A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by The Very Reverend Sarah Foot, Dean of Christ Church on 3rd September 2023
Jeremiah 15: 15-21; Psalm 26: 1-8; Romans 12: 9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28
+ ‘Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”’
Thank you for inviting me to preach this morning; it is a delight to be here. I have known this beautiful church for many years, and often walked along the river to visit, admiring the West door, your amazing font, and the Piper window of which I am very fond. Christ Church is proud of all the livings of which it is patron and tries hard to maintain connections with these parishes. It is a further pleasure to be here on an occasion when Graham is presiding. He was chaplain at Cuddesdon when I was preparing for ordination on the Oxford Ministry Course; I was always grateful for his wisdom and calming presence as well as for his prayers and continuing support.
Given the context in which I am here – representing the patrons just as you are in process of identifying the sort of new incumbent whom you want – the lectionary has provided us with some highly appropriate readings. Our epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans and extract from Matthew’s gospel both follow directly from the passages that we heard last week. Paul advises the young church in Rome about how to live together as a faithful, worshipping Christian community. And our gospel comes immediately after Jesus had given Simon, son of Jonah, the nickname Peter (the rock) and told him that on him he would build his Church.
So, to what kind of church do you hope to attract your next vicar?
Paul’s letter gives us advice about how to be Church, that is, how as a community of the faithful we should live together in faith. Today’s passage continues that from last week which began with the direction to ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice … which is your spiritual worship.’ All today’s injunctions about love, perseverance, peace, and the rejection of evil, need to be understood in the context of right worship. I found it revealing to read them beside your parish profile, with its strong emphasis on the depth of your collective spiritual life and your commitment to bringing life to others. You are clearly striving to obey Paul’s injunction to live together in harmony with one another, not to be proud but to associate with the lowly, not to claim to be wiser than you are. You have articulated your desire to grow and broaden your congregations, to welcome new members; you are known and admired for your pastoral care arrangements and for your hospitality. Paul’s advice makes it clear that to welcome new believers in your midst will strengthen, not dilute your shared bonds, will renew your own lives as they are enlightened by sharing in the experiences of strangers. As a visitor, it seems to me that you have already done much to interiorise Paul’s guidance.
Today’s gospel fits well with this extract from Romans. If read together, the two parts of the second half of the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel – last week’s reading and today’s –also help to teach us what makes a church a church. Matthew explains that there are two central activities in which believers must engage. As we heard last week, the Church must confess that Jesus is the divine Christ, the Messiah. But more than that, as Jesus tells us in today’s reading, to be Christians, we must follow Jesus, the suffering Christ. To proclaim Jesus as Christ without also proclaiming him crucified is to miss the point. Today’s reading explains why that is so in two ways: first through Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for trying to deny that Jesus should suffer and die, and then in his call to discipleship, which is addressed to all of us.
Were I preaching this sermon in the Cathedral this morning, I would have gone on from here to talk about the second half of today’s Gospel, taking as my text Jesus’ words, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves …’. I would have talked about the difficulties of discipleship; the tensions inherent in both proclaiming Jesus as Lord and in devoting ourselves in deed as well as word to his gospel of peace and social justice. But you have all heard many sermons on such themes, and I doubt that I would have anything especially arresting or memorable to say.
Instead, I want to reflect on the first part of the passage and how Jesus’ rebuke to Peter might inform your thinking about a new vicar. What sort of leader are you hoping that she – or it might be he – will be to this congregation? [Please note: nothing in what follows, including my choice of pronouns, should be taken as an indication of the identity of your next vicar; we have not yet advertised, and I have no inside knowledge!.]
We need to read Jesus’ remarks in today’s gospel in the light of what had just happened, when Jesus had praised Peter for recognising his divinity as the Messiah and named him the rock, saying that on that very rock would he build his church. (I suspect that Peter’s companions might have found this nickname somewhat comical, since the impetuous and emotional Peter showed few rock-like characteristics, at least while Jesus was still alive). Jesus chose Peter as the foundation of his Church, despite his weaknesses. Or even because of them. Jesus knew that Peter was good at talking before thinking and prone to getting things wrong – as when he tried to build huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah at the Transfiguration. And Jesus knew, of course, that for all his professions of faith, at a crucial juncture, Peter would deny his Lord. Yet despite Peter’s manifest fallibility, Jesus chose him, a living rock, to be the foundation of his church, the community of believers, the faithful of whom we, this Church, are heirs.
We can readily understand why, after singling out Peter for such distinction, Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. For it was from that time on that Jesus started to explain to his disciples about the need for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer and to die. Peter – impetuous, hot-headed Peter – seems not to have listened to all that Jesus said; he ignored the crucial final phrase of that sentence ‘and on the third day be raised’ when he rushed into his passionate objection: ‘God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.’ (Mt 16: 22)
Jesus’ rebuke to Peter – Peter the rock, who was to hold the keys of the kingdom – Jesus’ rebuke turned that affectionate nickname on its head. You are a stumbling block – a skandalon – get behind me, Satan. A skandalon is a trap or a stumbling-block on the way, something that would cause one to sin. We may well see some word-play here: Jesus contrasts the rock (Peter) on whose stable foundations he intended to build his Church with the stone of stumbling, a rocky obstacle in his path. To describe Peter as Satan is shockingly to reveal the extent to which the man who, just moments before, had had the divinely-inspired revelation that led him to identify Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ), was now filled with the devil’s thoughts. The transition from faithful, insightful disciple to one who defies him was alarmingly swift. And here in lies the cautionary tale for us all, and particularly for you in your search for a new vicar.
This gospel narrative teaches us some hard lessons about the Church’s true nature. Some of – much of – what we do individually and collectively as Church is divinely-inspired and fulfils divine purposes. But at other times we listen to the wrong voices, we hear the seductive tones of the tempter, and our actions are driven by human, sinful motivations, we focus on human things, not the divine.
Peter was not inerrant. He made mistakes. He was human. He listened to human voices. He could be divinely inspired. In the narratives of the Acts of the Apostles Peter played a crucial, leadership role in the building up of a new Church: think of his brilliant sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), of his various acts of healing and power, his refusal to abandon his mission even when brought before the Council (Acts 5) and of his gradual understanding that the good news of the gospel is for all peoples, gentiles as well as Jews (Acts 10). Peter was a great leader, a faithful apostle. But he had weaknesses; he could make mistakes.
I am afraid that I have some bad news about the recruitment of your new vicar. You cannot have the incarnate Christ. You will only be able to have a human being, someone who strives to walk in the footsteps of Peter and the other apostles and all who have come after them. Through the selection process, we can ensure that your new incumbent will have spiritual gifts and a commitment to sacramental worship; be a sensitive and theologically astute preacher, and an insightful pastor; we can look for someone with a warm personality and leadership skills. But whomever we find will be fallible; she will make mistakes; she will misread situations and perpetrate misunderstandings. She may cross the Archdeacon and unwittingly make the parish’s life difficult. She will be like me, and you, and all of us: a sinner, with her own particular gifts, but also her own frailties and limitations.
Your task will be to sustain her in her ministry, to go on being Church well, and to help her integrate into your midst and engage with the wider community. Remember the advice given by Peter in the first of his epistles. You are living stones, built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Whoever it is who comes to live and work among you will be blest to minister among such holy people, people who so confidently proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his glorious light. (1 Peter, 2: 5, 9)