The Lord stood by me and gave me strength

Patronal Festival Ss Peter & Paul 2018 and ending of Licensed Ministry
The final sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on 1st July 2018

2 Timothy 4:6-8; 17-18
Matthew 16:13-19

The time of my departure has come…..To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Today is one of those occasions when the people of both our churches gather together; today we do so to celebrate the Patronal Festival of our parish – the occasion when we celebrate the lives of Peter and Paul to whom this glorious church is dedicated; and to reflect on what these two great giants of our faith have given to us and how they continue to inspire and inform our journeys – as individuals and as a community of faith.

I wonder what Peter and Paul would have thought had they been able to imagine ending up as saintly bedfellows in the church’s calendar. I like to think that in their better moments, they would have laughed uproariously!!

Why? Well, at first sight, these two remarkable people are not natural companions and have little in common.

One, was a Galilean fisherman with a deep understanding of the sea and the weather – his life after all depended upon it. He understood the nuanced signs within the waters indicating where fish might be found. It was hard physical work that demanded every ounce of strength and courage. He had no education in the formal sense as far as we know; his education from a small boy would have revolved around fishing: watching and listening to older family members and neighbours also engaged in fishing; learning to read the skies, the weather, the seas; learning to maintain the tools of his trade – mending nets and repairing boats.

The other, born at Tarsus to Jewish parents, and known originally as Saul, was also a citizen of Rome. He had a good education and studied under the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem, developing an in-depth knowledge of the Jewish Law, knowing it intimately; he became a strict Pharisee, a man who lived according to each and every rule, and who, as a young man, was present and consented to the stoning of Stephen, and actively participated in the persecution of early Christians.

Yet both these men, so very different with such diverse backgrounds made their mark on the early church and their legacy of passionate, active faith, is handed down to us and celebrated together on this the anniversary of their martyrdom in about the year 64 AD during Nero’s savage persecution of Christians.

While Peter had walked the highways and byways with Jesus during his life, and indeed had been called by him along with the other 11 disciples, Paul did not.

Paul is the classic poacher turned gamekeeper. Zealous in his persecution of those early Christians known as followers of ‘The Way’ breathing, as Luke tells us in Acts ‘threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ (AA 9:1) until that encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. That experience, whatever it was, threw him to the ground, and he heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?……I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Blinded, he neither ate nor drank for three days (death of one life before resurrection into a new life??) but then the veil is lifted from Saul’s eyes, and he sees as if for the first time. Annanias, responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, takes an enormous risk demanding every ounce of his courage, fearful of Saul’s reputation and murderous rage. Yet he follows those promptings of the Spirit and finds Saul, stays with him and what follows in the intervening few days results in Saul’s baptism, marking a new beginning and a new journey with a new name.

Paul begins proclaiming the Good News, first in the synagogues at Damascus, before moving to Jerusalem. Only later did Paul’s mission to the Gentile world become clear, a mission that would take the Good News far beyond Jerusalem out into the further reaches of the Roman Empire through his preaching, teaching, building Christian communities and writing innumerable letters that have provided the foundation of so much of our theological understanding and doctrine. Paul’s understanding of the nature of God and what it means to live the Christian life have continued to inform our journeys – individually and as a community. Paul’s love of God revealed in and through Christ was born out of his deep thinking and intellectual understanding. In his writing we encounter some of the most profound teaching; but teaching not always easy to digest and understand. Furthermore, he was argumentative, arrogant, opinionated even, expressing views that continue to cause division in the church today, not least his views on sexuality.
But in all things, no matter how heated he may become, no matter how convoluted his arguments, one thing is clear: Paul understands and consistently proclaims that God in Christ loves each and every one of us, deeply, endlessly, freely. And as followers of Christ, we are in our turn, called to reflect this love, however imperfectly, in every aspect of our lives.

Peter knew that God loved him. And I always imagine that while Paul’s faith in Christ and love of God were born out of intellectual understanding, Peter’s was an emotional response born from the heart. He felt this love, experienced this love when he travelled with Jesus, listened to him teach, saw it in the healing miracles and in and in Jesus relationships with and compassion for the people that so many would regard as outcasts and not worth a second glance. And most profoundly, he experienced it in the forgiveness and understanding he himself received.
But Peter was also impetuous; constantly misunderstood or got it wrong and ultimately denied even knowing Jesus, not once, but three times.

Yet following the resurrection and during a breakfast of fish on the seashore, Peter was asked three times by Jesus – ‘Do you love me’. Three times Peter had denied; three times Jesus now asks ‘Do you love me’. Each time Peter answers the question, he earns not a pat on the back, but a new challenge ‘Feed my lambs…..Tend my sheep…..Feed my sheep’. It is time for Peter to be a shepherd to Christ’s own people.

Peter and Paul had their own, often strong disagreements, not least around the crucial issue to trouble the early Church – whether or not you had to keep the Jewish Law and be circumcised to be a Christian. Paul had publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch, condemning him for recanting his previous willingness to eat with Gentiles and accusing him of undermining the whole basis of Paul’s ministry and leading even Barnabas astray. It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Galations that they had a blazing row over the issue (Gal 2:11-14). And Peter, or someone writing in his name had a dig at Paul in the Second letter of Peter when he described Paul as writing things that are hard to understand and that people twisted in meaning! Mutual sparks were flying in the early church just as sparks continue to fly between the baptised people of God!

Yet is was these two deeply flawed individuals that God chose to be the Rock on which the church is built and to take the Good News out to the Gentile world; people who have continued to inspire others to be builders of the church, not the buildings of brick or stone, but the living stones that are the people, followers of Christ, the community built on the sure foundation of God’s love, the community that strives to build his Kingdom here on earth. And this is why we rejoice today and give thanks for these two great giants of our faith continue to inspire and encourage us, the living stones of this church community, imperfect though we are.

Brian was one of those living stones, with a deep love for God, and a passion for proclaiming that love through ritual, worship and prayer, through his faithful service within the life of this church and among all of us for more years than many of us can remember. We will miss him greatly.

This is the work we are all called to participate in using the gifts and skills assigned to us. When we begin our journey with God, we cannot know where it will lead any more than Peter or Paul knew; and we are not always willing followers. The Israelites moaned and groaned and I know that there have been times in my own journey when I have questioned, resisted and doubted; when I have not wanted to listen or to see where God was leading; when God has had to give me a metaphorical kick up the backside before the penny would finally drop! But weaving through it all were moments of incredible joy, moments that enabled me to glimpse those threads of gold and shards of light, glimpses of glory.

This year, this season of Petertide marks both the 30th Anniversary of my ordination to the Diaconate, and the day when my time among you as an Assistant Priest draws to its close. When I tentatively set out upon the road that has ultimately led me to this moment, a journey that began about 40 years ago with a conversation on the gravel path between the village in which I lived and its church, I never imagined in my wildest dreams how that journey would unfold through the years.

God has called me at different times to tend his sheep in different settings – small villages in Suffolk, then hospitals as a chaplain – first in Suffolk, later as Lead Chaplain here in Kettering General before guiding me to this remarkable community 18 years ago, initially to worship among you, then to occasionally preach or Preside, before becoming Assistant Priest on my retirement from Kettering General in 2009.

Through it all, God has constantly filled my life with joy, sustained me with his grace and his love; comforted me in moments of sadness or despair; strengthened me at times of weakness or utter powerlessness; His grace, love, comfort and strength revealed through Mike and our children, and the people and communities I have been called to serve. God has taught me much through the faith of others, including the people whose faith is different to my own; He has blessed me in unimaginably rich ways through the people He has called me to serve. All of you have given me so much, and in different ways have taught me about humility and love, constancy and faith …….. enabled me to glimpse the glory of God in our midst! We have cried together; we have laughed together; we have rejoiced, worshipped and prayed together and this morning I give thanks for all that God has given me through you, and the many people who have shared my journey through the years.

In recent days, and for different reasons, we have been reminded of the transience of all things, reminded that nothing stays the same, reminded of the importance of valuing each other in ways that enable them to know they are loved and appreciated; reminded that we are all on a journey, and there comes a moment when God calls, and our paths diverge. But endings and partings, though tinged with sadness, are also opportunities for new beginnings and new growth, resurrection moments. For we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!!!

A new dawn beckons, full of possibilities – for you as a community and for me. So let’s give thanks for all that has been, let’s rejoice in all that will yet be, and embrace the adventure that God us in store, as we continue first and foremost to strive as shepherds to God’s people, using our prophetic voice to challenge injustice in all its forms, building His Kingdom here on earth after the example of Peter and Paul and indeed all the remarkable men and women of faith through the ages who give us hope and courage; because without exception they were as we are – people with the gifts God has blessed us with, but people who regularly mess up, get it horribly wrong, hurt those we love most and yet people through whom God works to his great and unimaginable glory, transforming our imperfect efforts, transforming our lives and building His Kingdom.

Now “The time for my departure has come. The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, to him be glory for ever and ever.” Amen.