The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Priest Vicar
Recorded, in a second century apocryphal manuscript that is known as The Acts of Peter, is an episode in which St Peter is fleeing Rome as the Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar begins an extensive persecution of the Christians.
The year is 64AD and a fire has engulfed Rome; a fire which many believe Nero himself has started in order to clear land for one of his schemes, the building of a grand palatial villa; a fire which will cause widespread devastation and in which half the city will be razed to the ground; a fire which will take six days to bring under control.
In its aftermath, Nero looks around for a convenient scapegoat, someone or some group he can hold responsible for the fire, and, as so often happens, political expediency suggests an opportunity to rid Rome of a small and seemingly subversive religious sect know as Christians.
Against this malevolent backdrop, Peter makes his escape from Rome because, as the leader of those allegedly responsible for the destruction of the city, if he stays he will be surely executed. As he makes good his escape, along a road outside the city, Peter meets his master, the now risen Jesus. In the Latin text, Peter asks his Lord, 'Quo vadis?' ('Where are you going?') to which he receives the reply, 'Romam vado iterum crucifigi' ('I am going to Rome to be crucified again.') They are words which give Peter the necessary courage to return to Rome and embrace martyrdom.
Quo vadis? This evening, I ask you that selfsame question. 'Where are you going?'
In asking that question, I want us to hold in mind Peter, someone who at times could be headstrong and wilful, confused and impulsive. His lack of courage when under pressure, as in the High Priest's courtyard when he denies any knowledge of Jesus, makes him a most unlikely candidate for saintly status. Yet, despite this and down the centuries, Peter has been revered as a saint: and not just any saint, but as one of the two principal saints of the Church, the other being Paul. How did this come about? If you say to me that Peter's standing in the Church is due to the fact that he became bishop of Rome, I will counter that by asking how it is that someone as unstable and impetuous as Peter could have been chosen to lead the Church. What did Jesus see in Peter that led him to confirm Peter in this role with the words, 'You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church'?
There are many pointers, but one in particular comes to mind, early on in the relationship between the two men. Preaching to the crowds on the shores of Galilee, Jesus suddenly commandeers Peter's boat deciding it would make a good floating pulpit. A little later, having finished with the crowd, Jesus tells Peter to push further out, into deeper waters to trawl for fish and, despite Peter's protests, 'Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing', an enormous quantity of fish is caught. Nets are breaking and, with such a heavy load, the boat is perilously low in the water. Nonetheless, the catch is safely landed. It is then that the full import of what Peter had witnessed dawns on him. In the presence of such a man as this, one who performs divine miracles, his response is one of shame: 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.'
This, I would suggest, was not false humility on Peter's part. These are the words of someone who, in the face of the divine mystery, demonstrates a profound understanding of his own sinfulness and personal limitations. With painful honesty and penetrating insight, Peter recognises and acknowledges the truth about himself. It is a human response to a divine encounter.
My point is this. Such an awareness is central to the development of the Christian life: the sign of humility marks the beginning of a true relationship with God. Only someone like Peter, who understood his own sinfulness and the redeeming love of Christ, was in a position to lead the infant church and lead others to Jesus! Out of his many failures a different Peter gradually emerges.
For failure is not the end. As we journey through life, there will be many times when we fail. Each apparent failure, however, can itself become part of our journey Godward.
In the High Priest's courtyard Peter betrayed Jesus by his denial: 'Woman, I do not know him'; and again, 'Man, I am not [one of them]'; and, finally, 'Man, I do not know what you are talking about'. It is at that moment the cock crows. Could it be that, from our reading a moment ago, when the post-resurrection Jesus, on the beach, asks Peter three times 'Do you love me?' that Jesus is seeking to counterbalance Peter's earlier thrice-denial: counterbalance it with love and forgiveness? For Jesus loves Peter and loves him with wild abandon; and Jesus forgives Peter and forgives him with wild abandon.
Quo vadis? Where are you going? When you leave this Abbey Church, when you pass through that great west door into the hustle and bustle of London life, what about the call, and indeed the cost, of discipleship? If it is anything like Peter's there will be many occasions when our actions, our conversations and our attitudes betray our Lord and Master. At those times we need to have the humility to see ourselves as God sees us, and to accept the forgiveness and love which God offers us. Then, like Peter, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and continue the journey of discipleship wherever that takes us!
Quo vadis? Quo vadis?