A Sermon for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Year A, 2014 – Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 87; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19

When you are confronted with the risen and living Jesus your life changes forever, one way or another. Both St. Peter and St. Paul who we remember today knew this well and were martyred — that is, killed for their faith in Jesus — in Rome. It is said of St. Peter that he was crucified, upside down. St. Paul? Beheaded. How do the deaths of these two saints many years ago have anything to do with our life here today?

What was it that made Peter and Paul apostles? It wasn’t simply that they knew and walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry — Paul didn’t, after all. It was rather, I think, that they both met the risen Jesus and were given by him a task to do. This is what apostle means — messenger, or sent one.

How did they come to meet the risen Jesus? Did they simply know where to find him? No, the Bible is clear in both cases, and this is true as a general rule: the risen Jesus revealed himself to them, he pulled back the veil, as it were, opening their eyes to know and love him. Paul, though he was named Saul then, was knocked off his horse and blinded as he rode to Damascus: “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” (Acts 9:3-5). The same was true of Peter. Immediately prior to our gospel reading this morning the risen Jesus stood on the beach and called out to the disciples as they were fishing. Once they saw him they came rushing onto the beach where Jesus had breakfast waiting. But they saw him, John tells us, because the risen Jesus “showed himself” to them (21:1, 14). Perhaps the risen and living Jesus has confronted you in some way and you have come to know and love him in return and that’s why you’re here this morning. Perhaps you’re here because you hope and want to meet the risen Jesus and you feel that this is a place where that’s likely to happen? Perhaps you don’t know why you’re here this morning. Whatever the case, the resurrected Jesus has promised to be here in our midst, and he is.

Paul and Peter were changed as a result of this meeting. Their whole lives were taken up into Jesus’ own life and they were given a task to do. See Peter in our gospel reading from this morning. So, Jesus and the disciples finish eating breakfast and Jesus pulls Peter aside. I imagine them going for a walk down the shore while the rest of the disciples stayed by the fire eating and telling rude jokes (they were fishermen, after all). Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Of course, Peter’s threefold profession of love for Jesus corresponds to his threefold denial of him earlier in the gospel. And so, by way of forgiveness Jesus gives Peter a job to do. When Peter professes his love Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, good then!” He says, “Well, then: feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” Each time Peter answers the question he earns, not a pat on the back, but a command, a fresh challenge, a new commission — time to learn how to be a shepherd.

This is what makes both St. Peter and St. Paul apostles: they met the risen Jesus and he gave them a job to do, a job which he empowered them to carry out. This is the very thing that runs through the heart of the church still: the risen Jesus has revealed himself to us in our midst and as a result our whole lives have been swept up into the life of Jesus, in a sort of divine confiscation, and we’ve been sent on a mission.

Now it’s worth noting that Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Not only does Jesus trust Peter to get back to work after his earlier denial of him — which, by the way, ought to be a great encouragement to us all in light of the many and varied ways in which we too deny Jesus — but here Jesus shares his own work, his own ministry with Peter. Jesus entrusts his sheep to Peter just as the Father had entrusted them to him, and thereby gave Peter a share in his own authority. It is, after all, Jesus who is the Good Shepherd (John 10). It is Jesus who in Ezekiel says: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…I will gather them and bring them into their own land; and I will feed them…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” This is Jesus’ doing. He knows his sheep and they know him and he has given his life for them. Yet a little earlier in John’s gospel the risen Jesus gives his disciples a specific commission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” (20:21).

This is the secret of all Christian ministry, yours and mine, lay and ordained, full-time or part-time — whether you sit quietly and pray for your neighbours or whether you’re the Archbishop of Canterbury — all ministry is primarily a participation in Christ’s own ministry, all our doing is rooted in and taken up into Christ’s own doing, all our work flows forth from our being sent by Jesus in the same way that the Father sent the Son.

It’s not our ministry, it’s Christ’s, though we really do have a part to play in it and it’s really us who play that part.

This was true for Peter and Paul and it is true for all of us as well. In Jesus we are forgiven and healed and given new work to do precisely as a sign that we are forgiven and that Jesus lives and reigns and we with him. I would imagine that this would change everything we do: from knit night, to neighbourhood BBQs, from gathering for prayer, to sharing a meal with a neighbour.

The work that we have been given to do, because it is a participation in Jesus’s ongoing ministry, is the same work that Peter and Paul were given to do, albeit in a different setting and thus perhaps with some different nuances. Thus, Paul’s exhortations and warnings to Timothy from this morning’s reading may serve us well. If the work that we have been given to do begins, as Paul said earlier to Timothy, with, “the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life,” (2 Timothy 1:10) — that is, the work we are given to do flows out of our encountering the risen and living Jesus — then the end to which our work is headed is the second appearing of Christ Jesus when his kingdom will finally and fully be established and he will judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1). Here in his letter to Timothy, Paul assumes that Christ is already present with Christians but that we still await his appearance, when he will come as judge, to set the world right. The risen Jesus has given us work to do, a share in his own ministry, and because Jesus will appear again as judge it is important to get on with the work.

It is in light of all of this that Paul urges Timothy to “proclaim the message” or “announce the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). This of course is very closely related to the Scriptures — which for Timothy would have been the Old Testament, but for us today includes the New Testament as well, that apostolic teaching that has been received and handed on for the last 2,000 years — but it refers particularly to the Christian message, the announcement that Jesus is Lord, which is itself rooted in the Old Testament prophets, and focused on telling what happened to Jesus, hammering home the point that, through his resurrection and ascension, he is now installed as King and Lord (N.T. Wright).

Furthermore, like the parable of the sower who sows the seed, that is the word, regardless of what sort of ground it lands on, Timothy must continue in this work whether the moment seems “favourable or unfavourable”. Is there a greater temptation for the church than the temptation to give up preaching and teaching the gospel when the time seems unfavourable?

In good Modern democratic societies such as ours, societies that are exclusively inclusive and intolerantly tolerant, the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is rather unfashionable if not entirely jarring and subversive. Thus, in a climate such as ours it may well be tempting for the church to bend the word of truth to suit our own expectations — how can we fill these pews? — or the expectations of others — people just don’t like to hear that stuff today!

“For the time is coming,” says Paul, “when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Strong words. Strong words aimed first at those in the church. Paul isn’t lamenting those outside of the church who have “itching ears” but those inside the church who neglect and even reject the “sound doctrine” or “healthy teaching” that the likes of Peter and Paul have handed on to us in Holy Scripture, and died for, and have instead “accumulated for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” Like people being instructed by their doctors to follow a particular diet, they will discover that half of their favourite foods aren’t on it, and so will look for different doctors who will advise them to eat and drink what they like (N.T. Wright). Suiting their message to match the desires of the people, this is what false teachers do.

In contrast to this, Timothy is to persevere.

The best thing that the church can do for herself and for the world is to faithfully and persistently proclaim and embody the faith once received.

Keep on, keepin’ on, as it were. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable. Whether the message is received or rejected — sow the seed. Whether we are embraced or excluded — proclaim the message. Both Paul and Peter were killed, remember. They knew a thing or two about unfavourable conditions. This is not an excuse to be aggressive or pushy — it is to be done with the “utmost patience” after all. Thus, Timothy is expected to be “sober” — the awareness and capacity for clear judgement. How does the church stay sober? Prayer and mutual submission, one to another, are two things that come to mind.

The whole church is called to participate in the work and mission of the risen and living Christ Jesus, as St. Peter and St. Paul were called. Have you been baptized into Christ? You are a new creature and have been outfitted as a co-worker in the kingdom of God right here on earth. Let us go on announcing Jesus as Lord. What is required of us is not success — as the world regards success — but loyalty and perseverance. And should the church in the West survive as a “tiny and despised community”, may it be so and “let her attend to the authenticity of her own life: Let her cultivate Eucharist and its associated practices of mutual care, with the world viewing this strange body. God may bless such a witness,” (Robert Jenson).Let’s get on with it, in the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to be poured out upon the followers of Jesus to this day so that, in our friendship with him, we might participate here-and-now in the life of God Himself, and invite others to taste and see. Amen.

 
Sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29th, 2014.
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