All Saints Margaret Street | SS PETER & PAUL APOSTLES High Mass Sunday 29 June 2014

Sermon for SS PETER & PAUL APOSTLES High Mass Sunday 29 June 2014

Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses 

Readings:  Zechariah 4.1-6a, 10b-end; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16.13-19

In the Church of England, this is the season for ordinations; for the beginnings of ministries. Yesterday in a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral, 35 deacons, including Michael, were ordained to serve in this diocese. Today, in parishes around London, they will be starting out on the ministry to which God has called them. For most of them, this beginning will be rather less liturgically daunting than serving as deacon of the mass at All Saints, Margaret Street. Michael is being thrown in at the deep end. And unlike his day job, there is no lifejacket under his seat.   

Tomorrow morning, I will be in a village church near Durham, as another deacon will be laid to rest. Andrew was ordained in 1987, to the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church. (Being a married man, and not a re-cycled Anglican, he could not be ordained to the priesthood, unless as his bishop rather tactlessly put it, his wife was dead. My mother-in-law had no intention of dying to suit a bishop.)

This was when he had reached an age at which most people are contemplating a leisurely retirement. Instead he set up and ran a large scheme to teach skills to young unemployed people. He was one of those people for whom the term “retirement” means not that you stop doing things, just that you don’t get paid for doing them. Andrew was still able to preach at his silver jubilee mass a couple of years ago. Now, at the age of 93, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, he has finished the race.

So, as we celebrate the beginning of one ministry, we mark the end of another.

Andrew, as some of you know is my father-in-law and Theresa will be preaching the eulogy at his funeral mass, so please remember her and the family in your prayers.

Today we celebrate the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul. They are commemorated together because they were both martyred in Rome. Their joint commemoration, an ancient going back to at least the third century one, has been restored in the reform of the liturgy in both Roman and Anglican Churches.

When I had been preaching in Rome last month, the taxi which took me to Fiumincino Airport for my flight home passed the Basilica of St. Paul’s without the Walls.  It’s quite a long way “outside the walls,” and popes found it too difficult to travel from St. Peter’s, the site of one martyrdom to the other to celebrate two high masses on the same day.  So St. Paul was bumped to the next day. And that is why in the Book of Common Prayer, which followed the calendar of the 16th century Roman Missal, St. Peter is celebrated alone on this day. That’s the kind of information which might come in handy at our parish quiz night in September but is not necessary for salvation.

This feast celebrates their martyrdom, the end of their ministries, rather than their beginnings: in call and conversion.

Their journeys of faith brought the two apostles to die at the heart of the empire. But their backgrounds were very different:  Simon the Fisherman, Saul the highly-educated Pharisee.  Yet their separate calls bear a similarity in their suddenness. Peter hears the words of Jesus, “Follow me.”  And he does just that; leaving his father in the boat. He will be told that he is to be a “fisher of people.”   When Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” it is Peter who says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  He is then told that it is not flesh and blood, his own insight, which has revealed this to him, but God.  In St. John’s Gospel that command of Jesus, “Follow me,” is repeated – on another of those occasions when Peter has got things wrong.

Paul’s beginning, what the Church calls his “Conversion” is even more dramatic: knocked off his horse and struck blind, while on his way to Damascus to prosecute his campaign against the followers of Jesus. Instead he will find himself commissioned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. This Hebrew of Hebrews, this Pharisee of Pharisees, this zealot for the law. this ardent defender of Jewish exclusiveness, will become the most ardent advocate of the opening of the Church to the Gentiles.

Very different characters they may have been, but both calls demonstrate God’s initiative; the working of that divine grace which would be one of the great themes in Paul’s writings.

The radical nature of both calls is highlighted by their change of name:

  • Simon is to be called “Peter” -literally, “Rock.”  There is an irony in this name suggesting solid reliability: something which, as we know from the gospel, was for all his extravagant protestations of undying loyalty, not the hallmark of Peter’s conduct in Christ’s time of trial.
  • Saul’s Jewish name is replaced by a Roman one, “Paul” to symbolise the mission of this most Jewish of Jews, this Hebrew of Hebrews, to the Gentile world.

The opening to the Gentiles begins in the Acts of the Apostles, not with the mission of Paul in Antioch and then on his tireless missionary travels in Asia Minor and Greece, but with the encounter between Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius. This incident, in which the Holy Spirit was given to Gentiles just as it had been to Jews at Pentecost, got Peter into hot water with his fellow-apostles back in Jerusalem. On that occasion he was able to win them over and later he would be one of those who at what came to be called “The Council of Jerusalem,” would give the seal of approval to Paul’s expanding mission among the Gentiles.

But if we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find that not everything in church life then was sweetness and light, any more than it is now. Faced with those who still insisted on the distinction between Jew and Gentile, even in the Church, Peter seems to have compromised, and Paul tells us, “I upbraided him to his face.” There is an unrelenting and uncompromising ‘driven-ness’ about Paul which must have made him difficult to live with at times. He is not the stuff from which ecclesiastical diplomats are made. Most of us would find him difficult to live with as our bishop or vicar. He is always going to be something of an irritant, a square peg in the round hole of Church life.

So you see there is something symbolic about Paul’s shrine being “outside the walls” of the city where the authority of Peter is so exalted. But there is also something profoundly significant in their being united in death; in their martyrdom, their witness to the Christ whom they had both served.

Simon could have ignored the wandering preacher who one day said “Follow me,” stayed at home and taken over the family fishing business from his father, Jonah. Saul, who had studied at the feet of the great Gamaliel, could himself have had a successful career as a rabbi. They would have remained Simon and Saul, and we would never have heard of either of them. Indeed, we would not be here doing what we are doing this morning. But because of what happened to them, the Church began to grow, and because of what happens to others today, it continues to grow. 

For long periods, the Church – both people and ministers – can act as if the task of one is simply to minister to the other; to those who belong, the insiders.  Neither Peter nor Paul was allowed to think of that as an option. In the missionary situation in which we find ourselves, in a world within a city, we can’t either.  We are called to witness not just to those who “belong” but to those who don’t. 

In his sermon at the ordination yesterday, the Bishop of London quoted an alarming statistic from a survey of Anglican Churchgoers; people who said that their faith was very important in their lives. But only 37% of them said that passing it on to their children was a priority – a much smaller percentage than those who thought that teaching good manners and respect. Now manners and respect are good things, but surely faith is even more important.

A couple of weeks ago,  I preached at St. Mary Magdalene’s in Paddington, a church which was established in the 1896’s by a priest and a group of people from All Saints, Margaret Street. Even the organist went.  It was what we would now call a “church-plant.”  On Thursday morning, I was at a meeting about Church-planting. It was specifically for priests from our tradition, though led by one from the charismatic-evangelical world which has been responsible for the majority of new worshipping communities in our diocese. The background to our discussions was the reality that, unlike in the 19th century, churches of our tradition have been conspicuous by their absence from this movement. We have preferred to remain where we are; within our walls. We have showed little inclination to pass on the faith we value to others. I’ve even heard people say, “Well, as long as it sees me out, I’m not interested in what comes after.”  So Peter and Paul have a lesson for us.

When the Church of England calls people to ordained ministry, it is after they have been subjected to a long process of discernment of their suitability: in this parish, they first have to get past the Vicar, I have to see in them something of God’s call and what it takes.  I tell them what’s in store for them.  If they get past that hurdle, then they have to see a director of ordinands, who will also arrange for them to be interviewed by examining chaplains. This is one of the jobs which Frances O’Neil does.  She’s a daughter of the Vicarage, so knows what it’s about.  Then, they will be sent to a selection conference, along with others in the same boat. If they recommend it and the bishop accepts the recommendation, they begin training.

The process does not stop once you have been accepted for training. The time as theological college or on a training course like St. Mellitus in our diocese, is also part of the discernment process.

All this may seem to those undergoing it an imposition, but as I explain to those who come to see me about exploring their sense of calling, it is for their good as well as that of the Church: neither will benefit from the ordination of the wrong people and both will almost certainly suffer.

But all that said, we must never forget that divine grace and initiative which we see at work in the lives of both Peter and Paul.  God is able to work with material which often seems very unpromising to us. 

And all of us, whether the vast lay majority, or the ordained minority, should realise that he is able to work with us. 

That means that we cannot use our lack of the qualifications and qualities which might fit us for the task, or our shabby compromised pasts or presents, our spiritual under-achievement, those half-hearted efforts to pray and order our lives, or our theological illiteracy, as excuses for not responding to the call of mission in our city in our day.  We will have to do something about some or all of these, but first and foremost we are all called to be witnesses and God has made use of far less promising stuff than us.