Sermon given at Sung Eucharist at Petertide 2011
29 June 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
St Peter’s Day is a great a joyful feast day here at the Abbey, St Peter being the Abbey’s patron saint. Westminster Abbey is our informal name; our true title is the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster.
There is a strange ancient legend about the origins of the church here. In the 6th century Thorney here was an island that rose from the marshy banks of the Thames at the confluence with the Tyburn Stream. Here Sebert, the newly converted king of the East Saxons, decided to build a new church dedicated to St Peter and to be consecrated by Mellitus, the first Bishop of London. Late the night before the consecration, a fisherman called Edric ferried a stranger from the Lambeth shore to Thorney Island. While he waited in his boat in the darkness for the return of his passenger, he suddenly saw the windows of the new church light up and he heard the sound of chanting. The stranger when he returned told him the next morning to meet the King and the Bishop at the Abbey doors, bearing a salmon in his hand. He must tell them that St. Peter had already consecrated the church on Thorney. Furthermore, he must in future give a tithe of all fish he caught to the Abbot of Westminster. The evidence was found when Sebert and Mellitus saw the crosses of consecration on the walls dripping with oil, and the remains of the candles. A lovely story and one that no doubt served the Abbey well in various ways.
That was legend – of little account and of no contemporary relevance. And others of the many stories about St Peter similarly lack plausibility. What we know of Peter our patron saint in the days of Jesus and of the early Church is quite different. So much of it is discreditable, and yet he was the leader of the early Church. No one could make it up.
We heard in the Gospel reading today of Peter’s wonderful moment of inspiration at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked the disciples who people thought he was. ‘You are the Messiah’, said Peter, the Christ, ‘the Son of the living God.’ Jesus recognised this as a revelation from God. ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’
And yet, in the continuation of the story, omitted from today’s Gospel reading, Peter goes on to get it disastrously wrong. St Matthew’s account continues, ‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ [Matthew 16]
This pattern – of what we might call inspiration and desperation in Peter – is most sharply seen at the moment of the arrest and trial of Jesus. After the betrayal of Judas and the arrest of Jesus, Peter, determined to stand with Jesus and to stay with him, follows him into the high priest’s house, so that he can see and hear what happens – loyalty to the end, so it seems. A moment of inspiration. And yet, desperation follows. When the maid and other servants identify him as a Galilean, and therefore almost certainly a disciple of Jesus, his courage fails and he denies he ever knew the man. Three times he is asked; three times he denies. Angrily. ‘Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, I do not know the man!’ ‘I do not know the man!’ ‘I do not know the man!’ [Matthew 26: 74] He says this, even though earlier that evening Jesus has told all his disciples that they will abandon him, and Peter has said, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ [Matthew 26; 35]
Inspiration and desperation. Inspired by God; confident in him. Then a moment of fear, anxiety, despair; everything abandoned, lost. You know the story of Peter walking towards Jesus on the water. Then he suddenly comes to himself and realises what is happening. His strength fails; his trust leaves him. He sinks. Only to be rescued by his Saviour again. If the Gospels had been sanitised, written as advertising copy, none of this would have been included. After all, Peter has become the hero, the prince of apostles, the leader of the Church in Rome, where in the mid-60s he dies a terrible death rather than abandon his Lord. It all rings true.
Doesn’t it ring true for us as well? Inspiration and desperation. Inspired by God; confident in him. Then a moment of fear, anxiety, despair; everything abandoned, lost. Our life as Christians is full of these ups and downs. We set out with the best of intentions. So easily they are dashed.
On Sunday, Bishop Timothy Bavin confirmed fourteen people here, members of the Abbey community. In his sermon, he said it would be a time of renewal and inspiration for him and for us, as well as a new start for them. He quoted the words of St Teresa of Avila, ‘Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.’ What is expected of us as Christians is awe-inspiring. What we expect of ourselves is challenging. We know we fail, however hard we try. To live up to that expectation is impossible. It was impossible at first for Peter. It would be impossible for us. What made the difference for Peter was the forgiveness and enduring love for him of Jesus – and the grace of the Holy Spirit, the power of our Lord Jesus Christ working through him. That power works in and through us too.
The three-times denial was forgiven and reconciled when the risen Lord Jesus asked Peter at the Sea of Galilee three times whether he loved him. ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Feed my lambs.’ Three times the question came. ‘Do you love me?’ The last time Peter was a little irritated. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ ‘Feed my sheep.’ [John 21: 15-17] Jesus went on to predict the kind of death by which he would glorify God. ‘Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ [John 21: 18] St Peter directs the question he was asked to us. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’
Under the patronage of St Peter and with his prayers, fed by the sacrament of the altar, by the grace of the Holy Spirit of God, we can follow our Lord Jesus Christ. The pattern of inspiration and desperation will continue. We shall try and we shall fail. We shall keep trying. We shall keep failing. But we shall never give in – I hope.
Knowing St Peter, living with him as our patron and guide, we can be confident in the hope that he will recognise us when he greets us at the gates of pearl. And we shall hear the words of our Saviour, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father.’