Saint Peter’s Day


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(June 29) 

O Almighty God, who… didst give to thy Apostle Saint peter many excellent gifts…
For the Epistle
Acts 12:1-11
Matthew 16:13-19

Of all the Gospel texts which the devisers of the Lectionary could have chosen to represent St. Peter, this passage from Matthew is the most unlikely as it is the foundation upon which the Roman Papacy built its claim to authority, so strenuously rejected by Reformers. The probable explanation is that there was an even more pressing issue than Rome which the Reformist leaders had to face and this was very existence of Bishops which occupied a central place in Church controversy from the death of Henry VIII in 1547 to the Restoration after the Civil War of Charles II in 1660 and which, on the monarchist side, led to the maxim: No Bishops, No King. In other words, monarchs were only able to exercise effective authority over the Church of England through Bishops appointed by them to the House of Lords; by contrast, the same monarchs after 1603 found it almost impossible to exercise control over the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. There is ample record in the 16th Century of royal intervention in the preaching of doctrine and one can therefore imagine the purpose behind the Collect which calls both for right preaching and a right response which would certainly have repudiated any Papal claim.

Peter’s relationship with Jesus was close, admiring and impetuous and, as demonstrated here, he often takes the lead in affirming the reality of Jesus as Christ. On first impressions he could hardly be described as leadership material but he is drawn in a Jewish tradition which never contemplated human perfection among its great leaders, except perhaps in the foundational figure of Abraham: Moses is harshly punished for the shortcomings of the people and forbidden entry into the promised land (Numbers 20:12); David commits adultery with Bathsheba and connives at the murder of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11:2-26; 12:1-19); and Solomon, for all his wisdom, turns away from God late in his reign under the influence of idolatrous wives (1 Kings 11). Only the prophets escape at the hands of their faithful disciples and scribes; but, then, they were not leaders but rebels.

None of the great figures of the Old Testament committed an act so serious as Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:69-74; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 16:54-62; John 18:25-28) and yet, so great is the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts, that from the time of the first Christian Pentecost Peter becomes a decisive and fluent leader, an impression only contradicted by a sour Pauline note (Galatians 2:14) accusing Peter of giving in to Jewish conservatives. In Acts 9-15 Peter and Paul alternate, only coming together at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when Peter pronounces against Gentile circumcision and then disappears forever. Tradition has it that he went to Rome and wrote two Letters (1/2 Peter) just before his martyrdom in 66 under Nero when he was crucified upside-down so as not to replicate precisely the death of Jesus.

Seeing Peter divorced from the Old Testament tradition of fallible leadership often leads to a caricature of him as the blunderer: attempting to walk on water to greet Jesus but losing faith (Matthew 14:20); making a rash proposal at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:4); and earning reproof from Jesus (Luke 22:31; John 13:36). Nowhere is he more harshly treated than in Matthew’s Gospel which, significantly, is the “Gospel of the Church”. It says a good deal for the way in which the early church conducted itself that such an iconic figure could be subjected to so much negative criticism, sometimes bordering on ridicule.

Yet what emerges from all the narratives is a man who was prepared to stick his neck out and take risks for Christ (Matthew 16:16). Even in his most difficult period, between his denial and Pentecost, Peter never loses his spontaneity, running to the tomb (John 20:3-5) and leaping into the water (John 21:7). The one incident which is difficult to explain is the very last scene between Peter and Jesus (John 21:15-19) when he is questioned three times about his love and urged to tend the flock because whatever might have been in doubt it could surely not have been his love; but, then, there is a possible note of rivalry between John and Peter in the concluding verses (John 21:19-25). Once he took a firm grip of the emerging Church Peter went on taking risks for which he was hauled before the Council (Acts 4:1-7; 5:27-40) and imprisoned at least once (Acts 5:18) before the incident described in today’s reading He risked conservative criticism (Paul’s view is crude) by eating ‘unclean’ food and mixing with Gentiles (Acts 10; 11) and his was the decisive voice in favour of Paul, whatever their personal differences (Acts 15). Given later Papal claims made on the basis of Peter’s position, it is interesting that Peter’s first great theological pronouncement took place in at a Council, giving due weight to what his colleagues advised.

The Church has always placed a very high value on Episcopal continuity, stretching right back to Peter (an issue which presented very difficult problems during the English Reformation) but the role of Bishop has naturally changed through the centuries. Nonetheless, the twin role of the Bishop as teacher and provider of oversight has never been lost. Today there are some who say that in view of improving transport and dwindling numbers, the Church of England has too many Bishops but there are others who say we have too few, most of whom are tied up in administration when we need a greater capacity to provide clerical oversight and promote mission. Whether we have too few or too many, we need more like Peter; but would he be appointed?

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What is The Church of which Peter is the foundation?
  2. Consider the relationship between Saint Peter and Saint Paul
  3. What is a Bishop?
  4. How different would the Church be if Bishops saw themselves cast in Peter’s mould?
  5. Do we have too many or too few Bishops?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)