St Peter's Day
St Peter's Day, 29 June, 2011
Dr Simon Carey Holt,
Senior Minister, Collins Street Baptist Church
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
I begin by wishing you a very happy St Peters Day. It is a wonderful tradition to celebrate the one in whose honour your community is named, and I am delighted to share it with you.
Tonight we have read one of my favourite gospel stories. It's the story of the resurrected Jesus cooking breakfast for his disciples. According to the text, Saint Peter and his friends had gone fishing through the night, but caught nothing. At daybreak, the unidentified Jesus calls out to them from the shore, directing them to cast their nets from a different angle. It's only after hauling in a miraculous catch they realize who he is. Once ashore, this little band of bewildered fishermen discover that Jesus has prepared a meal; fish cooked in a charcoal fire and some bread. And then we hear that simple but beautiful invitation from the Risen Christ: 'Come and have breakfast.'
Of all the eating stories in the Gospels, of which there are many, this has always been for me a significant one. It was a very formative story in my own calling to ministry. After serving my apprenticeship as a chef at Melbourne's Windsor Hotel, I sensed God leading me into the church. This story was the clincher. So I cannot tell you how excited I was when invited to travel to Israel and participate in a television program based around these eating stories of Jesus. I leapt at the invitation not because I longed to be on television, but because I knew that I would get to stand at the very spot where Jesus and his disciples ate breakfast.
The day came for the filming of this particular episode. I slept fitfully at a local kibbutz the night before. My expectations were completely unreasonable. I had anticipated the moment for so long. It would be serene, spiritual, profound. It wasn't. When we arrived, the wind was buffeting so forcefully we had to relocate the equipment and the crew to a little tributary under the cover of a gnarly and ugly old tree. As I crouched down in the sand for the filming, the rain was drizzling and murky brown water lapped inches from my feet. Balanced precariously in the sand was a little gas cooker on which I held a frypan full of fish. The falling rain made the pan sizzle and my wrists smarted with the splutter of hot oil. Leaves from the tree kept falling into the pan and then I stood too quickly and scraped my head against a branch. I now had a gash to my forehead and a trickle of blood running into my eyebrow. And all this with a television camera a metre from my face and a large fuzzy microphone dangling overhead.
The 13-episode series made collaboratively by Channel 7 and Anglican Media was called The Bishop, the Chef and the Fisherman. The concept was that in the first segment of each episode the professional fisherman from Cairns and the church historian, then an Anglican Bishop, would fish together in some biblically significant place-the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the Mediterranean-and then in the next segment I, the has-been chef come theologian, would cook whatever they caught and say profound things about the spirituality of food. The trouble was, in thirteen episodes all they caught were two fish: one an undersized tilapia on the lake and the other a big greasy catfish in the Jordan. So here I was, crouched down by the water, my pan full of sardines hurriedly purchased in the Tiberius fish market that morning. The cooker was faulty and had only one temperature: hot. My charred sardines looked about as appetising as a can of cat food. And then, to top it all off, a busload of Japanese tourists arrived. The producer told them I was a famous television chef from Australia. They all started taking flash photographs from every angle. Needless to say, my television career was short lived.
Despite my rather tragic experience, I have to tell you I still find this story intriguing. As a chef, I have often wondered what it was like for Jesus that morning. Was it raining? Did Jesus enjoy cooking? Had he ever cooked fish before? Did he like fish? Was the fire hard to light? Where did he get the bread? As a theologian, I've often wondered too, would the resurrected Christ have overcooked the fish?
While these may seem frivolous questions, they're not to me. I've a long held conviction that spirituality and food are intimately linked, that eating is a spiritual practice; and that our most ordinary lives are implicated by our faith. This story reminds me of how true that it. It really is extraordinary that of all the things the risen Christ could do before his ascension into glory, he chose to cook his friends breakfast. It's so down to earth, so normal, so ordinary, and yet such a beautiful picture: bread and fish; a lonely stretch of beach; friends gathered around an open fire; the boat and fishing nets just metres away. And yet amidst all of this ordinariness the most extraordinary spiritual transactions take place.
At this your Patronal Festival, it is perhaps unwise for me to confess that as a good Baptist I have always struggled a little with the formal designation of 'saint' being applied to a particular individual in the Christian faith. Rightly or wrongly, I've always felt it implies a certain level of spiritual perfection, and my inner Baptist cynic wonders if that really can be the case for anyone this side of eternity. But Saint Peter is such a reassuring Saint. From beginning to end in the gospel stories, Peter is as full of himself as he is of God, a larger than life personality given to moments of the most extraordinary faith amidst others of breathtaking foolishness. And yet, in the midst of both his bravado and timidity, his theological insight and his spiritual thick-headedness, Jesus continues to call him.
We know the conversation that follows this breakfast on the beach is a deeply formative one for Peter. Recalling what is perhaps Peter's greatest moment of failure, Jesus publically questions Peter's love three times and then, astoundingly, reinstates Peter into ministry. But what is so astonishing to me is that this profound act of ordination happens over breakfast.
Do you ever feel ordinary? I do, most of the time. Does your spiritual life ever feel more like a series of rather dull plains than a majestic mountain range of faith? Mine does, much of the time. My three-week jaunt around Israel was an eye opening experience on many levels. More than anything, I was struck by just how ordinary and everyday these places were. From a distance, the places and encounters of the gospel story can have a romantic haze about them. All halos and flowing white robes. But as I walked the ruins of the neighbourhoods and villages where Jesus spent most of his time, they were anything but romantic. The truth is, where Jesus shared breakfast with Peter was a very ordinary place. No stained glass windows or streams of light coming down from heaven. Perhaps the fish was overcooked, the bread a bit stale, the ground where they sat rocky and uncomfortable. But it was real.
Friends, I want to remind you today that your formation as a follower of Jesus has as much to do with the ordinary days of your life as it has with the great festivals and holy days. I want to remind you that your experience of God has as much to do with the ordinary places of your life as it has with sacred buildings and holy sites. Indeed our Christian faith is full of mystery and wonder. It is a mystery indeed that we should be made in the image of God and through the work of the Spirit, formed in the likeness of Christ, but how and where this mysterious business unfolds is much more immediate and everyday than you might expect. It's within you, around you, behind you and before you. It's yesterday, today and tomorrow. It's fishing and cooking, laughing and praying, working and resting, studying and having dinner with friends. All of this is the stuff with which God works in you and through you. Every element of your life, no matter how routine or mundane it might seem, is rich with the presence and calling of God. A wise man once said to me, 'Simon, if you cannot find God right where you are, you will never know God in any other place.'
On this St Peters day, may you know again God's sustaining, healing and challenging presence right where you are. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.