In Celebration of Saint Peter

I have four young sons – the oldest is seven and the youngest is one, so our house is quite busy most of the time.  I am increasingly amazed as I watch my boys, to see which bits of Church-life appeal to them most.

Isaac (who is seven), is very keen on taking a cross from my study and processing it around the house whilst singing alleluia (even in Lent!).  Joshua (who is three) likes to arrange a cup and plate on the table and do something akin to celebrating the Eucharist.  But the most worrying trait amongst my boys is evident in Malachi, who is five.  He has taken to wearing a cross on a piece of string around his neck everywhere that he goes, including to school.   The problem is that Malachi’s school uniform is purple – so the sight of him in a purple shirt with a cross around his neck, has caused many jokes around the Diocese of Newcastle.

Through my boys I am re-discovering some of the songs that I learnt twenty-five years ago at Sunday School.  Some of you will have had that same experience with your own children and grand children, and maybe even great grand children.   One of our favourite songs at the moment is the song about the two men who went out to build houses, from the story of Jesus earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.   One builds his house on the sand, and when the wind and rains come it quickly collapses, accompanied in our song by much hand waving and clapping.  But the other man builds his house on the rock and no amount of wind and rain and storm can move it, because its foundations are firm.

Foundations are important for all of us.  This was made very clear to me on Thursday when the Archdeacon of Newcastle and I travelled to some Church properties on the border of where the Diocese of Newcastle meets the Diocese of Armidale.   We were inspecting buildings which had been erected many years ago without proper foundations being put in place.  I imagine that we are all familiar with what happens when foundations are weak, and when land begins to move under buildings, and cracks begin to appear up the walls.

In our Gospel reading today Jesus is laying foundations for the Church.  He takes his disciples away from the places that they are used to, right up to Caesarea-Philippi in the far north of the land of Israel (about two days walking from the Sea of Galilee).  And he wants to know from them whether they have understood all that he has been teaching them or not.   So he begins by asking them how others perceive him.  “Who,” he asks, “do people say that the Son of Man is?”  The disciples give him a range of answers – “some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah, or another of the prophets.”

As it was then, so it is today.  If we were to walk down the streets of Leeton to ask people about Jesus, we would receive a range of responses – a prophet, a teacher, a good man, a myth, even a swear word.  And then Jesus asks them who they believe he is.  And it is our patron St Peter, on behalf of the others, who is the first to respond in faith.  He names Jesus as the longed-for Messiah, the one who will bring in the unstoppable reign of God’s love for all humanity.  And in response to this declaration, Jesus names him “the rock” the foundation on which the Church will be built.

In the time of Jesus, and of St Peter, all of Jewish religious life was dominated by one building – the great Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple was like a Cathedral which dominated the sky line, and dwarfed the other buildings which surrounded it in the city.  For Jewish people in the time of Jesus, the Temple was not just a magnificent building, it was the place where God literally dwelt, in a more special way than anywhere else.  And faithful Jews would visit the Temple on pilgrimage to breathe in the holy air, and to worship, and to rest for a while in that holy sacred place.  Jews believed that the Temple was the place where heaven and earth met, and even where the gates of the underworld were to be found deep beneath it.

The Temple wasn’t just built anywhere, it was built on the firm rocky foundations of the holy hill, Mount Zion.  It was the mountain (which provided the foundation for the Temple) which was holy first, before the Temple was ever built there.  And yet Jesus uses the image of the rock on which the Temple has been built to refer to St Peter.  Jesus is doing something radically new.  He knows the importance of foundations.  He knows the significance of the foundation of the Temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.  But he has another plan in mind, and it involves you and me.

The Church which Jesus is building will be made up of all those who are part of his body.  It will not merely be focused around actual buildings, it will be defined by the people who gather within them.    The foundation of this Church will not be the great rock of Mount Zion (as it was for the Temple), it will be St Peter and all of the saints, with Christ himself as the Cornerstone on which the whole building leans for support.

In the Diocese of Newcastle we are trying as hard as we can to take this reality seriously.  We are beginning to re-imagine a Church in which every one of us, and not just our priests, is valued as a minister within the life of the Christian community.  We are reminding ourselves that every one of us has been gifted by God for some ministry within the life of the Church, building on the strong foundation of all that has gone before us.

And in all of this St Peter is very much at the fore-front of our minds, because it was St Peter who went on, after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to teach the Early Church that they were like the Temple themselves; that everything which they believed to be true about the Temple, could also be said about them, and so also about us.

If St Peter were physically here with us today, I think that he would say to us as we gather for this celebration, that we as a Christian community are all of the things which we recognise about this Church building in which we worship.   He would remind us that God dwells in each one of us, that we are each a landmark for Christ, that we are each beautiful and made holy by him, that we link those who have gone before us with those who will come after us, that the sacred is in each one of us.  That is why St Peter taught that Christ was the cornerstone – the stone which held the building together, and that each one of us were bricks in the new Temple of God.  And although earthly buildings (however beautiful and well constructed) will eventually pass away, this new building – this living temple – made up of each one of us who have been baptised into Christ, with him as the cornerstone, would be eternal.

In the Eastern Church, (Greek or Russian or Coptic Orthodox), our brothers and sisters literally gather with the saints every time they worship.  They surround themselves in their buildings with pictures (icons) of the great heroes of our faith.  Because the lives of the saints remind us that we are not the first people who have tried to live out the Gospel in our lives.  We are not the first people sent by God to a community who know little or nothing about the good news of Jesus.

As we remember and celebrate the saints we are reminded that we are joined with Christians from every age in the unending life of the prayer of the Church, and the mission of the Kingdom to present the good news of God’s love to others.  In a very real sense the saints from every age provide a foundation for all that we do now (whether we live in Leeton or Newcastle) as we live out our lives, in the best way that we can, in response to the life of Jesus.  And our patron St Peter has been singled out within the history of the Church as a most significant part of that foundation.

Scholars remind us that if we did not have the accounts of St Peter’s preaching which we find in the Acts of the Apostles, we would know little about the earliest beliefs of the first Christian communities.   It is St Peter on the Day of Pentecost who is the first to be an evangelist, and from that day onwards, we know that it is St Peter who is at the forefront of the development of the doctrine of the Church which we have inherited today.

So on this patronal festival weekend we have a lot to be thankful for here in Leeton.  We give thanks to God for the strong foundations of the saints on which the Church is built, we give thanks to God for the many blessings which we have received in Jesus.  And now as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, we pray for God’s strength to live as living temples, gifted for ministry, supported by the intercessions of St Peter, and the fellowship of each other.