Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Ss Peter and Paul 2013

Acts 12:1-11
2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

One of the things you have to get to grips with as a new parish priest is the enormous number of keys that come with the job. Keys to the church, to the safe, to this door, to that cupboard, to the other notice board... And then there are keys which open up boxes containing - more keys. It is a surprising number. But you need the keys to do the job. And handing over keys is a sign of empowerment. 
That occurs in other areas of life as well. You might be handed the keys to a car as a gift, or to the front door on your twenty-first birthday (do people still do that?). To have the keys is to be in a position of power and trust.
And Jesus today says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven”, a text which has had a lot of weight put upon it over the years, about what is called “the power of the keys” in the Church.
But this is Matthew’s Gospel, and Matthew likes to make lots of references to the Old Testament. He is always keen to show how the new movement initiated by Jesus is in continuity with God’s promises to Israel of old. So here Matthew is making an allusion to one of the prophets, to chapter 22 of Isaiah. In that passage a righteous man called Eliakim is appointed steward of the Royal Household of King Hezekiah, the descendent of David (a post a bit like a Prime Minister). And the Lord says through Isaiah:
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.
So what Matthew is saying is that Simon, renamed Peter, is to be given charge of the Royal Household of Jesus, the Son of David. He is indeed being given power, and a unique position.
But what sort of power? That is something that we come to see as the rest of the Gospel unfolds, but it is something that Peter and the other disciples don’t at first understand. Power and authority, in the Kingdom of Heaven, are radically different from the power and authority of the world. 
The second part of this Gospel story is not read today, perhaps because it is St Peter’s feast day and the Lectionary is being kind to him. Because the second part of this story is where Peter gets it all wrong. Straight after saying these things to Peter, Jesus immediately talks about his rejection and his death. This is the power not of domination or control but of self-giving love, which in the world as it is has to take the place of the victim. 
But Peter doesn’t understand this. In his mind Jesus is the Messiah - he has got that right! - but he doesn’t understand what that means. He is probably thinking, as many did, that the Messiah would be a leader who would rule as the world does, by domination and control and force. He would drive out the foreign occupiers of Israel and re-establish his capital city in Jerusalem. That is the kingdom that Peter thinks he is being appointed Prime Minister of. 
So he simply cannot grasp what Jesus is talking about. He cannot imagine that the true Messiah will be one who is betrayed and handed over to death. Probably he is also afraid at what seem to be ill-omened words. And he remonstrates with Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him. Because Peter hasn’t yet understood the power of the Kingdom which Jesus is establishing, the power not of domination or control but of self-giving love. So the keys come to Peter both as a gift and as a test - do you get it? do you understand what this kingdom is about - which here he fails. 
He fails later, too. He fought back with his sword in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was betrayed, and was rebuked by Jesus again. And what is another symbol of St Peter? The cock, which crowed at his denials, later that same night. The cock which crowed when Peter, for all his bluster and bravado, was too afraid to admit that he even knew Jesus. Here it is on top of our church and on the warden’s staves. The symbol of Peter’s ultimate failure! What’s that about? Why do we use that sign, as though it was something to be proud of?
Well we use it, it is the symbol of St Peter, because that failure was followed by Peter’s threefold confession of love, which we read about in Chapter 21 of John. Peter had failed again and again but it was that very failure which stripped away his illusions. His illusions about himself, that he was brave and powerful and in control. And his illusions about God, that God’s Kingdom will be like the kingdoms of this world, imposing itself by domination and force and violence. 
And when all that had fallen away, what was left? A wretched, fearful failure who then discovered the most wonderful thing of all. That God was not about violence and control, but about love. And that he, Peter,  was loved, anyway. Loved beyond his imagining, right there in the mess that he had made. And indeed if he hadn’t made such a mess of his attempt to follow Jesus he wouldn’t have known quite how much he was loved. Jesus had known entirely what Peter was like before he called him. And he chose him and called him anyway.
You see, the Gospel is not about being good, but about being forgiven. It is not about persuading God to like us, but about discovering that he loves us regardless of what we do. The Gospel is about doing the worst that we can do, making the greatest mess of it, and then finding that God is waiting to meet us right there in the mess we have made. It is about discovering that God has called us and chosen us as we are, knowing entirely what we are better than we do ourselves. Julian of Norwich, in a statement of profound doctrine, said, “First came the fall, then came the recovery from the fall; both are the mercy of God!”
There is another symbol of St Peter, besides the cock and the keys: the inverted cross. That is the sign of his martyrdom, the triumph of God’s love in him, the fruit of the Holy Spirit who has worked on Peter through his lifetime, remaking him from within so that he could live entirely from the power of God’s Kingdom, the power of self-giving love. So that in the end he could give his life for the Gospel, freely, out of the love that had transformed him. So the story told against himself, the story of his failures, is the story of the triumph of God’s love. A story which is only possible because of that transformation. 
So this is a day of great joy as we rejoice in our heavenly patron, Peter. The mendacious fearful failure who was chosen and called and loved into the person he truly was, out of the ruins of the false self which could not endure. And what was good news for Peter is good news for us, too.
We, every one of us, have been called and chosen, just like Peter, just as we are. Whatever our lives have been and are - God knows it all, and loves us anyway! Called to discover our true selves in the joy of God’s love and forgiveness. Called into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the discovery of what God is really like - not remote, disapproving and controlling, but vivacious, overflowing love, come to meet us where we are. Empowered by the Holy Spirit to live according to that kingdom of self-giving love. God’s love and forgiveness are offered to us today, through Jesus, without condition. And the Holy Spirit will transform us, throughout our lives, just as he did Peter, if we will but let him. 

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