Patronal festivals can be very strange events indeed. I remember a number of years ago attending a patronal festival celebrating the life of St Agatha, in a church named in her honour in Portsmouth in England. I was there because a friend of mine was one of the priests of that church, and not because I was very familiar with the saint who we were gathering to celebrate and commemorate on that day.
The events of that day are very clear, even now, in my mind. As the service went on I became more and more uncomfortable about being there, because as the story of this saint, Agatha, was being told I became increasingly aware of how very different the events of her life were from anything that has happened in my life.
St Agatha had her breasts cut off for refusing to deny the Christian faith, and as the story goes St Peter appeared to her in a miraculous apparition and put them back on her! Just hold that image in your mind for a moment, and imagine what it would be like to be in a church building which depicted that event in stained glass and statues and in the ceremony of the liturgy!
Most of all, I remember clearly the experience of singing a seven verse hymn whilst we were in a grand procession around the church building which told of this event in great, and perhaps unnecessary detail. Each verse brought yet more awkward images into my head! Even now, when I think about that patronal festival I remember the thought that kept going through my mind, over and over again – ‘please don’t let any visitors walk into the church for the first time whilst we are singing this, they will simply never understand!’
I don’t know whether you have a favourite saint, or a favourite story from the lives of the saints. As Anglicans we have never been quite sure about how we should respond to the saints and the holy legends which surround them. On this patronal festival day, here in the Church of St Paul, we might naturally want to respond that he is the saint of greatest important for us. And in the life of the church when we celebrate St Paul, we remember also his colleague in faith St Peter.
Saints Peter and Paul need no introduction to us. It is through St Peter’s sermons, recorded for us in the book of the Acts of the Apostles that we really get a sense of the heart of the gospel as it was understood by the first Christians. And in the writings of St Paul to the first Christian communities, which we read Sunday by Sunday we find these first beliefs being expanded and developed for us, in his teaching and guidance to those first churches. Many scholars of Christian tradition have noted that if it were not for Peter and Paul, we would not have the depth of understanding of the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus for us, as we take for granted today.
I have been thinking, this week, about what Peter and Paul would say to us at Kurri and Mount Vincent and Weston if they were here with us this morning. If there was one thing that they could say to us today, out of all that they say to us as we find them in the scriptures, what would it be?
We have many great teachings from St Paul, he is responsible for the texts that form the New Testament of the Bible than anyone else. And for me the most powerful image, and the one which I want to give you (from him) this morning, is the image of us as the body of Christ. He says to us, ‘you are like a body here this morning.’ Some of you are hands, some of you are feet, some of you are the mouth, and others of you are the arms. A body which does not have all of its parts functioning is a dis-abled body. Many of us know for ourselves what that feels like for ourselves. A body cannot be all that it was designed to be, it cannot do all that it has been created to do, when its parts are not working properly. And according to our Patron St Paul, we are called to be a body – a fully able body: alive, connected, active and even athletic.
As Anglicans of course, we believe that the body is made up of more than the parts in any one congregation. There are many parts of the body living and active amongst us (each one of us is a part of that body), but there will always be some limbs, some abilities and gifts which we need to bring in from the wider body, the greater family of the Church which we Anglicans call the Diocese; because we do not live in isolation here, we are part of the other 7,000 Anglicans who will be celebrating the Eucharist around this area of Australia this morning, and bound together through prayer, and our common purpose to witness to Christ, we can, with them, be the full manifestation of the body of Christ.
So we remember St Paul this morning, as we celebrate his life and example, and as we do so we have upper most in our minds this image which he has given to us of being a united body working together to care for each other, and to share God’s love beyond ourselves in the communities that surround us. ‘You are the body of Christ’ – that is what I believe St Paul would say to us if he were here with us this morning on this patronal festival day.
And what about St Peter? What would he say to us if he was here with us this morning?
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 our Cathedral in Newcastle 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. 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. It was in that context that Peter taught the first Christians that they were like the Temple themselves. Everything which they believed to be true about the Temple, could also be said about them.
Or to put it another way, to bring it into our context, all that we say about this building, according to St Peter, could be said about us. When we point to this Church building as a holy place, in which God dwells, and as a place that points for us others to the presence of God in this community – when we say those things about this building, Peter reminds us that we should say them also of ourselves.
If St Peter were here this morning he would say to us, that we as a Christian community are all of the things which we recognise about this Church building in which we gather: that God dwells in each one of us, that we are a landmark for Christ, that we are each beautiful, and made holy in Jesus, 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. A reminder that 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. Although earthly buildings (however beautiful and well constructed) eventually pass away, this new building made up of each one of us, with Christ as the cornerstone, will be eternal.
They are powerful images aren’t they? To encourage us, and to give us new confidence for the task ahead of us.
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.
And so with St Paul on this patronal festival day, we can say that through our baptism we are part of a living body – joined together, working in harmony, each one of us using the gifts which God has given to us for the building up of the whole body, and for its extension. And with St Peter we rejoice on this day that we are part of a living temple, each one of us a brick in an eternal building in which Jesus is pleased to dwell. It is with those two images in mind that we will celebrate the Holy Eucharist this morning. In the faith that as we pray for the needs of the world, and for our own concerns, that Peter and Paul and all of the saints will be praying with us, and for us.
So we rejoice this morning that we share in the fellowship of these two great apostles. Let us be strengthened by their example to be faithful followers of Christ here in these communities of Mount Vincent, and Kurri Kurri and Weston.