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

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Ss Peter and Paul 2017

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

On the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul we always read that famous passage in Matthew where Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and in return is given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. But of course that’s only half the story. The second part of this scene doesn’t reflect so well on Peter, but perhaps it’s considered impolite to drag that up on his feast day.
What happens immediately after Peter’s confession of faith is this (Matthew 16.21-23):
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Does this mean that Jesus has now rejected Peter, having just moments before chosen him as “the rock”? Does this mean that Peter has thrown away his chance to be the chief of the Apostles? No indeed. God never takes back his call, however much we may get it wrong.
What has happened is that Peter has misheard what Jesus has said. As with us, so often we hear what we want to hear, not what is actually being said.
What Jesus has said is, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. But what Peter thinks has been said is, “you are Peter, and on this rock you will build your church”. Having recognized the Messiah, Peter thinks he has been put in charge of the Messiah project, and so intervenes when Jesus starts going off message.
But Peter is not in charge. Jesus is. And Peter is not to build the church, because Jesus will do that. And he will do it in his way, which is to say, God’s way, and not according to human thinking.
But Peter’s error doesn’t overturn his call by Jesus. Peter was always getting it wrong, concluding in the Gospels with his threefold denial of Jesus after he had been arrested. This does not mean that Jesus got it wrong when he named Peter as the rock. Part of what it means to say that Peter is the rock involves understanding how Jesus builds his church with weak, sinful, fallible human beings. Divine grace is not about denying who we are, but is about transforming who we are. In fact Divine grace is so transformative that way Peter gets it wrong again and again is intrinsic to the way in which the church is being built on him.
Part of what it means to be built as the church by Jesus is to learn how wrong we are. Peter the rock is not very strong or stable. The fact that the Church can be built on such a rock shows that it is Jesus who is building it, not Peter.
For Peter to be the rock, he has to learn to confess his sins. Confessing our sins is foundational to being the church. We might think of confession as something to get out of the way at the beginning of Mass, in the hope that we can spend the next hour before communion without being envious of our neighbour or irritated by our partner, and so on, and then go back to normal until the same time next week.
But no. The church is the people who confess their sins, because we are the people who confess that Jesus is our Saviour. Our sins, failures and weaknesses are the very stuff that God transforms by grace into the church. We bring our sins to church, not to forget about them, but to offer them to God as the raw material for his work of transformation.
By grace, a collection of sinners, precisely because they confess their sins, is transformed into the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Confession of sin is not something we have to get out of the way before we can be apostolic witnesses, rather it is the apostolic witness in itself, part of what it means to be “one, holy catholic and apostolic”.
This is as true for the two Apostles we celebrate today as it is for us. Peter, who so often got it wrong, who denied Jesus three times the night he was arrested. That denial was not the end for Peter, rather it turned out to be the essential preparation for Jesus meeting him, risen from the dead, and asking him three times, “do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.” The ways in which Peter had tried and failed to build the church himself, all the ways he went wrong, were part in the end of the way in which Jesus built the church on him anyway.
And Paul, or Saul as he was originally, the violent fundamentalist persecuting the followers of Jesus, until he met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and his whole world was shattered. He had in effect been trying to build God’s church or kingdom himself, in his own way. But grace came flooding in where Paul had striven for righteousness based on the law. Paul had been entirely wrong, and from then on he could do nothing but proclaim that grace in every nation. The way in which Paul went wrong was part of the way in which Jesus built the church through him anyway.
All four of the gospels speak of Peter’s denial of Jesus, it’s that important. The tale of Paul’s conversion is told three times in Acts, it’s that important. The discovery of our sin is the discovery of where God is meeting us in Jesus. The apostolic faith of course is a great edifice of doctrine, of creed and scripture, sacrament and order. But it begins with the confession of our sins. Because to confess our sins is to discover that Jesus is our Saviour. That is the apostolic faith, the witness of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

There are times when the human element of the Church seems very evident. Its sins and failures, all its attempts to take control and build the kingdom itself. All the ways in which it refuses the path of contradiction and suffering that Jesus calls it to follow. But Divine grace is so transformative that, rather than hindering God’s purposes, the very sins of the Church become the means by which Jesus builds the Church anyway. By hook or by crook, we become the people who confess our sins and so become the people who can tell, and live, the story of grace in the world. And so we are right to celebrate what Divine grace has done, not only for Peter and Paul, but for us too.

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