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

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass - Patronal Festival of Saints Peter and Paul 2016

Zechariah 4.1-6a,10b-14
Acts 12:1-11
Matthew 16:13-19

I’ve seen a poster on the underground recently. Actually, I’m seeing quite a lot of posters on the underground at the moment, but that’s another story. This one says: “No overpopulation. No commuting. No skinny frappalappacino. What if we could start again?”
It turns out that this is not, for once, about Brexit (“What if we could start again?” – hmmm…). It is about “Eden”, yet another reality TV series in which a group of people are going to be dumped in the middle of nowhere and left to get on with it, with the cameras following their every move as they learn to rub twigs together, and so on.
“What if we could start again?” How many times in our lives might we have asked that question? Human beings do, after all, go wrong. We make the wrong decisions. We let people down and hurt them. We harm ourselves as we harm the communities of which we are part. To use a short word that sums all that up, we sin. What if we could start again?
Like St Peter. He often got things wrong. In today’s gospel reading we see him getting something right, but it is his feast day after all. He correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But immediately after this scene he tries to turn Jesus away from the way of the cross, which is the Father’s will, and Jesus sharply rebukes him.
And then there was Peter’s great denial, when the temple authorities had arrested Jesus, everything seemed to be going wrong, and Peter denied three times that he knew him. What a failure. And shortly after that, Jesus was killed, and the one to whom he had promised the keys of the kingdom was nowhere in sight.
We can only imagine the bitterness and regret that Peter must have felt after that. But it was too late to do anything about it. If only he could start again!
And into that bitterness and despair stepped Jesus, and said, you can start again.
Jesus hadn’t forgotten him. In his first instruction to the women he met after rising from the dead, he said, “go and tell my disciples, and Peter, that I will meet them in Galilee”. And he did. In that wonderfully touching scene on the shores of the lake, in answer to Peter’s three denials Jesus asks him three times, “do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
No blame, no recrimination. Jesus met Peter in his failure and sin, with love and forgiveness. With the gift of starting again.
Nor was that the end of the story for Peter. He was one of the Apostles sent out after the resurrection to proclaim the good news. He didn’t always get it right – after starting to associate the gentiles, he drew back, afraid of the conservative Jews who disapproved. And Paul sharply rebuked him for it.
So Peter needed that grace of starting again, even after he had been sent on his mission. But that grace kept him faithful through trials and persecutions, and today we celebrate his martyrdom, with the same Paul with whom he had so sharply disagreed.
And, what about Paul? Saul, as he was originally, was what we would today call a fundamentalist. He was a strict observant Jew who knew the scriptures and was absolutely convinced in his mind that the sect who followed Jesus were dangerous blasphemers. And the Bible said blasphemers must be put to death – a line which Saul pursued with vigour.
Saul had got it all spectacularly wrong, but he didn’t even know it. His reading of the Bible convinced him that he was right. Until he met Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute some more Christians, “breathing out threats and murder”, as he himself puts it, when the risen Lord met him in a blazing light, and his whole world was shattered. “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me”, he said.
Saul’s whole world came crashing down in ruins at that moment. He had got everything wrong, and he realized that the one he had been opposing was in truth the Lord and Messiah. And there he was in front of him, helpless. What would happen to him? If only he could start again!
And Jesus said to him, “get up, go into the city, and you will be told what you must do, because you are my chosen instrument to bring my name before the Gentiles”. No recrimination, no revenge. Just an instruction to begin again.
And the rest of Paul’s life, as he then came to be called, was spent following that command, living out the new start he had been given, and telling the good news of Jesus who offers forgiveness and a new beginning to everyone.
Jesus offers that new beginning, as he did to Peter and Paul, freely, without condition, not earned by us but simply, gratuitously, given, out of love, just because that is what he is like.
Whatever the past has been, whatever regrets we may have, whatever sins are on our conscience. It doesn’t matter. Jesus wants to take that burden from us and give us the supreme gift of starting again.
Sin and death can never have the last word. Jesus shows us God our Creator who never stops creating, never stops bringing new things to be. Out of betrayal and death, he rose in glory. Out of the bitterness and regrets of his disciples he made the band of Apostles who would change the world with the good news of forgiveness. Out of the fundamentalist murderer Saul he made the Apostle of grace to the Gentiles, who could never say enough of the love of God that had found him and saved him in Jesus.

Whatever our story may be, however we have gone wrong, whatever sins and regrets we may be carrying with us, old or new, it doesn’t matter. What if we could start again? The risen Lord Jesus meets us, and says to us, “you can”.

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