Sunday, 29 June 2014

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles

(Zechariah 4.1-6a,10b-14; Acts 12.1-11; Matthew 16.13-19)

Today’s first reading from the prophet Zechariah gives us a vision and a dialogue. First, the prophet’s vision:

I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.

The lampstand and its seven lamps represent the all-seeing nature of God, an angel tells the prophet. But the dialogue continues:

‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?... What are these two branches of the olive trees, which pour out the oil through the two golden pipes?’ 14 Then he said, ‘These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.’

Does that leave you any the wiser? We don’t know who these two “anointed ones” are in the vision of the prophet, several hundred years before the time of Christ. But as we read these words today, we are led on to think of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. St. Paul himself, writing his letter to the Christians of Galatia, sums up their respective and complementary tasks:

…I had been entrusted with the Gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles).

The call to be an apostle is the call to be sent out with a task. Christ is to be seen at the centre of our faith. And if he is to be the heart of a living faith, then he needs people who will communicate that faith to others. Nearly two thousand years ago he chooses these two men, Peter and Paul. Today he chooses people like us.

Because Peter and Paul are people who are so like us. We remember them together on this Feast Day that bears both their names, but the truth is that they didn’t get on. Paul has harsh words for Peter, saying that he “opposed him to his face,” and that Peter had acted in such a way that he was “self-condemned.” And we can imagine how Peter must have felt about Paul - the uppity self-proclaimed apostle who had come so late to the Christian faith after a career of persecuting the first disciples. You can read for yourselves in the Bible about their feud and suspicions. And you’ll probably find yourself concluding that here are two men who should just grow up - each of them needs to recognise where he is wrong and the other one right. But in spite of it all they do remarkable things, each with a distinctive mission which results in the spread of the Christian faith across the Mediterranean from Palestine through Asia Minor and Greece to Rome and probably on to Spain - all in the space of one generation. Peter and Paul have their differences, but that is why they belong together. Could they have been more different in background and character? Peter is probably at best a roughly educated fisherman from Galilee. Paul is a Jew from the diaspora, a Roman citizen growing up with all the benefits of a Pharisaic training and a Hellenistic understanding which serve to make him all the more determined to oppose the heresy he detects amongst the people who had proclaimed Jesus to be a Messiah. But each of them finds his life transformed when Jesus calls them. Each of them will carry out a mission they could never have imagined. Each of them finds a new way of living because each is called to be open to the converting and renewing love of God in Christ.

If you go to Rome, you can visit the supposed tombs of Peter and Paul in churches which bear their names. It’s a bit of a trek to the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls - it has that name because it is outside the old walls of the city, a few miles from the centre. And the location is appropriate. Paul is the apostle who takes the message of the Gospel outside the boundaries of his own Judaism. The message of Christ cannot be confined to a particular people, he realises. It needs to be shared because God’s love extends to all of us. God’s love cannot be restricted to a particular race or to people who follow a particular set of rules or rituals. That’s Paul’s understanding, and he acts upon it. It’s an understanding that should challenge us. Do we see that God reaches into those areas of life which are alien to us… and to those people with whom we may feel uncomfortable? Can we see that God’s love is so powerful that it can break the barriers we erect? - that his love reaches out to me? Paul himself has to allow Christ to break into his own life, challenging his own rigorously worked-out perceptions. And then he will see how God has a purpose for all people.

The tomb of Peter is easier to reach. It’s in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica - and the whole edifice is built so that the altar is located directly above the tomb. You can understand what the builders are saying. They’ve heard those words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:

I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

But we need to hear those words properly. Peter is the first of the disciples to recognise who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he tells him. It’s Peter who has that gift of perception which Jesus needs to find in his followers - and with it he has the boldness to say what he has found. Jesus can build using people like this. It’s Jesus who actually gives Peter his name - he had been known as Simon; now he is to be Peter, which means literally, “the rock.”

Again and again I find myself looking to Peter as an example for holy living and discipleship. Upon the foundation of such as him, God wills to build his Church. Not just to build on Peter. To build on each one of us. Peter is a man of no great ability, a humble fisherman from Galilee, a near-forgotten backwater of the Roman Empire. And Peter is a man of great faults: rashness particularly, as eagerly he pushes himself forwards without considering whether he’s up to the task he takes on; and then when his courage fails he finds himself denying Jesus at the time of his trial, the time when he is needed most.

But with such people Jesus chooses to work – with frail human creatures like ourselves. Peter is a rock, not because in himself he is strong, but because he is made strong by the grace and redeeming love he finds in Christ. We find it when Jesus appears to the disciples by the lakeside after his Resurrection. It’s Peter who rushes to be with him, jumping into the lake to get to him first. But then he finds himself looked in the eye and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Three times Jesus asks him, just as three times Peter had denied him. And Jesus tells him: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep.” Peter had fallen short of his calling, but still Christ calls him and uses him.

As a priest I find this passage of scripture to be one of the most important in the whole Bible – certainly closest to my heart. It’s about my calling  as a priest, about the calling of another eight priests who were ordained in Durham cathedral yesterday and eleven deacons being ordained this morning… We need to pray for them - but then remember, it’s about our calling, a common calling, all together. To care for the flock of Christ – his treasure bought with his blood upon the Cross. And what enables us to do this caring is that first Christ has cared for us, reached out to us, touched those parts of our lives where we fail, healed the very wounds we bear through our human frailty. We don’t cease to be flawed creatures. The grace of orders conveyed upon deacons and priests does not make them better people or any more clever or able. But it gives something which Peter finds, as he discovers once more his calling from the forgiving Christ.

Peter, I have found myself making my own patron saint, because of his frailty, but also I hope, because of his love. It is love which first draws him to Jesus, love which enables him to find forgiveness from him as three times he says, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And love which carries him on as he seeks to feed Christ’s flock.

A priest at ordination is told, “Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.” We need that grace and power which were given to St. Peter and St. Paul. And a priest needs to recognise that his or hers is not a ministry to be exercised alone. Ministry is a common task of the whole People of God... a common task – of proclaiming Christ’s love for his flock, of discovering it for ourselves.


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Rules for living

In today's homily, I found myself talking about Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, who suffered imprisonment after the Communist takeover of Saigon - but whose example was a cause for the conversion of his guards. Read more by clicking on the link.

Where can I find out more about him? asked a member of the congregation. Wikipedia has the basics including his "Ten Rules of Life." They're worth meditating upon - here they are:

Ten Rules of Life of Nguyễn Văn Thuận
  • I will live the present moment to the fullest. 
  • I will discern between God and God's works.
  • I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer.
  • I will see in the Holy Eucharist my only power.
  • I will have only one wisdom: the science of the Cross.
  • I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ.
  • I will seek the peace the world cannot give.
  • I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit.
  • I will speak one language and wear one uniform: Charity.
  • I will have one very special love: The Blessed Virgin Mary.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A life more ordinary…

… isn’t quite the name of a film I half-remember watching. But this is the time of year when we move into the period the Church calls “Ordinary Time.” It’s all those times when we’re not celebrating Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter. So it starts the day after Pentecost, Whit Sunday - and will continue for the best part of the next six months.

Each season has its own liturgical colour - the colour of the vestments worn by the priest and any hangings in church. For Easter it’s been white or gold and Pentecost brings us a final flourish of red depicting the colour of those flames of fire which signified the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles. For Ordinary Time it’s green. I think that’s intentional. As I write, my already overgrown garden is an overwhelmingly lush green. It’s the colour of life - the stuff that grows whether we help it to or not. In church, the colour green is symbolic of God’s life enriching our lives, filling us with grace and power.

That word “ordinary” is one we need to get right. It doesn’t mean boring or uneventful. It’s about all the things we need to keep happening so we can grow and so that God’s purposes for us may be fulfilled. As we move into this season, I find my diary changing its character: not marked so much by the unfolding of the Church’s year as we follow Christ’s life from birth and infancy to his death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit - as by the implications for how we live our lives in response. So I’m now into the round of Baptisms and Marriages which are so much a staple of church life but also so significant and special for individuals, couples and families. We find the specialness of God speaking to us in the ordinariness of life.

We go on marking that with the round of church services and events. “Messy Church” is becoming well-established and is huge fun - it’s having an effect not merely on the children and their parents who come but on leaders and helpers who make it happen. But don’t forget those quieter occasions. Our monthly “Open for Prayer” - prayer is at the heart of our lives as Christians; to be intentionally silent for this time is a deep reminder of this. “Tea and Sympathy” in its response to bereavement tells of our calling to service and pastoral care. And there are the many other opportunities simply to come together to recognise that God speaks to us day by day - and not always where we expect.

We haven’t yet worked out everything we might be doing this month - keep an eye open for more, and ask “how is God working for me?”

Martin Jackson
(taken from the June 2014 issue of St. Cuthbert's Parish Magazine)