Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Sermon for SS Peter and Paul.

For those who interest themselves in such things, here is my text for Sundays sermon.

If you walk from here, Whittaker Lane, to Albert Square in Manchester and stand by the Town Hall, you will be considerably less breathless that you would be if you had walked the other way, that is, from the Town Hall to St Hilda’s. The reason for this is that it is all downhill from here to Manchester and, in fact, if you were able to walk horizontally from here to the Town Hall, you would find yourself hovering unhappily about two feet from the top of the weathervane on the tallest tower which is an unenviable position. Down you would fall, past that great building, admiring the crenellations and stained glass until you hit the solid ground of the square leaving you in no doubt that the Town Hall of Manchester, filled with scandal, money wasting and gold mosaics that it is, is in fact built on solid rock. However, even though your bones would surely have broken in the fall, you have the metaphysical upper hand for this is not really solid ground at all, just the impression of it. For what you have fallen on is the building work of hundreds of years. As each building is knocked down, the new ones which rise in it’s place are built a bit higher than the last ones and the city gradually rises up, built not only on the solid rock of the earth, but also on the experience and the wreckage of previous generations.

This is shown not only in the building of towns and cities, but in the villages as well, where you often see the centres on small hills, built on the barrows and burial chambers of long forgotten chieftains and we also see it in our day to day lives as well, in the days of the week, for instance, named after old roman gods and now adopted by the Christian Church, in this (point at vestment), modelled on the ancient servants tunic of the Roman household. We have a curious ability to assimilate and build on that which has been important to those who came before us and to compromise in the most unlikely places. I can think of a Church in Germany also used as a synagogue, an Anglican Church in Leeds which also served as the Catholic Cathedral for two years – and with good reason, for today we celebrate the foundation of the Church, built on the most peculiar two people.

Today’s Gospel shows Matthew’s grasp of compromise to the fullest. He, aware of the controversy which by the time of the Gospels composition was raging between the Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian camps as to who should be seen as the head of the Church recalled the story wherein Christ chose Peter, ahead of Paul, the choice of the gentiles and James, the leader of the Jewish Christians, the emergent Nazarenes. This is picked up on later in the second letter to the Galatians when Peter and Paul have a public disagreement over whether Gentile and Jewish Christians could eat together, much as we argue whether we can share the Eucharist with our brothers and sisters in different churches now. So Peter, the compromise choice was appointed by Christ in a salutary lesson to us all about getting what we most want in matters of Church governance.

Peter and Paul also show a remarkable story of continuity. Peter, who joined Christ from the earliest call, when He walked to the docks and called Him at the beginning of His public ministry and Paul, who certainly never saw Christ face to face, called after His death and resurrection when he was journeying to Damascus, off to put down the Christian rebellion. Both of them are tied together by one questioning stance. Jesus asked Peter who he thought he was and Paul asked the vision he saw on the Damascus road who that was. This is a question which echoes down through time, who are you and who am I in relation to God, in relation to the divine. In this great feast day we are given the core of the answer. We are Peter and Paul, we are questioned by God and we question Him. We are the people who are part of this flock, we are called by Christ in the beginning, by the docks and we are struck by Christ in moments of revelation, moments of great truth, in the scriptures, at Mass, in the sure and certain hope of our entering into one common life after death. We are with Him at the lakeside when he offers us his fish as proof of His resurrection and by the cross when He offers us his life. But to whom such as us is this life given? To those who believe. To those who can answer the question ‘who do you say I am?’ with conviction and courage and the knowledge that the answer will change us utterly.

Christ founded the Church on Peter and Paul. On Peter the faithful disciple and on Paul the convert, who both then went out, argued and built the kingdom in ways which seem impossible to anyone who does not have the sign of faith. They spent their lives because they had been charged with building the Kingdom of God on earth and with pointing the way to God whilst doing so. We inherit not a perfect Church, for it was built divided, but we inherit the Church of Christ, which he built by teaching his band of misfits, by threatening the establishment and overthrowing injustice, by speaking peace and breaking all the laws of the old dispensation. We inherit a fight to bring the kingdom of God about, here and now, in justice and truth and knowing that we do the will of God. As Peter and Paul collaborated with those who shared their vision, so we must collaborate with those who share our vision of the Kingdom, which is given free to those who ask and which is not closed to anyone. We know that we are to bring about the Kingdom of God because it is full of His marks and signs, of forgiveness, of integrity and power. Integrity in that we must live honestly to ourselves and Him, for he tells us not to boast and not to pull rank, that the world and life, death and the past, present and future all belong to us to mould into the Kingdom, that they belong to us and we belong to Christ and he belongs to God. The Kingdom of God, which is ours to build through Peter and Paul, is built on integrity. On openness and honesty and on belief, the belief that Peter had when he was released from the chains and said ‘now I know it is all true’ and belief that Paul had when he immediately changed his ways and went to build the Church.

The changing of hearts does not come by law. This is why, in the end, only the Kingdom of God will stand. These two men had their hearts changed by encounter with the Lord God, walking in peace and teaching the Kingdom. The Church is not built on stones or bricks, but on the change of heart which comes with the love of God and the need then to build the kingdom, hearts aflame with the fire of the Holy Ghost. These two men we honour today founded the Church and through them we receive the power to forgive and to bind, but that power comes from almighty God, to more than we know and in ways we do not understand. From God to whom, and with whom and by whom we are bound on a wheel of fire, through ages of ages.