SERMON PREACHED AT ZILLMERE PARISH
YOUTH MASS, EVE OF TRINITY (25 May) 1999
Reading: John 6.60-69
Words of eternal life?
What happened to Peter? He is full of contradictions. He is full of bravado, full of an incurable belief in his own ability, full of self-worth, yet full of insecurity. In the end he is full too of seemingly ultimate cowardice and failure. First to profess his loyalty to Jesus, he is conspicuous in his categorical denial of him, too. “Lord I will follow you even if it should cost you my life” (Jn. 13.37) with one breath, then “I tell you, I never knew the man” (Jn. 18.25) with the next. Here he is seeing the essence of Jesus’ ministry: “Lord to whom we should go, your words are the words of eternal life.” In the end he is to be full of seemingly ultimate cowardice and failure, yet as the gospel writers knew, and as the first hearers of the gospel knew, he was in the end the “rock on whom Christ’s Church was built.” This man who failed so utterly, so conspicuously after so desperately wanting to succeed, this man becomes the bearer of leadership in the embryonic community of faith.
Mind you, he was prickly. Peter and that other prickly character, Paul, the later convert to Christianity, spent most of their careers at each other’s throats. The politics of apparent hatred so perfected by the Howards, Beazleys, Beatties, and Borbridges of the world was not unique to our era. Glimpse between the lines of the records of Paul and Peter struggling for their vision of Christianity and we see real, red blooded, feisty opponents struggling for dominance of the Christian mind. “As for these agitators” says Paul, “Would that they would castrate themselves” (Gal 5.12). Peter was more polite: “Paul our friend and brother ... whenever he writes of salvation, write some obscure passages” says Peter through clenched teeth (2 Pet. 3.16).
Red blooded: I wonder if that’s it? There is so much that is saccharine in our society - and no less so much that is saccharine in contemporary Christianity. Contemporary? It’s had its saccharine elements at least since the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be an official religion of the Roman Empire. From that time on Christianity ran and often succumbed to the risk of becoming complacent - or worse, powerful and arrogant. How far a cry this was from the struggling, powerless but feisty understandings of Peter, Paul, and Jesus himself. The red blood has been sapped out of Christianity (D.H. Lawrence noted something like this in 1905), and much of the spirit dwindled into triviality.
But fear not! No longer are we living in an era when it is chic or comfortable to be Christian. For you Christianity is a challenge, demanding commitment. The Church today in Australia is facing at least three forms of persecution.
1. A bitter lesson I learned out of my time in the ABC was the ease with which mainstream Christianity is marginalized. I was employed by the Religious Department of ABC Radio primarily to present the complexities of theological debate to the Australian public. While I had always known that it is not the task of the ABC to promote Christianity, I was amazed how quickly that Christianity and its concerns were shouldered aside. I spent time interviewing witches, druids, Roshis, Imams and Rabbis, and tended to interview representatives of the Christian faith only when they were defending the role of the Church in sexual abuse scandals, financial or numerical collapse. I interviewed some great representatives of credible Christianity; but attempts to get work like that to air, and the defences I had to establish against criticism that such representatives of Christianity were “boring” and ”old hat,” soon wore me down.
2. Media portrayals of mainstream Christianity are by and large mocking. On the whole clergy and worshippers are portrayed in entertainment as doddery and/or bigoted. An ABC Compass documentary in 1995 portrayed the entire Anglican Church of Australia as bankrupt, aged and corrupt. Because I was one of many representatives of other aspects of Anglican Christianity interviewed and discarded for that dokko, I am aware how jaundiced its agenda was. It was not atypical.
3. Then also, like the early Church, we face a threat of relativism. Choose your truth, rub the tricky bits out of the Christian story - if it’s intellectually difficult, and rid your selves of it. Resurrection, the Trinity;
[SING “WILL YOU COME AND FOLLOW ME.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8lOfMjtxdE]
Some years ago, following the Port Arthur tragedy, Anne was told that while the opening verses which speak of the experiences of suffering are fine, the resurrective, hope-filled final verses were too simplistic is to deny the gospel of its entire meaning. It is incredible twentieth century arrogance to assume that St. Paul was a naive first century fool when he told his people “If there is no resurrection then we are to be more pitied than all people.” We are bearers of a word of hope, and that ii itself is a sign to our community that can transform lives from darkness into light.
Peter was feisty. The gospel stories concentrate largely on his failings.
Constantly he gets it wrong, tries too hard, tries to do in all in the strength of his own power, tries to demonstrate to Jesus that he really is the smart guy. In our gospel reading just now Jesus poured out an incredible human pain: So he asked the twelve disciples: “And you, would you like also to leave?” Many had already. The rough edges of the way of the cross were too much for them to take. Peter though responded with what we tend to think was the right answer: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. And now we believe and know that you are the Holy One who has come from God.”
Yet he too was soon to desert Christ. Peter’s desertion was no less of a failing than the betrayal of Judas. Jesus replied sadly: “I chose the twelve of you, didn’t I? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was, as our narrator said, referring to Judas Iscariot. But the only other person who gets called “Satan” or “a devil” in the gospels, is Peter himself. “Get behind me, Satan”, says Jesus, when bravadoed Peter once more tries to stop Jesus from taking the lonely, broken way of the Cross.
Only when Peter was finally utterly, utterly broken does he finally become the ne to whom Jesus commands the humble yet earth-changing task “Feed my sheep.” Only when we are broken can we truly be bearers of the living, loving God.
You and I are called to suffer. We’ll say that together later in this mass. We are called to the way of the Cross, and that is a way of challenge and suffering, as well as joy and exhilaration. By being a people of faith we are called to rise, though not in our strength to be a sign to our world. The people of Israel, our ancestors in faith, were called out of Egypt not because they were particularly nice people, but because they were a people in pain; God chose to encounter them and breathe into their pain a sign of hope not only for them but for all people. And you and I are called to be Christ bearers in the same way. Peter wasn’t holy or nice. I’m not holy or nice. You’re probably not, either. But amidst all the darkness that we live amongst - amidst the dark pressures of education, sexuality, racism, unemployment and chemical (drug and alcohol) abuse, to name just a handful, we are called to shine a different light.
Even our worship must be different. So much that is Christian seeks to be noisier, “funner”, brighter than the brightest lights of Dreamworld, sports extravaganza, but in the end risks producing only another form of noise, fun, neon or laser brightness. Peter’s mistake was to attempt to be a laser show for Jesus. Our responsibility is to be a people of contrast: amidst the noise, sow silence. Amidst the bustle, stillness. Amidst the false brightness, the laser shows of advertising, sports, entertainment, designed as they are to hide a deeper darkness of loneliness and emptiness, we are called to shine an unspectacular natural light of peace. Amidst the dog eat dog world of commerce and profit we are called to offer justice and compassion.
Peter learned that himself only when he was broken. Only then he became the person of love commissioned to build a Church of Contrast. We must likewise allow ourselves to be transformed as Paul put it into the likeness of Christ - changed into a people who contrast quietly, not imitate noisily, the emptiness of our world.
And to that end we place at the heart of our celebration this day the communion. In a world that only does things that taste good, produce good money, or are spectacular, we shall simply break plain bread, be still, and allow an unusable and quiet Spirit of God to touch our lives again. The challenges are great. The rewards are God’s infilling of our hearts so that we no longer yearn for meaning, but instead become bearers of meaning to the world around us. Peter learned that eventually.
“Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?”