On the Virtue of Obduracy: A Sermon for the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul

Preached at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Sunday, June 28, 2015.

Lections: Ezekiel 34:11-16; Psalm 87; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19

saints.peter.and.paul.v2

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. What do the deaths of these two saints many years ago have to do with our life here today?

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

How they came to meet the risen Jesus is telling. 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). Similarly with 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. Upon seeing him they came rushing onto the beach where Jesus had breakfast waiting. But they saw him, John tells us, only because the risen Jesus “showed himself” to them (21:1, 14). And this is an important point—we come to know the risen Christ not because we are particularly bright or insightful, in fact, it has little to do with us at all. Rather, we come to know the risen Christ only as he reveals himself to us by his Spirit, as he pulls back the veil, as it were, opening our eyes to know and love him. That is to say, faith is a gift not a virtue.

Furthermore, as a result of their confrontation with the risen Christ both Peter and Paul were entrusted with a task. Witness Peter in our gospel reading from this morning who is asked by Jesus three times, “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 sheep.” Each time Peter answers the question he earns, not a pat on the back, but a command, a fresh challenge, a new commission.

And so this is what makes both Peter and Paul apostles: they met the risen Jesus and he gave them a job to do, which he in turn empowered them to carry out. This is the very thing that runs through the heart of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church still: the risen Jesus has revealed himself to us in our midst, by his Spirit, in the Eucharist and the Word proclaimed, 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; cf. Ezekiel 34:11-16).

This is the secret of all Christian ministry—all ministry is primarily a participation in the ministry of the risen Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This is as true of Peter and Paul as it is true of the Church today. This is true of all of our work from preaching to bell ringing, from teaching our children the faith to being with the sick. 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.

And because the work that we have been entrusted with is a participation in Jesus’ own ministry, it is continuous with the work that Peter and Paul were given to do. So, Paul’s exhortations and warnings to Timothy from this morning’s reading serve us well. In light of the risen and returning Jesus Paul urges Timothy to faithfully and boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Like the parable of the sower who generously sows the seed 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? And are we not now, like Peter and Paul then, situated in just such a time today?

In good Modern democratic societies such as ours the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord” is unfashionable if not entirely jarring and subversive, not unlike in Paul’s day, actually. Is it any wonder that he refers to the gospel as foolishness and as a stumbling block? In a climate such as ours then, 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—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 “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).

In contrast to this, Timothy is to persevere, and we must as well. The best thing that the church can do for the world is to faithfully and persistently proclaim and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether the time is favourable or unfavourable, whether the message is received or rejected, whether we are embraced or excluded—proclaim the message; be persistent. Both Paul and Peter were killed, remember. They knew a thing or two about unfavourable conditions.

Like saints Peter and Paul before us, the whole church is called to participate in the ongoing work and mission of the risen and living Christ Jesus. Take heart, for God is with us, even if we be despised. And take courage, for what is required of us is not success — not as the world regards success — but loyalty, perseverance, and trust. And so may our life together bear witness to Christ Jesus our Lord, as did the lives of Peter and Paul, our brothers and fathers in the faith. Amen.

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