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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Peter and Paul

Our readings today are about two very different men, both of whom were leaders of the very early church, and both of whom had made appallingly bad starts!

To take them in chronological order, first of all there was Peter. Simon, as his original name was – Peter was basically a nickname Jesus gave him. It means stone or rock; if Jesus had been speaking English, he might have nicknamed him “Rock” or “Rocky”. “You're Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” But the Greek word was “Petros”, so we know him as Peter.

Anyway, as you know, Peter was an impulsive type, probably with a hot temper. We probably know more about him than we know about any of the Twelve, as it is often his comments and answers that are quoted. And, sadly, the fact that when push came to shove his courage failed him and he pretended he didn't know Jesus. And our Gospel reading today is all about his reinstatement.

The disciples have gone back to Galilee after the Resurrection, and have gone fishing. I suppose they must have thought that it was all over, not realising how much their lives were going to change. And although the other gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials. So when he realises that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic – he will have been working naked in the boat – and swims to shore. And they all have breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter. You can imagine, can't you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.

Now, part of the whole point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only have one word for love, which we use for loving anything from God down to strawberries, including our spouse, our children, our best friends and the writings of Jane Austen! But the Greeks had several different words for love. There was eros, which was erotic love, the love between a man and a woman; then there was storge, which was affection, family love, the love between parents and children. Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, there was philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and agape, a word only found in the New Testament, which means God's love.

And when Jesus says to Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape. Do you love me with God's love. And Peter can't quite manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia. “Yes, Lord, you know I'm your friend”. And Jesus commissions him to “Feed my lambs.”

This happens again. “Do you love me with God's love?”
“Lord, you know I'm your friend!”
“So take care of my sheep.”

And then the third time. Well, that's logical, there were three denials, so perhaps three reinstatements. But this time it is different: “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter doesn't quite know what to answer. “Lord, you know everything; you know whether I'm your friend or not!” And Jesus tells him, again, to feed His sheep. And comments that he will die a martyr's death, but instructs him to “Follow Me!”

And, we are told, Peter did follow Jesus. We know he was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, and it was he who preached so powerfully that day that three thousand people were converted. We know he was imprisoned, and miraculously released from prison; there is that wonderful scene where he goes and knocks on the door of the safe house, interrupting the prayer-meeting that has been called for the sole purpose of praying for him, and the girl who answers the door is so shocked she leaves him standing there while she goes and tells the others, and they don't believe her! Quite the funniest scene in the Bible, I think.

Anyway, we know that Peter ended up in Rome, and, sadly, tradition tells us that he was crucified upside-down, which those who wrote down John's gospel would have known, which is arguably why it was mentioned.

But the point is, he was completely and utterly forgiven and reinstated, and God used him beyond his wildest dreams.

And so to St Paul. Now Paul, at that stage known as Saul, also needed a special touch from God. He couldn't have been more different from Peter, though. He was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus. He was well-educated, and had probably gone to university, contrasting with Peter, who, it is thought, only had the basic education that all Jewish boys of his time and class would have had. He was a Pharisee, the most learned and holy of the Jewish religious leaders of the day. And, like so many Pharisees, he felt totally threatened by this new religious movement that was springing up, almost unstoppably. It was, he thought, complete nonsense, and not only that, it was blasphemy! He set himself to hunt down and kill as many believers as he could.

But God had other ideas, and grabbed Saul on his way to Damascus. And we all know what happened then – he was blind for three days, and then a very brave man called Ananias came and laid hands on him, whereupon he could see again, and then, after some time out for prayer and study, he became the apostle to the Gentiles, so-called, and arguably the greatest influence on Christianity ever. He had a knack for putting the great truths about God and about Jesus into words, and even today, we study his letters very seriously.

He started off by persecuting believers, but in the end, God used him beyond his wildest dreams!

So you see the common link between these two men: one an uneducated provincial fisherman, the other a suave and sophisticated Pharisee, and a Roman citizen, to boot. Peter knew how dreadfully he had sinned; Paul thought he was in the right. But they both needed a touch from God, they both needed explicit forgiveness, they both needed to know that they were loved, no matter what they had done.

And they both responded.

If this had just been a story of how God spoke to two different men in two different ways, that would be one thing. It would be a fabulous story in its own right. It would show us that we, too, no matter how dreadful we are, no matter how prone to screw things up, we too could be loved and forgiven and reinstated. And this is, of course, true. We are human. We screw up – that, after all, is what sin is, when you come down to it – the human propensity to screw things up. Which we all do in our own particular ways. It doesn't actually matter how we mess up – we all mess up in different ways, and sometimes we all mess up in the same way. It is part of being human. God's forgiveness is constant and unremitting – all we have to do is to receive it. There is no more forgiveness for a mass murderer than there is for you or for me. And there is no less forgiveness, either. It is offered to us all, everybody, even the worst sort of person you can possibly imagine. No nonsense about God hating this group of people, or that group of people. He doesn't. He loves them, and offers forgiveness to them as and where they need it, just as he does to you, and just as he does to me.

But, as I implied, that isn't quite the end of the story. It would have been a fabulous story, even if we had never heard of Peter or of Paul again. There are one or two fabulous stories in Acts that we don't know how they came out – I'm thinking here of Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch; both men became Christians, one through Peter's ministry and one through Philip's, but we are not told what became of them. We don't know what became of the slave Onesimus who had to return home to Philemon, bearing with him a letter from Paul asking Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ.

But we do know what happened to Peter and to Paul. They both responded to God's forgiveness. They received it. They offered themselves to Christ's service and, through their ministry, millions of people down the centuries have come to know and love the Lord Jesus.

Of course, they were exceptional. We know their stories, just as we know the stories of John Wesley, of people like Dwight L Moody, or David Livingstone, Eric Liddell or Billy Graham. But there are countless thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know, who received God's forgiveness, offered themselves to His service, and through whose ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the Lord. Some of them went to live and work somewhere else, but many of them lived out a life of quiet service exactly where they were. Some of them, sadly, were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith, but many died in their own beds.

And you see where this is going, don't you? Now, I know as well as you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot and bothered, and reckon we can't possibly be doing enough in Christ's service, or that we are a rotten witness to his love and forgiveness. But that isn't really what it's about. For a start, we are told that when the Holy Spirit comes, we will be witnesses to Christ – not that we ought to be, or we must be, but that we will be! And I know that many of you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are, and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.

But maybe it never occurred to you to offer. Maybe you accepted Jesus' forgiveness, and promised to be his person, and rather left it at that. That's fine, of course, but what if you're missing out? You see, the giving and offering isn't all on our side – how could it be? And when we offer ourselves to Christ's service, you wouldn't believe – or perhaps you already know – the wonderful gifts He gives to help you do whatever is is you're asked to do. I know that sometimes people have even wondered if God could possibly be calling them to do whatever it is, as they want to do it so badly that it might be just their own wants! But, you see, God wouldn't call you to do something you would hate, would he? And so what if it did end badly? Look at a young lawyer, in a country far from here, who was thrown into prison for his faith, which led him to stand up for what he believed was right against the government of the day. He left his country when he was released from prison – and to this day he will tell you that it was knowing his Bible as well as he did that helped him stay sane while he was in it – you may have known him, for some years ago he was a local vicar and now he is the Archbishop of York!

I'm rather waffling now, so I'll shut up. But I do just want to leave this with you: Perhaps, today, you just needed to be reminded that God loves and forgives you, whoever you are and whatever you have done. But it maybe you need to think: have you ever offered yourself to God's service as Peter did, as Paul did, as so many down the years have? And is God, perhaps, calling you to something new? Amen.