A sermon given at Choral Evensong for the Feast of St Peter, Apostle and Martyr and Patronal Festival, by The Rev’d Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Jesus asked a lot of questions. And the one who we, perhaps, see most in the gospel stories encountering Jesus’ questions is our patron saint, our beloved Peter. Jesus’ questions rarely have answers, seem more to reach into who we are, to shine a light on who we long to be or what we are afraid of, on what we wish we had never done, or who we wish God to be, on our jealousies and our inadequacies, and also on the God-given beauty that is the human life we have been given. Peter found himself challenged by all of that, as he walked along with Jesus through those three years, as he quivered at Jesus’ trial, and found himself questioned again when the resurrected Jesus met him by the lake.
John Pritchard, a former Bishop of Oxford, wrote a book about Jesus’ questions, entitled Twenty Questions Jesus Asked. It was published just this year. He wrote this:
“Jesus was brilliant at asking the right questions, the sort that opened up spiritual space and helped people to listen to whispers and hopes from deep within themselves. We tend to think that Jesus was always in ‘transmit’ mode, always preaching and teaching and sharing the good news of the kingdom. In fact his method was often to drop a seemingly innocent question into an encounter, then wait to see what happened. He wasn’t looking for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ binary answers; he was inviting people into participation and exploration. … Always … the question created spiritual space for individuals to explore something new about themselves and about God. The space was where new discoveries could be made, where God could be glimpsed wearing new clothes.”
The questions are about making space … where God might be glimpsed wearing new clothes …
When Peter first met Jesus, it was his brother Andrew who was asked the question. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks Andrew. Andrew and his friend ask Jesus where he is staying and Jesus invites them, “Come and see.” These questions are all about sight, about our eyes longing to see something, we are not sure what, something of God, perhaps. Why have we walked through the cathedral doors this Patronal Evensong night? For what are we looking? Might we on this festival day see God wearing new clothes? See God in a different way?
After spending a day with Jesus, Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon and, as soon as he sees him, Jesus seems to have no need of questions. The questions will come later. Instead, Jesus makes it clear that he knows Simon and then he gives him a new name, a new identity, really. “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is Peter).
Jesus taught and fed and healed the disciples and those who gathered to hear him, to reach out to him. It is after one of the feedings that Jesus addresses one of the great human questions. He speaks of fear.
It is early in the morning, one day, when he comes walking towards the disciples who are in a boat on a lake. But when the disciples see him walking on the lake, they are terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ In fear they cry out. Straight away, Jesus speaks to them saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answers him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus says, ‘Come.’ So, Peter gets out of the boat, starts walking on the water, coming towards Jesus. Very quickly, he notices the strong wind, overwhelmed by fear he begins to sink, he crying out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catching Peter, says to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ We can only imagine the expression on Jesus’ face as he asks this question.
Right in the situation when it seems utterly reasonable to be afraid, Jesus asks us why. As if there is a deeper truth than the raging sea and the fierce wind. As if there is a deeper truth than saving life itself. Jesus addresses this, this saving of life, at Caesarea Philippi.
Peter and the other disciples journey to Caesarea Philippi with Jesus where he turned to face Jerusalem. And there Jesus asks Peter the identity question. Jesus has given Peter his identity, you are Peter, remember? But what about Jesus’ identity? Who is he? At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus says to the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They struggle with this for a little while … John the Baptist perhaps, Elijah, … maybe another of the prophets. It is Peter who answers the next question. The question for each one of us … ‘But who do you say that I am?’
‘But who do you say that I am?’
Peter jumps in “You are the Messiah” – but he means the wrong things by that … and Jesus knows he doesn’t understand, they don’t understand. So often we don’t understand. He is not here to magic suffering away. Not here to wash death away. Not here to take away all the struggle of human life in a finite world …as we contemplate our dear planet …of being created life in a finite world. That is not who he is. So he tells them what will happen and Peter doesn’t get it. And he asks the crowd a question this time …“Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who want to lose their life for my sake will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Does Peter remember the wind and the waves and Jesus asking him why he was afraid?
He reaches Jerusalem, of course, the disciples trundling along behind him, really not knowing what is going on now, but staying with him nonetheless. “Where else would we go?” Peter had said, quite a while back now, when Jesus had asked them if they would go away with all the others who couldn’t seem to be able stay with him. “Where else would we go, you have the words of eternal life.”
But as Jesus predicted, the whole thing fell apart.
Jesus faces his trial and passion almost silent. The questions for Peter, this time, come from a slave girl. They are warming themselves beside a charcoal fire. “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” she asks. “I am not” Peter says. Three times he is asked the question, the question that exposes his fear, before the cock crows, heralding the dawn, when the light comes. Peter’s guilt is exposed, and there is no Jesus there to ask him why he is so afraid. Why, as Jesus is handing over his own life, Peter is clinging on to his.
Jesus dies crying out to his Father, God, the question that the psalmist wrote, the question we cry when all we seem to feel is that we are abandoned. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And as he dies, God dying on the cross, it is as if we are all interrogated, all our petty fears and all the things we cling onto, the questions ring around us about who we are
The resurrection comes, an utterly unexpected gift. “Why are you weeping?” Jesus asks Mary, before he says her name and she knows. “Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asks Thomas, naming us blessed for we have our whispers of belief even though we have not seen.
And Peter, our dear Peter, the one who is our Patron Saint. He needs three questions. Spoken as the smoke of the charcoal fire wafts about him, reminding him of his denial of his dearest friend, the one he knew had named him and given him life. Three questions, in the place of sin, washing forgiveness over Peter’s awful guilt. “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Simon son of John,” … the first words Jesus spoke to him, remember, when he named him Peter all those years ago, “do you love me?”
Questions that make space …where God might be glimpsed wearing new clothes … and we …perhaps we find ourselves wearing new clothes, too.
 John Pritchard Twenty Questions Jesus Asked – and how they speak to us today px-xi