St Peter's Day sermon

by Gillian Cooper (St John's College, Bramcote)

So what is so saintly about St Peter?

We are here today to remember your patron, to give thanks for his life and for all that he has stood for since. We are here to consider a great saint, the first leader of the Christian church, the one on whom the church is founded, the one often portrayed as holding in his hand the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. What is he like? What can we learn about him from the stories we have in the New Testament? What kind of man was it who became such a significant figure for the church? According to the gospel writers, he was no better than you or I.

For a start, in the gospel stories about him Peter is crass. Give him a tricky situation and you can count on him to say or do precisely the wrong thing, the thing that makes you cringe with embarrassment for him. Take the episode of the transfiguration. Peter and two others are granted a vision of Jesus in his glory, so that they at least will understand what will happen later. Peter sees, and reacts. "Let's put up some tents" he says, "so that we can stay here." Idiot! - the whole point is that they can't stay there, that Jesus has the crucifixion and resurrection to go through before he reaches his ascension. The moment of truth becomes for Peter a moment of stupidity, and where there should be insight confusion reigns. But let's not be too hard on him, not yet anyway - which of us would have done any better? How are our insights into spiritual truths?

If the transfiguration is not enough to show Peter's insensitivity and lack of insight - there is the episode at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus and his disciples have an exchange of views. Jesus wants to know from them what people think of him. And then comes the challenge - who do you say I am? Peter has the answer off pat - he knows Jesus is the Messiah. At last, he's got it. But only a little bit of it. The messiah has to suffer and die, says Jesus. Surely not, replies Peter - you don't want to think about dying - play it differently, people will flock to you. And he earns himself Jesus' rebuke - "get behind me, Satan" - Peter has become the voice of the tempter, the one who voices Jesus' own most powerful temptation - to go for the glory without facing the suffering.

Then, of course, like so many of us, Peter is a coward. He finally has understanding of sorts forced upon him when he witnesses Jesus' arrest. And he is terrified - just as we would be in those circumstances. He knows the horrible fate in store for Jesus if he is convicted, and he wants to avoid the same fate for himself. He tries to make himself stay with Jesus, gets as close as he dares, tries to be the hero. He means well, but the fear wins. "You're one of the followers of Jesus" says the servant girl. "No, not me" says Peter, almost before he thinks. And the cock crow reminds him that he has done the very thing that Jesus said he would do, the very thing he had promised never to do, he had let Jesus down - understandably, but nevertheless despicably, and he thought he would never be able to forgive himself for it. He has enough love, enough loyalty, but just not enough courage when the crunch comes.

And even after the resurrection, there is Peter blundering around again, trying to go back to his old job as a fisherman, no longer able to catch any fish, still not understanding what has happened and what it means for his future.

So what is so saintly about Peter? What is he doing holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven? He is no better than any one of us. It could be you or I holding those keys, if we had been there at the time. You or I would have done just as well - we could hardly have done any worse. We could be the rock on which the church is built, we could be the holders of the keys to the kingdom. Indeed we could - and that, I think, is the point.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's massive book "The Lord of the Rings" there is an episode which I have always found very significant and memorable. A little band of travellers is on a desperate journey. The group consists of men, an elf, a dwarf and hobbits (little people with furry feet, for those of you not familiar with the magical world Tolkien constructs) led by the wise wizard Gandalf. In their possession they have a ring which is being sought by an evil overlord. To save the world they must take the ring to a furnace where it can be destroyed. They are being pursued by terrifying evil powers, have tried and failed to cross a mountain range, and instead have to go under the mountains to escape. Under the mountains is the ancient kingdom of the dwarves, now probably deserted or dangerous, but their only way onward. Gandalf leads them to the site of the door, a blank rock face beside a dark lake. Wolves howl in the distance. Beneath the grim waters of the lake something nasty is stirring into life. Somewhere in the rock face is the door which leads into the kingdom of Moria and temporary safety. Gandalf mutters a spell. On the rock face appears the outline of a door, some magical symbols, and some writing in an ancient language. Gandalf translates: speak, friend, and enter. He explains it to the others. This is a magic door. From the inside, it can be pushed open easily. From the outside, it can only be opened by a magic password. "Do you know the password?" asks one of the travellers. "No" replies Gandalf, "but I am going to think of it". So he ponders, and tries words, all the passwords he can remember, magic opening spells - nothing works. The ripples in the lake get closer, the wolves' howl is louder. Then suddenly Gandalf leaps to his feet, laughs, and shouts "mellon" - the ancient word for friend. The door swings open. You see, he has translated wrongly the words on the door. Instead of "speak, friend, and enter" he should have translated "say friend, and enter". There was no magic word required, only a declaration of friendship. So the travellers enter the dwarves' kingdom, and go on to further adventures and eventual victory.

What is the key to open the door to the kingdom? Friendship. "Do you love me?" asks Jesus of Peter when they meet on the beach after the resurrection. "Yes, Lord, you know I love you" says Peter. "Peter" asks Jesus, "are you my friend?" "Yes, Lord, I am your friend." Peter reaffirms what has been his great strength all along - his love for Jesus, his loyalty to his friend. And so he is commissioned - to feed the sheep, to tend to the lambs, to be the rock on which the church is founded, to hold the keys to the kingdom - keys which are entrusted to the one who is Jesus' friend.

Peter is not the wizard with the magic word who can open the door - and nor, incidentally, are his successors in the ministry and leadership of the church. He is simply the one who has learned the hard way to be God's friend.

Why should it be St Peter? What is so good about him? It could just as easily be any of us? Indeed it could - and is. Those of us who are willing to declare ourselves friends of God are the rocks upon which the church is built, even though we may feel more like jellies than rocks. And we are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom, to give free access to us and to those we bring with us. There is no magic password, there are no rules which must be observed, there is no understanding that needs to be reached, no heroic deeds to be performed - and Peter proves it. If Peter can be a saint, then so can we all. If Peter can be a rock on which the church rests, then so can we all. If Peter - crass, stupid, cowardly, blundering Peter - can be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, then there is hope for all of us. In the end, Peter understood. Not everything, perhaps, but the one thing that mattered. "Peter, are you my friend?" "Yes, Lord, I am your friend". And against that friendship even the gates of hell could not prevail.

Revd. Gillian Cooper, June 1997
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997