St Peter's Day, June 29, 1999
The Most Revd Dr Keith Rayner, AO, Archbishop of Melbourne
Any church that has St Peter as its patron is fortunate. I have had much opportunity to reflect on St Peter, because my last parish before I became a bishop was dedicated to St Peter as was my Cathedral in Adelaide. He catches our interest because he is a live figure in contrast to the shadowiness of many of the apostles; he is a leader, whatever we may make of some claims about him; and above all he is intensely human. His life is a great example and encouragement, and we may be sure that his continuing prayers for us are powerful.
To preach about this great saint I have chosen a perverse and strange text:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.Matthew 16: 23
The text is perverse because it is not included among the readings for this Eucharist, indeed it is not mentioned in any of the readings set for this Feast of St Peter and St Paul (though it follows a few verses after the gospel passage). It is also perverse because there are so many good statements about Peter, so it might be asked, why pick a nasty one for his festival? We could have used such texts as: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah......." or "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church", or "Feed my sheep", or many others.
Those texts all speak truth and we know them well and rejoice in them. But they speak the truth only about the light side of Peter. There is also a dark side. And we only see the full truth, and recognise it in all its splendour, when we see both sides. This strikes me sometimes when I read accounts of Christian enthusiasts be they charismatic, evangelical or catholic of their unalloyed successors in the cause of Christ. They tell of great numbers who turned to Christ and whose lives are transformed, and all is sweetness and light. It is not that they are speaking deliberate lies; but often there is a darker side to the truth of their achievement that is not mentioned.
It reminds me of something written by the novelist Rose Macaulay in a letter to a friend about a book she had been reviewing on the saints. She wrote:
"Not much in it; and I find these little studies of Saints rather boring on the whole. They ought to have more faults. The Bible saints had plenty, and their historians don't try to smooth them over. The Apostles were all full of faults. But these medieval saints wear an air of pious perfection which makes them unreal. One always is told of their remarkable and invariable humility, till one longs for some of them to be stuck up for a change, or grasping and impertinent like John and James trying to grab the best seats in heaven, or cross and disagreeable like St Jerome with his matrons, virgins and widows. A touch of original sin would certainly help to make these later saints more real".
Peter was a great man of God, indeed there are few greater. But we all realise and we love him for it that in him was a mixture of good and bad, of strong and weak, of heights and depths. What we do not always recognise is that the good and the bad were related in him. The heights often lead on to the depths, in the sense of the proverb "Pride cometh before a fall" or of St Paul's words (1 Corinthians 10:12): "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall".
In today's gospel we see Peter in the heights. He had made his great confession of faith, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God". Our Lord had responded "Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven". And again:"..... on this rock I will build my church". And again Jesus said, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven......".
Could any man be more exalted than Peter appeared to be then? Yet, five verses later in St Matthew's, Gospel we have the words "Get behind me, Satan".
It seems to me that Peter said more than he understood. The words of his confession of faith were right. It was a flash of divinely given insight. But he did not understand. What was worse, he thought he understood better than our Lord himself. So when Jesus went on to flesh out the bones of that confession with its full implications, Peter rebuked him. After all, he knew! The Messiah was to come as Gods anointed..... it would be all glory and victory.
But the disciple was not above his master: and it was Peters turn to receive a stern rebuke. How crushing that rebuke was: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men".
Like James and John looking for places of honour in the kingdom of God, Peter envisaged a Messiah of glory and a messiahship without cost. In that, he simply reflected the expectations of the old Israel. No doubt that is why our Lord was loath to claim the title of Messiah for himself he knew that such a claim would be misunderstood.
The fact is that Peter got the words right; but he got the content of the words wrong. That is the dark side, and the dark side is in us all. We recite the Creed in all its orthodoxy, and that is good. We take our part in unimpeachable liturgy of the church, and that is good. We say prayers of impeccable propriety in our private devotions, and that is good. But is the content of the gospel lived out in our life?
What is that content? It is that which the passion and cross of the Messiah who is the Suffering Servant manifests a love which gives all, a dying to self and living for others and a courage to face pain and death for the sake of love and truth.
Peter's greatness is that he learned..... slowly and painfully, through bearing rebuke, through the shame of failure, through the grace of forgiveness and restoration. He learned until our Lord could say to him, "Feed my sheep"; until he could take his rightful place as leader of the infant church at Pentecost; until he was ready to meet his own death by crucifixion, as the story tells us, upside down.
You have the privilege of St Peter as your patron. Will you learn with him? Right words are good: but it is the truth of the life that counts of the life that bears the marks of Jesus. Those marks are the marks of the crucified one. When the cross is seen in us, the true glory will be there too.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.