an experience of peace in prayer - a sense of relationship with Christ - a realisation of belief in eternal life following a funeral - that was the identifiable kernel of faith, the beginning of their adult journey with Christ.

Pondering that initial experience led inevitably to further reflection about their journey in faith - and a recognition that it didn't matter that it had gone up and down, waxed and waned, changed and grown because that initial touchstone from which it had grown, was still there.

Whatever it is on which your faith - or your hope of faith - is founded, it is from that rock, that touchstone, that faith then continues to grow - strengthened despite the challenges and confounding of whatever we thought it was about in the first place.

So as you go from here today you may like to ponder the question of what is your touchstone of faith - what is it that keeps you coming to Church? What is it for you that is that moment of realisation like Simon Peter's "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God"?

And if your faith is struggling at the moment, it may help to hold onto those words about Peter from Malcolm Guite - remembering that even for Peter, chosen as the rock or the rock of faith, on which the Church is founded:

It was his, "broken faith" that was "always growing," - allowing Jesus "to hold you even when you sink" - knowing that Jesus chose to name Peter even "before [he] knew how to deserve that name."

And above all remembering that "in the end your Saviour lets you prove that each denial is undone by love."

Amen.

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