Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Today we celebrate St Peter. We have heard about his moment of insight with Jesus and his remarkable escape from prison. But we celebrate not just Peter but also Paul, who we’ve heard nothing about at all. And Paul might say, ‘Well, I’m used to that.’ In his letters in the New Testament Paul sometimes complains that he gets worse treatment: for instance, Peter and the other apostles get their wives looked after while they are on church work; and they get paid, says Paul, while he works for free (1 Corinthians 9.5-6). So, Peter and Paul have issues, but I don’t mean to suggest that we have two preening egos here. These are not the Gallagher brothers of the early church, they are more like Cameron and Clegg or even Churchill and Attlee: a powerful pair with big differences of conviction and style.
At the start of the church’s story, Peter is the main man. He is a founder member of the Jesus movement. We hear this morning how he is the first among the friends of Jesus (the male ones at least) to twig who Jesus really is, the rock on which Jesus will build his church. And despite his considerable talent for mucking things up, nothing quite dislodges Peter from that position as the cornerstone apostle.
So when Paul becomes convinced that Jesus wants him as an apostle too, he has some ground to make up. Peter knew Jesus in the flesh, Paul never did. Peter was among the first to experience the risen Jesus, Paul admits he was the last, like the runt of the litter (1 Corinthians 15.8). And when they disagree about a key area of policy – more of that in a moment – Paul struggles to get a hearing.
Now these two are saints, official heroes of the church, and the church has traditionally had a certain way of presenting its saints. After the service, have look round the church for images of the two of them – Peter, holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and Paul, holding the sword of faith – grave, venerable, august, and no hint of either of them having a life, a story, and certainly no hint of the sparks that fly between them.
You get no sense of this either from the official selection of Bible readings for today. We might expect to hear the one part of the New Testament where one of our heroes talks specifically about the other, but we don’t. Why? Here it is, see what you think. It’s Paul writing, in his letter to the Galatians: ‘When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.’ The argument is over whether Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians can break bread together (as we do this morning); and Peter, says Paul, first does one thing and then does the other, according to who he’s with. Paul accuses him of being weak, inconsistent, even hypocritical (Galatians 2.11-14).
So, behind the official image – grand, saintly and unreal – we find two recognisably human figures who disagreed. Now saints are people whom God asks us to look at, so that we may see better what it looks like to follow Jesus. So what do we see in Peter and Paul?
We see first that there never was a golden age when Christian people agreed about everything. And that’s good to know. It’s wonderful when we all agree, but sometimes we don’t, and these dissenting saints show us that we are in good company: God is just too big for us all to have the same ideas about how to serve God best and how best to spread the rumour of God in our town and our world. And God can use our differences as well as our consensus for his glory.
We also see that if awkward people like Peter and Paul can make it into the stained glass window of sainthood, there is space and hope for us. They show us what God can do with complicated people living sometimes messy lives, lives like yours and mine. They lead us to ask, ‘Well, if God di that with them, what might God do with me?’
What might God want to do with me? This is a good thing to ask just now, because we are in a season of vocation. Dozens of people will have been ordained as deacons and priests this weekend up and down the country, including Janet Franck, a former worshipper at St John’s, ordained yesterday in Guildford Cathedral, and we have Caroline Titley (at St Mary’s) and David Adamson (at St Matthias), preparing to start ordination training this September. What might God want to do with me? It is a question that each of us must ask regularly. Perhaps God wants to lead you along a similar path into some public ministry, or perhaps along quite a different one: all paths are equally precious when it’s God doing the leading.
What might God want to do with me? Asking this question should also keep us from the heretical view of sainthood which says that there are two types of believer, the heroes who really do this Christian stuff, and everyone else, who just cheers from the stands, when really we each belong on the field as part of the team. Clergy can sometimes be targets for illegitimate sainthood, being cast as spiritually supercharged people who will get things done with God so that other people do not have to do it themselves. Before long, thank God, people usually work out that their vicar or curate is a sinner like they are, that Jesus needed to die for him or her as he did for them.
Harder to see, sometimes, is the way the sainthood heresy, the hero syndrome, can work its way into other areas of life. It can be a problem for teachers, parents, youth leaders, for managers, even some political leaders; it can be a part of the relationship someone has with their partner: the idea that you look to someone else to get to grips with the deep stuff on your behalf, when that stuff properly belongs to you.
In that same feisty letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his audience, ‘All must carry their own loads’ (Gal 6.5). he doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help each other bear the burdens of life – he says the opposite (Gal 6.2) – but there’s nothing anyone can do to take away the terrible and the wonderful necessity for you to fall into the hands of the living God yourself.
We fail at this, of course, sometimes trying to run each other’s lives in a meddlesome way, sometimes abdicating responsibilities that are ours. But that means we are in the right place.
The church (said Archbishop Justin Welby in a recent interview) is not a place where good people go. It’s a place where bad people go to meet God. It’s a refuge for sinners.
Paul and Peter would agree. Weak, inconsistent, hypocritical (and we can only guess what Peter thought of Paul) but also heroic; in short, people not so different from you and me, if we own up to our weakness and so release in our lives the strength of God. And you all know the answer you give to the person who says that the church is weak, inconsistent and full of hypocrites: ‘Correct. And there is always room for one more.’
Welby interview http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014