Sermon given at the Votive Sung Eucharist for St Peter 27th June 2014
27 June 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
St Peter the Apostle is of great importance for every Christian disciple. He is named first among the twelve apostles chosen by our Lord to be his companions on the way during his lifetime and his principal witnesses and messengers inspired by the Holy Spirit after his Crucifixion and Resurrection. He was the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and the first to preach the Good News of the Resurrection to the people assembled in Jerusalem from all over the world on the first Christian Pentecost day. He was to die for our Lord, crucified in Rome, where his body is still buried deep underneath the altar of St Peter’s Basilica.
St Peter is significant in a particular way for us here at Westminster Abbey. St Peter has been the patron saint of Westminster Abbey from the very foundation of the Benedictine monastery here in the year of our Lord 960. If we are to take literally a story that flourished in the thirteenth century, St Peter was not only our patron saint from early in the seventh century but himself deigned to consecrate the first church here dedicated in his honour. We may regard that as legend rather than literal truth. When Queen Elizabeth I re-founded Westminster Abbey in 1560, after twenty years of Reformation turmoil, she honoured our patron saint, giving us the title the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Westminster.
The great annual festival of St Peter falls on 29th June, in two days’ time, this year on Sunday. Then the Church holds up for all Christians the example of St Peter, often celebrated with his companion apostle and martyr in Rome St Paul. We shall keep the festival with due solemnity on Saturday evening and Sunday but this afternoon we celebrate a special votive Sung Eucharist allowing us to hear some more of the many stories of St Peter in the New Testament and to prepare ourselves for the great feast.
St Matthew’s Gospel has a wonderful and telling story of St Peter immediately after his account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. The boat was battered by waves and early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. They were terrified at first but then Peter said to him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He did and Peter started walking on the water. But then he noticed the strong wind, became frightened, and began to sink. He cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ He had taken his eyes off Jesus and looked to the water, lost faith and sank.
In today’s Gospel reading, by the sea of Tiberias, that same lake, the risen Lord Jesus offers Peter the chance revoke his three times denial during the trial before the high priest that he ever knew Jesus, to repent of ever having denied him. Three times, he asks Peter whether he loves him. Three times Peter replies that he does, expresses his faith in Jesus.
‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ A second and a third time comes the question. The third time, Peter becomes a little hurt, perhaps even annoyed. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus replies, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Peter has faith in Jesus, looks to Jesus. For Peter now, all that matters is his relationship with Jesus the Christ.
I said earlier that St Peter the Apostle is of great importance for every Christian disciple. Now we see how. Peter is not perfect. He is the first to recognise him as the Christ; he has followed him through thick and thin; though he is terrified for his own skin, he cannot even stay away from his trial; he is the first to see the empty tomb and recognise that our Lord has risen from the dead. He is instinctive, jumps in with both feet, gets it wrong. But he has a passionate, direct, intimate, personal relationship with our Lord. And Jesus Christ forgives him, restores him and uses him for his glory spreading the word of truth, the word of hope to all who will listen.
None of us is perfect. The model of failure, of blowing hot and cold, is only too familiar to us who seek in our day to follow Christ as his faithful disciples. And we make a terrible mess of our lives, of our Church, of our engagement with the world he came to save. In our own strength we are without hope. If we are to be and do any good at all as disciples of Christ, we must look to him, rely on him, keep close to him, be willing to say with Peter those words, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’
During the offertory, while the bread and wine are brought to the altar, which will be for us the Body and Blood of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, we shall sing in translation a hymn written almost 900 years ago by one of the great saints of the medieval period, Bernard of Clairvaux. At the age of twenty-three with thirty companions this French nobleman, living in Burgundy near Dijon, joined a new and exciting venture in the religious life. A few years earlier had been founded in Citeaux a monastery following a reformed and much stricter version of the Benedictine rule. Bernard joined the Cistercian monks there and a few years later was asked to found a new monastery in a nearby valley which became known as Clairvaux. He spent the rest of his life there, leaving many writings. The stricter, more focused, twelfth-century Cistercian life opened for St Bernard a reformed way, a refreshed understanding of the Christian life.
St Bernard’s writings focus on Jesus, on his person and on our personal relationship with him. He expresses devotionally what the great twentieth-century archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey expressed in his own way more theologically, reminding us that by looking to Jesus and only by looking to him, keeping our eyes fixed on him, can we know God. Michael Ramsey famously said, ‘God is Christ-like and in him there is no un-Christ-likeness at all.’ Look to Jesus. In the end, we may be sure, only that matters.
Today, celebrating St Peter, we are helped to ‘look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.’
‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’