Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinityadmin | 1 July 2012
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”
The Church does not own this text; this text owns the Church. It is Jesus’ statement about Peter (whose name means rock) in response to Peter’s confession about Christ: “thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is a powerful and yet poignant exchange between Peter and Jesus. What Peter has said, Jesus says, is heavenly knowledge: “for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” The Church is built upon Revelation, upon what is engraven upon rock, as it were, the refined petroglyphs of salvation, we might say.
The Petrine primacy, as it sometimes called, meaning that Peter has a kind of place of first-standing among the apostles, belongs to the life and history of the Church, to the debates and discussions about what it means to be the Church, and especially to the conflicts and controversies between different churches within the idea of the universal church, the catholic church. But this text cannot be relegated simply to church politics and polities. It speaks rather to the catholicity of the Christian confession of Faith.
Peter’s confession must be our confession. And so Jesus’ response to Peter speaks to the very ground of our faith and life in the community of confessing Christians; namely, those who confess Christ as the Son of the living God.
There is in this confession more than mere assent to a proposition, far more than taking sides in the issues du jour, far more than mere opinion. It is about the truth of a living faith. It means the Church but it means the Church as defined by this confession. Remove that from the picture and there is no church, no faith.
There would only be ourselves in our confusions and divisions, a self-appointed sect of the elect, a political faction or party, a huddle of the muddled and the confused. Which is why this text, I wish to argue, informs the principle of catholicity and unity in faith which is the truth of the Christian religion and which, for us as Anglicans, is actually before us, in spite of our sorry disarray and bitter divisions, in our liturgy in the constant proclamation of the Creeds. In a way, the Creeds spell out what is the fuller meaning and content of this remarkable exchange: the confession of Christ as the foundation of the Church.
Today is a day of multiple mysteries. It is The Fourth Sunday after Trinity but also The Octave Day of the Nativity of John the Baptist and it falls within The Octave of the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul; in short, a kind of trinity of commemoration and celebration. And, if that was not enough, along with these sacred commemorations, there is as well the secular or civil celebration of the birthday of Canada as a nation, itself a loaded and important event. The collocation or coming together in word and sacrament of these celebrations is itself cause for wonder. It speaks not simply to the accidents of time and history but to the profounder realities of divine Providence, the Providence that works and moves in and through the accidents and chance events of our lives without which they have no meaning.
And therein lies the point of this morning’s readings as seen in the light of the remarkable conjunction of these celebrations.
The Collect, one of my favourite Collects and the basis of a prayer that I use, as many of you know, frequently in hospital visits and pastoral calls, captures wonderfully the meaning of the ministry of John the Baptist who points us to “the things eternal” in the person of Jesus Christ even as the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul places us with Christ in his body, the Church, insofar as it stands upon the Word revealed and written.
As an ancient hymn puts it about Peter and Paul, the one “the Keybearer,” the other, “the Teacher of mankind,” Peter is he “unto whom the charge was given/ To close or open ways of pilgrimage to heaven” while Paul is he from whom “we trust to learn of thee/ Both earthly converse and the flight of ecstasy;/ Till from the fading truths that now we know in part/ We pass to fullness of delight for mind and heart.”
Without this understanding, we are left to “the devices and the desires of our own hearts,” left to the chaos and confusions of a world where everything is totally random, a world where chance rules. That, of course, is contradictory, for rule implies an ordering principle, the very antithesis of chaos. Chaos means what is without order and rule, and therefore without meaning and purpose. This is the world, by the way, prescribed and insisted upon by the so-called New Atheists, a world in which there is really only randomness. Once again, you can’t say it is governed by chance because that is meaningless and contradictory. The greater paradox is that this claim about the random nature of all reality actually undermines the possibility of intellectual inquiry, confounds the claims to progress and denies any sort of moral order.
No. The Collect points to the profound understanding of our lives as lived in the mercy of God so that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.” This is a wonderful understanding. It acknowledges the transient and changing and, dare I say, chaotic, world of our human experience, namely, the “things temporal,” the realm of the endlessly and ceaselessly changing. The Collect argues that, in the increase and multiplication of God’s mercy upon us, we may pass through “things temporal” without losing something else, namely, “the things eternal.” Peter’s confession and our confession is about “the things eternal” proclaimed in the midst of a world of confusion and, yes, chaos and chance. It is about God “being our ruler and guide.”
The Epistle reading, once familiar because of its use at Anglican funerals, speaks profoundly about our common mortality and the sufferings that belong to our human experience but it does so precisely with that sense of transformation and liberation that belongs to the understanding of ourselves as “the children of God,” which is who we are by virtue of our baptism and life in Christ. Notice, too, the cosmic dimension of this redemption. The whole creation “shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption” – that is the meaning of change, the ceaseless ebb and flow, generation and corruption, of the world of the temporal. It shall be delivered “into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
We have failed, I think, to think seriously enough about the ramifications of this idea with respect to the environment and our human interaction. It is the point that the poet, Thomas Traherne, makes. He one of my favourite poets, especially when I contemplate the beauty of the Avon Valley and its environs in the early summer. “You never love the world aright until you love it in God,” he says. This is to see the Providence of God at work in nature and in human lives, to see the Trinity in the very works of nature and in our own lives. That is to have a hold of “the things eternal” in the midst of “things temporal.” It also informs our political and social lives. Law and order, the principle of political communities and nations, such as Canada, cannot belong to mere chance and happenstance.
The Gospel brings out the deeper meaning of our lives as grounded upon the rock of Peter’s confession of Christ. It is about the radical meaning of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. It is about our sin, especially our hypocrisy. Our judgmentalism stands in contrast to God’s mercy and even more to the way in which that mercy is the foundation of our lives. Hypocrisy is about self-contradiction. We point our fat fingers of blame at one another while ignoring the manifest faults and failings of ourselves. Here we are recalled, in the triple mysteries of this day, to the gospel of John the Baptist who calls us to repentance which is the awareness of our sins and failings without which we cannot see, literally and metaphorically, it seems, the grace of Christ, the mercy of God who engages our humanity and world so completely in Jesus Christ.
We are blind in ourselves but Christ would have us see. Peter’s confession of faith is what he has been given to see. It is revealed knowledge and not human invention. It is the very basis of our lives in faith. His confession must be ours for without it we deny the foundation of our lives. The very meaning and purpose of our lives is found in “Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ words to Peter illumine the spiritual reality of the Church and recall us to what it means to be the Church, holding onto “the things eternal” in the midst of “things temporal,” the world of the things which are constantly passing away.
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity IV, Octave Day of the Nativity of John the Baptist within the Octave of St. Peter and St. Paul
July 1st, 2012
Christ Church and St. Thomas, Three-Mile Plains