Sermon for the Patronal Festival of St Peter 2021

The Rev’d Adrian Stephens, Locum Dean

Today we celebrate the feast day of St Peter, and no doubt you have heard the legends and the scriptural references to Peter over and over again. When in Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney I regularly asked guest preachers to refrain from mentioning once again the martyrdom of St Laurence. It is therefore with some wariness that I begin a sermon regarding St Peter.

The one aspect that I would like to explore is that of Peter’s denial of Jesus, and Peter’s reinstatement by Jesus. Our Lord stated quite bluntly that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed twice. Peter did indeed deny Jesus three times. In the gospel today Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him, three times. And three times Peter is charged with the responsibility of caring for the flock of Christ. There is in this trifold action a very valuable lesson in forgiveness.

With Peter’s denial of Jesus, a leader to whom he had once sworn total loyalty, the temptation is to respond from the human point of view and condemn him out of hand. Once betrayed, forever cautious. This is not the action that we see in our Lord. There is a clear teaching in this. Jesus addresses Peter, not as Peter the rock upon which he will build his church, but as Simon the fisherman. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  It appears that our Lord draws a distinction between the fisherman and the disciple. When Peter recognises Jesus as the Son of God, and accepts the role to which he is called, he is Peter the Rock. When he denies our Lord, he is Simon the fisherman. It is an interesting insight.

With the instruction to feed our Lord’s sheep we note that the constant call upon the disciples and particularly so for Peter, was this; “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  It is evident that the disciples of Jesus are called to a particular and special role. They are to continue the mission of our Lord. They are to teach by word and action that with faith in Jesus there is forgiveness and there is life. It is the role of the disciple to bring all people to believe in God the Father, through Jesus the Son, while being aided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

The forgiveness of Peter for his betrayal reassures us that no matter how awful our failures may be, or how confronting our shame, God can forgive and renew us. It is in gratitude for this that we then respond by becoming servants of Christ.

We are the disciples of Christ. It is for us to spread the word; it is for us to teach; it is for us to display the compassion and love of Christ; it is for us worship and pray; it is for us to bring the essence and the strength of Christ into the world.

The question that is often asked relates to how this may be done. How do we bring people to worship, and to believe, in our Lord and God? The answer is both simple and complex.

I was reading an article the other day and the author noted the following. Those of us who live in the West have never had so much resource material on hand. We can spread the word quickly and efficiently through all sorts of electronic media. We have Facebook, online streaming, Email, TikTok, Snapchat and numerous other apps that allow us to share information with the tap of the send button. Everyone should be receiving the vast amount of information now available in the cloud.

Why then is the church in the West generally in decline? There was a study conducted in some of the evangelical churches in the USA. These were the congregations with vast resources and regular workshops. There were many programmes implemented for growth and education. The end result was that they average less than two new people to worship per year. This is hardly a spectacular result. On the positive side they were not losing ground.

When we are called to follow Christ there is one very special activity that is often overlooked. That activity is the power of God. It is in the power of God, the outcome of prayer that we will grow the church. It is the prayer of the faithful which will call on the power of God. And it is God who will grow his church. Special programmes will educate the converted. Special programmes will encourage the congregation. Special programmes are primarily aimed at the people who are already in church. Yes, special programmes have a place, and they can be very beneficial. But, generally speaking, they do not grow the church. They will educate and encourage and strengthen those within the church, and this is good. On the other hand internal activities rarely bring the unchurched into worship, prayer, and faith.

We can take our example from Jesus. He frequently went away to pray with the Father. He prayed before he offered ministry and he prayed after the ministry was concluded. We look to the disciples, they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. He taught them the Lord’s Prayer. Always the focus is to be on God the Father and our Lord Jesus.

There can be no doubt that, just as Peter discovered, the one great gift offered by our Lord is that of forgiveness. When we pray, we open our hearts and minds to God, and as often as not we will seek forgiveness for the things that we have said, or done, that has had a negative impact on another person. Or indeed a negative impact on our faith in God.

We often think of forgiveness as being a word that is thrown out with little or no consideration. When we seek forgiveness from God, we follow the example of Peter. “Lord, you know that I love you.”  To reach the point of saying this Peter must have done some challenging searching of his soul and behaviour.

Forgiveness is never a throw away word that we trot out when someone offends us. Nor should we expect that it will be trotted out for us without us giving consideration to the pain we might have caused. For the most part forgiveness is the result of a process. When we seek to be forgiven it is important that we examine ourselves with honesty. When we identify areas of our life in which we have sinned, we are to honestly acknowledge them.

Our next step is to set about fixing whatever we can fix while knowing that there will always be a legacy of hurt, and maybe mistrust. It is for this that we ask for forgiveness, for we cannot make it right. Some of our mistakes are simply unfixable and only forgiveness will begin the road to recovery.

Finally, after we have been through this process, we sincerely promise to never do or say that particular thing again. Forgiveness is the end result of a process, and it is rarely offered without some sign of repentance.

It is with this in mind that we will turn to our God and ask forgiveness from the divine. It is when we acknowledge our sins before God, and confess our sins to God, that we can be confident of receiving that wonderful gift of peace, release from guilt, and forgiveness of sins.

Peter is a wonderful example of a person recognising his shortcomings and personal fear while being able to overcome the same through his love of our Lord.

The one constant during this sermon is the desire to always seek God and to always communicate with God. Prayer is the only answer to all that assails us, and it is the answer to growing the church of God.

Do you recall that earlier I made comment on evangelical churches with their huge range of resources only achieving minimal results in church growth? The author went on to explain that the most rapidly growing church is the church in that which we call third world countries. They have limited resources. Limited Email, live streaming is invariably unavailable, TikTok is a peculiarity, and all of the other electronic stuff is foreign to them. All that they have at their disposal is a sound faith based in prayer. It is to this that God appears to have responded.

What might be the lesson for us? We need a Dean to accept the responsibility for the Cathedral congregation. We must pray. We would like the cathedral congregation to grow. We must pray. We would like to be forgiven our sins and be freed from guilt. We must pray. We would like to deepen our faith in God. We must pray.

Our God responds to prayer and our faithful sincerity. Let us pray.

Let my prayer rise before you as incense,

The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly;

Hear my voice when I cry to you.

Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord,

And guard the door of my lips.

Let my prayer rise before you as incense,

The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

Let not my heart incline to any evil thing;

Let me not be occupied in wickedness.

But my eyes are turned to you, Lord God,

In you I take refuge;

Do not leave me defenceless.

Let my prayer rise before you as incense,

The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141