Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on St Peter's Day 2014
29 June 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
Every time we name someone or something, we set up some kind of relationship between us and them. Names signify deeper reality and are linked to actual or perceived identity—we all know how names can be used either to build up or to take a swipe. Naming can give life, but it can also take life, freedom, self-respect, even identity away. Think about how nicknames can be affectionate or abusive—names matter, both those we give ourselves and those we give other people. In the ancient world, to give someone your name was to reveal a kind of intimacy—the giving of a name indicated power given or taken, so much so of course that in the Hebrew Bible the Divine Name itself could not be spoken. For us now, in the Christian tradition, the giving of a name is part of the baptismal ceremony. The use of our name in the rites of baptism and confirmation is, if you like, the rooting of discipleship in our flesh—not an abstract concept, but a fleshly reality, revealing that God has called us by name: called us from the fundamental depths of our being.
Our Patron St Peter is a man of several names. In today’s Gospel Jesus calls him Simon bar Jonah—his family name—and Peter. Peter is perhaps more of a nickname, but once which becomes integral to his identity and in the early Christian community comes to completely replace his family name. It is Simon’s recognition of who Jesus really which changes Simon forever when he shouts out that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. As a result of this insight of deep discipleship he becomes Peter, the rock upon which the Church would be built, the one to whom is given the keys of the kingdom, the one who will bind and loose. But a matter of verses after this, Jesus calls him by another name. Not Simon or Peter, but Satan. When Jesus tells the disciples that he must be betrayed and killed, Peter, no doubt brimming with his newfound confidence, says, ‘No Lord! You must not suffer, or die!’ And Jesus calls him Satan –a stinging rebuke – because Simon the Rock has misunderstood the whole thing. The Church that would be built on Peter’s faith and witness would not be a project about shoring up worldly success. It is not Peter’s task to keep the Church safe, any more than it is Jesus’ mission to preserve himself from harm; rather it is Peter’s task to keep the Church true to her Lord and true to her mission. Those dark forces of violence and dislocation we call the powers of hell will try to destroy the Church, and the temptation for the disciple will always be to betray rather than to remain, but Christ’s promise is that the new way of life which his death and resurrection inaugurates will always ultimately be stronger and will prevail even, perhaps especially in those parts of our world where the darkness appears stronger.
The problem for Peter, and doubtless for the others, is that reality often doesn’t feel like that. We’re sympathetic towards Peter – the impulsive, passionate friend who wants to be a kind of ‘project manager’ for Jesus’ ministry. You can almost hear him saying it ‘going to get yourself killed isn’t actually the greatest idea.’ Perhaps it was only much later, after the resurrection, when writing the letter which bears his name which we heard read this morning that Peter finally understood. The example that Christ has left the Church is to not return abuse, or threats, or to be afraid, because being true to the Lord and true to his mission, especially in the darkest places of the world, reveals the kingdom. Peter learns, slowly, that the only way to be the rock is to remain faithful to his first calling, when Jesus called him and his brother Andrew away from their fishing nets and simply said, ‘Follow me.’ It’s not possible to just be The Rock, to just be Peter – he is also, and firstly, Simon, the disciple, the follower as well as the leader. This is a Rock which needs to be reconciled. A Rock who will deny his Lord three times when the going gets tough, and who can only really know that the gates of hell will not prevail once he has looked them in the face through his own denial and betrayal of the mystery with which he has been entrusted. The mystery that he is not handed over to the powers of hell by his own act of betrayal is perhaps the only way for Peter to learn the full extent of Jesus’s world-transforming mission.
Any of us who is fearful, doubting, angry with God or ridden with guilt should be comforted by Peter, this unlikely Prince of the Apostles who only learns the message he is called to proclaim by denying it. He cannot possess it, control it, cast it in his own terms. Rather, he eventually learns that he must allow the message to possess him, and allow himself to be recast by it, to find his own truest identity deep within it. How often on those days after Jesus’ trial when he denied knowing Jesus must Peter have wept bitterly at the thought of being referred to by anyone as a Rock!
At the end of St John’s Gospel, there is a remarkable story we heard proclaimed as the Gospel here on Friday night. The Risen Jesus meets Peter on the beach by the Sea of Tiberius where they had first met. St John, with his beautiful literary style gives us some early clues about what is really happening. They eat breakfast by a charcoal fire – the last time we heard of a charcoal fire in the Gospel was the night Peter was warming himself even as he denied knowing Jesus – and gradually, progressively, as the smell of the fire surely stirs the memories of that treacherous night, Jesus disarms him. In the most beautiful inversion of Peter’s three-fold betray, Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. But instead of calling him Simon Peter, or Peter, as he has throughout John’s Gospel, he simply calls him ‘Simon, son of John.’ The name he uses is Peter’s familiar name. At that moment of redeeming reconciliation, Jesus does not call him the Rock, but Simon. Peter’s new name, if you like, his ‘baptismal’ name, is in fact his old name. John uses two different Greek words for love—he says ‘agapas me?’ and then ‘phileis me?’ This is an holistic conversion experience—can you, Simon, love me unconditionally? Can you, Simon, love me as a brother and a friend? The conversation closes with two simple words, the very words Jesus used beside the Lake when he first met Simon, with his brother Andrew. Follow me. That’s the Gospel for Simon which allows him to be Peter. Peter can only bind and loose, can only lead the Church once he has been reconciled to his own fragile need of redemption. Our weakness is not incidental to our salvation, indeed God can use those parts of our lives we are most depressed by—the bits we keep on getting wrong—if we allow him to challenge us, and if we put our lives at the service of his love. That is discipleship. That is listening quietly and intently to those words which re-weave a world, ‘Follow me’. That, for Peter, is the Gospel.
In his book-length poem The Triumph of Love, which is a lengthy, extraordinary critique of modern culture (and indeed of the superficiality of much of the church), Geoffrey Hill in The Triumph of Love XVII offers glimmers of hope which remind us of much to take to heart as we celebrate St Simon Peter:
If the gospel is heard, all else follows:
The scattering, the diaspora…
Penitence can be spoken of, it is said,
But is itself beyond words;
Even broken speech presumes…
We do not know the saints.
His mercy is greater even than his wisdom.
If the gospel is heard, all else follows.
We shall rise again, clutching our wounds.