Preacher: Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating ,redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
We are entering a time of adventure here at the cathedral that is dedicated to St. Peter. Our beloved organ is about to be packed up by organ builders from Durham in England, builders who must be boarding their flights to Australia about now. As this happens we must leave our cathedral for a little while and find that wherever we go God will be with us. We will worship during the week and early on Sunday mornings in our Cynthia Poulton Hall; we will sing Evensong next Sunday night at Christchurch North Adelaide and then for two weeks in that same hall; and we will celebrate our Sunday Choral Eucharist for three weeks in St John’s Church in the city. All through this time we might find inspiration in the story of Simon son of John, Simon who Jesus named Peter, our patron saint.
In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel account, immediately after Jesus has been baptised and God has given him his identity as Beloved Son, the spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to wrestle with what his identity as God’s human child means. Jesus follows God into the wilderness and emerges, after the three temptations, ready to engage with his ministry in the world.
As Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake. Simon and Andrew are fishermen. And Jesus says to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’(Mark 1:16-17)
In the final chapter of John’s gospel, after his death and resurrection, when Jesus has asked Peter three times if he, Peter, loves him and three times asked him to feed his sheep, Jesus says to Peter, again, “Follow me.” (John 21:19)
When he first meets Andrew’s brother Simon, Jesus gives him his name, Peter, and gives him his vocation and then bids him follow. And in the final glimpse we are given in the gospels of Jesus’ encounter with Peter, Jesus restores him to his identity and again bids him follow.
Jesus’ relationship with Peter is enfolded in these words, this action, “This is who you are, follow me.”
Of all Jesus’ disciples, Peter would be one of the ones who might reasonably think that Jesus would give up on him. But Jesus does not go in for giving up on people. It seems that Jesus is well aware that Peter will fail as a disciple and friend even when Jesus needs the loyalty of this close friend Peter the most. Peter lets Jesus down when he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he is embroiled in the trial that would lead to his death. You will remember that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus specifically asks his companions, Peter, James and John to keep watch with him. “I am deeply grieved, even to death: remain here, and keep awake.” Jesus implores them. (Mark 14:34) All through Jesus’ time of ministry he offers this “keeping watch”. Jesus keeps watch with those who are suffering in many different ways – those who are sick, those who are bereaved, those who are frightened, those who are in the possession of the demon voices that tell them they cannot be the one God calls them to be. Jesus keeps watch and, through his close and loving presence, brings healing to those who are suffering. Yet, on the one occasion he asks for those who love him to keep watch with him, they fail. Three times Jesus returns from his anguished prayer in Gethsemane to find his disciples asleep.
It was just before this scene in the Garden of Gethsemane that Peter promised never to desert Jesus. Jesus knows Peter cannot keep his promise. “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Jesus says. (Mark 14:30) His fierce understanding of the human nature of his close friends must have shocked them deeply. But Jesus’ insight does not heal Peter. The fear will be too great for him. Jesus’ healing of Peter happens later.
The scene of Peter’s denial is a charcoal fire. Peter is overcome with fear when he is asked by the fire beside which he is warming himself if he knows Jesus. Peter does deny Jesus there three times. “I do not know this man you are talking about.” He says. (Mark 14:71) The cock crows and, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ Passion, Jesus turns and looks at Peter and Peter weeps bitterly. Did he remember Jesus on that first day by the Sea of Galilee saying to him, “This is who you are, follow me”? Did he assume that his failure to follow Jesus at his moment of greatest need meant that he would never have the chance to follow him again?
What are Jesus’ thoughts, we might wonder, as he looks at Peter? Is he still thinking, “This is who you are, follow me.” As if, even in the darkest place, even when he has failed utterly as a disciple and friend, even when fear has made him desert Jesus at his one moment of need, even there, Jesus knows who Peter is and still does not give up on him. Jesus stands with us in the midst of our worst sins, it seems, and keeps saying, “Follow me.”
And so we come to the scene we heard read in our cathedral, the cathedral whose patron saint is this Peter, this morning. Beside the charcoal fire, which surely would have reminded Peter of the scene of his threefold denial, Jesus uses the name by which he knew Peter when they first met by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks him three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Three times, Peter replies, “Yes Lord you know that I love you.” And Jesus, three times, asks him to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep. And then, after telling Peter that he will one day die as Jesus died, he says for the final time, “Follow me.”
This is who you are, follow me. When I first called you, you probably thought you would be up to whatever I asked you to do but you weren’t. But that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t stop me. That doesn’t stop me fighting through death, even, to get to you. You thought fear had defeated you and you thought death had defeated me. But nothing defeats the great love of God and the great longing of God to stand alongside us and forgive. The great longing of God to name us and lead us into life.
When Jesus met the fisherman Simon and his brother Andrew, he named him Peter, and he bid him follow on into an adventure more challenging than he could possibly have imagined. And when Jesus bids farewell to Peter it doesn’t get any easier. But Peter knows then that Jesus knows who he is and how frail he is and what fear can do. And Jesus is still there, naming him and forgiving him and leading him on.
This is what God does. God creates us, names us and bids us follow. God will be with us when we are in times of joy and times of sorrow. God will be with us when we make terrible mistakes. God will journey with us in the weeks ahead when we leave for a little while this cathedral that so gives us a sense of God’s presence and love. God, in Jesus, is close by just a step ahead of us wherever we go, whatever we do, however far we might believe we have strayed from God’s love and guidance. Our lives, like Peter’s, are enfolded in these words. “This is who you are, follow me.”