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The Story of St Peter

Octave of St Peter, 1st July, 2018
Bishop Alison Taylor, former Assistant Bishop of Brisbane, preached at St Peter's

Acts 3:1-10; Psalm 19:1-2, 3-4; Galatians 1:11-20; John 21:15-19

It is a great pleasure to be here with you this morning again and to see so many old friends in the congregation. I think the last time I was here I had come down from Brisbane for the Feast of the Presentation in 2015. I am looking forward to saying hello to people at morning tea and at lunch. AND to confirming Max later in this service. I thank Father Hugh for his warm hospitality this morning to my husband Trevor and me.

Our gospel reading this morning is from John chapter 21 and it tells the story of one of the appearances of our Lord Jesus Christ to his disciples, after the Resurrection. Traditionally this story is known as the Restoration of Peter or sometimes, the Commissioning of Peter, and it recounts a dialogue between Saint Peter and our Risen Lord.

The scene has opened on the Lake of Galilee, a bit before our reading starts. The disciples are there. At Peter's suggestion, they are fishing. It looks like for them, the Resurrection seems like an event which has passed, so now, they've returned to their old occupations. As the day breaks, the disciples find Jesus on the shore. When they come ashore they find a small charcoal fire, with bread and fish cooking over it. The risen Christ has prepared a breakfast for them.

The story continues in a quiet conversation which unfolds between Peter and the Risen Lord, before the fire on the beach. The last time that Peter had seen Jesus, there had been another charcoal fire, in the courtyard of the High Priest on the night that Jesus was arrested, and Peter had three times vehemently denied knowing Jesus. Now, the Resurrected Christ stands before Peter and all Peter's failure is there between them. Not only are there Peter's denials on the night of the arrest; there is also his apparent conclusion that the Resurrection means little, for he has returned to his old life as a fisherman. Jesus offers no condemnation or even recrimination, but rather forgiveness. Peter may have been unfaithful, but Jesus was not so in return. He accepts Peter, forgives him and absorbs the hurt he has done to him. Notice the gentleness of this meeting — what is not said as well as what is said. It is worth our pondering quite how it is that we know Jesus has forgiven Peter, in this exchange between them.

Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him and three times Peter replies that he does. Each time that Peter replies to Jesus, Jesus speaks to give to him a task. Going forward he will have the responsibility of looking after the tiny group of Christ's believers — Jesus' sheep, as they are called in the reading. This is his calling. Notice how the fact that Christ is calling Peter to his new responsibility, is an assurance of his forgiveness, and that his past actions do not determine how he shall be in the future. Jesus is also teaching Peter that the Resurrection is not a spectator sport. To truly believe in the Resurrection means to allow it to be life-changing for oneself; it means responding concretely in one's own life to all things having been made new again. This is what Peter discovers beside the fire on the beach that morning. The Resurrection and forgiveness and calling are all entwined.

Our reading concludes with the sober statement by Christ of what this task of feeding his sheep will mean for Peter in his life. It will mean suffering and it will mean death.

I once visited a church outside Rome on the famous Appian Way. The official name of the church is Saint Mary of the Palms, but it is much better known as the 'Domine Quo Vadis?' Church. This name comes from an event that legend says occurred there in the year 65 AD. Peter as we know, is believed to have travelled to Rome in the early 60s, to the centre of the known world, to preach the gospel. However, the times became more and more difficult, and Christians, especially the visible ones like Peter, were persecuted and their lives were in danger. Peter decided to flee Rome.

As he was travelling down the Appian Way away from Rome, he met Christ who was going in the opposite direction. Peter fell on his knees and he said, 'Lord, where are you going?' This gives us the words in Latin Domine Quo Vadis? — the name of the church. Jesus stopped and looked towards Rome saying, 'I am going to Rome to be crucified again.' Then he paused and said, 'Quo vadis, Pietre?' meaning 'Where are you going, Peter?' Peter wept bitterly and turned back to Rome.

And historians believe he was a few years later put to death, also by crucifixion. This story, which we should remember is only apocryphal, is often used to illustrate what is said to be a basic contradiction in the person of Peter. On the one hand, Jesus called him his Rock on which he would build his Church. Jesus does this in Matthew 16 verse 18. And the Risen Christ gave Peter the responsibility of caring for the fledgling Christian community, as we heard in John 21. This Peter did faithfully, and historians of the New Testament are of the view that Peter's role was critical right through the 30s and 40s in keeping the early Church together as it struggled to assimilate both Gentile and Jewish converts. Peter probably — despite the legend — remained faithful up to his martyrdom in Rome in the mid-60s. On the other hand, commentators point to Peter's persistent lack of sensitivity and perceptiveness — for example, when he completely misunderstood the meaning of his own declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, at Caesarea Philippi. When he strikes the High Priest's slave with a sword as Jesus is arrested. And his comprehensive denial of Jesus later that night in the courtyard of the High Priest. Saint Peter, it is said, is a paradox, a man of contradiction.

I'm not inclined to agree with this assessment. Yes, he was a man who failed spectacularly from time to time. In other words, he was human, like all of us. Nevertheless, Peter was a great man of faith and courage, truly a saint of the Church, well worthy of our love and admiration. To commemorate him we wear the colour red today, to remind ourselves that Peter died a martyr. We can be grateful to have him as the patron of this parish.

Often, we ask ourselves, 'What is it about this or that saint that I might try to emulate?' What is it about his or her faith?' While that is one approach we can take, I think a more fundamental question that we can ask is, 'In what particular way can I see the faithfulness of Christ in the life of this saint?' Saints are translucent: Jesus' love shines through them.

We have learned that in many ways, Peter was frail and vulnerable, like us. He needed this encounter with the Risen Christ to renew his own faith and sense of service. The most important thing that we must not miss about Peter is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to him. In particular, the gospel story this morning reminds us that Jesus Christ is faithful to us when we are not faithful to him. When we forget him or consign him to irrelevance in our lives, he is still there, offering us his Resurrection, offering us newness of life, inviting us to hear him calling us. Christ is an ongoing presence in our lives, refreshing and renewing our spirits, accompanying us always with his unfailing grace.

The Lord be with you.

GOSPEL: JOHN 21. 15 – 19
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, 'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.' He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep. 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.' (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, 'Follow me.'


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