St Peter & St Paul, Apostles
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
29 June 2008, 10:30 (Peter and Paul, Apostles)
It’s lovely to be here – but I do have to say, I hate moving house! There can be very few people who enjoy the experience of packing up their lives in the form of possessions and then unpacking them in a new and strange place within a matter of hours!
Ruth and I have worked flat out to empty every box, but still there are some to undo and plenty of things to put in place.
Removal men are a special breed: they manage to mix and shuffle everything so in our move Ruth’s clothes were deeply hidden in misnamed boxes under layers of decoy objects.
At the same time, not a book on my study bookshelves is in a locatable section or position and I go from cupboard to drawer and from room to room trying to find simple everyday items that once were ‘just there’.
All this muddle and disorganisation can make people sick or mad ...but strangely God has a different take on it.
There is something to learn from all disruption and chaos.
The truth is, is that God is the great disturber - and true religion and the life of faith are an adventure that never lets up in reorganising and upsetting, renewing and realigning our human lives.
On this feast day of SS Peter and Paul in the Christian calendar, the Church family celebrates two apostles whose lives were completely and utterly disrupted - and then re-forged by God in Jesus Christ.
And in turn, their lives play a pivotal and determining role in the life of our faith and our understanding of following Jesus and serving him in the world around us.
Ask the world the significance of 29th June and people will see it merely as a calendar date.
We as Christians though, order and live our years with an alternative calendar, the Church’s Year, which brings a different perspective and time scale.
St Peter and St Paul whose lives we celebrate today are not merely memories but real people whose lives and work are still active and formative in and through Jesus who is the resurrection and the life.
For me personally, this is a very special day – for back in 1980 on this very day I was ordained deacon and the following year celebrated the Eucharist as a ministerial priest for the first time.
So the saints are really important within the Christian story - but where do we and the world look for them?
Well, rather like removals men or secretaries, we have filed them, boxed them up and labelled them in a specific way.
Almost certainly, people associate saints with churches and cathedrals, and even more particularly with stained glass windows, plaster, wooden or stone statues, and with niches and haloes!
But that is nowhere near where these men would have been found in the pages of the New Testament.
By contrast Saint Paul, as Saul, a tent maker and Pharisee, might be a manager at Bluewater, a Medway Councillor and even an ardent member of Reform or Opus Dei perhaps!!
Like the newly-ordered rooms in Easter Garth for me, this is all very confusing and disturbing because these men are in truth very different from the familiar and safe categories that we file them away in - as heroes who underwrite and inspire our world view and understanding of God and his truth.
Saints are not only holy – they are radical and disturbing in reflecting God’s truth and love and living it out in faithfulness and self-giving.
Not only is our labelling so often incorrect and completely up the spout, but in the case of Peter and Paul they didn’t even start their lives and ministries as apostles with the names we know them by.
No. Simon and Saul experienced the transforming power of God in remaking them as people when they were given new names.
Names are so commonplace but they have a power and significance that we can so easily overlook.
In Genesis, God gives Adam the privilege and power of naming the animals and the intimacy of our names as people in some kind of way embodies something of our essence and personality and allows it to be shared and articulated in society.
By contrast with the creation story, the world has been disordered and callously mislabelled, neglected, maltreated and in part destroyed by our selfishness and unwillingness to learn and change from our ways to God’s.
We have made our good news, bad news for countless millions - and for God himself in the crucified Jesus.
In spite of the beauty of the world and the heroism, dignity and brilliance of human altruism and material progress, the nations of the world are enslaved by poverty, oppression, violence, war, fear and materialism itself.
Just think of some the list that fills our news bulletins and papers:
The West Bank and Gaza
- China and Tibet
The world over, human values formed by violent power and self-advancement disorder the creation that is primarily God’s and shared in love
Our scripture passages this morning take us where we could never go without the revelation and intervention of God.
The first reading from Zechariah is strange - and fairly incomprehensible even to scholars.
This vision of the Golden Lampstand and the two olive trees transports us away from our anthropocentric world in which the human ego and its concerns take centre stage.
Zechariah’s visions are glimpses of the world under God’s control, and using figurative and cryptic language, the prophet shows how God’s purposes hidden in the complexities of human history will ultimately be fulfilled.
In this fifth of eight visions, Zechariah shows how these strange labels and forms, lampstands and trees, reveal a greater truth in which God’s light and presence not only illuminates our world - but sees.
In this way, God and prophecy are linked in bringing eternity and its truth into the particularity of the present moment and human politics and affairs.
The next passage from The Acts sets us firmly in a human story in which King Herod has imprisoned Peter and miraculously, the apostle is freed from his confinement.
Somehow a greater power surges through the desperate situation of the prison and Peter’s chains fall off him and the door opens to let him free.
All the details emphasise the miracle: Peter is asleep, rather than considering the possibility of escape; he is between two soldiers, bound with two chains; sentries outside the door preclude the possibility of access on the part of anyone from outside.
Such an unlikely and incredible episode frees Peter for his missionary and pastoral visits to Samaria, Antioch and other places, including Rome itself.
And it does the same for Saul as he is knocked off his horse and blinded, to be given new sight, a new name and a new purpose in taking the gospel of Jesus into the Gentile world.
The power of God is not merely theory and theology; it is action, even miracle, in the everyday world of power, politics, trade and entrapment.
Yes, the miracle of God in Christ gives Simon Peter and Saul - and you and me - a power that is truly beyond our understanding.
The keys that are given to Peter in our Gospel reading are not ironmongery but prayer: the power of God gives us all the choice to accept our redemption or to reject it.
And the keys of St Peter are about forgiveness and responsiblity.
On this feast day St Peter and St Paul remind us of our need to recognise for ourselves who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
That confession, that recognition and understanding, reorders our lives in the most disturbing way. God must come first: the words and life of Jesus are more precious than anything or anyone in the world.
Our world is changed from within out of all recognition: our task is to make real this fundamental truth in our actions, structures and attitudes.
And as our world is rediscovered, relabelled and relocated within God’s purposes in Jesus Christ, prayer enables us to see it and share it.
Nothing we own, do or are has any lasting significance without God and yet with him in Jesus Christ we are remade, redeemed and empowered to love and serve him and one another in a new and radical way.
Medway, Kent, Britain and the world find a new context because of the experience and the faithfulness of the apostles.
I’m glad and very happy that Ruth and I are unpacking our lives in this place but I pray that we will find our real home and security and identity beyond the material and the temporal. The saints light our lives not only with their past but with their present company and encouragement in prayer and intercession.
May St Peter, St Paul and all the saints of God of pray for us.