Outline of the Sermon preached in Christ Church, Lille
by the Venerable Meurig Williams, Archdeacon of France,
27th August 2017, the 11th Sunday after Trinity
Having a small home in the depths of La France Profonde, I find myself welcoming family and friends for summer holidays. During the summer, Limousin can be hot. Some recent visitors from Britain were commenting, jealously, about what it must be like to enjoy a warm climate throughout the year. I soon had to put them right. Yes, the summers are very hot. But the winters are bitingly cold, with temperatures many degrees lower than you would usually expect in this part of France – or in Britain.
It is very easy to make assumptions about a place – especially if you only experience it in the balmy days of summer, with the cicadas croaking in the sinking evening sun. But you cannot really know it unless it has lashed you with rain and mud, and you have felt the blistering cold deep in the marrow of your bones. The people of Barcelona now know that Las Ramblas is not just a place of gentle relaxation on summer evenings; it is now a thoroughfare where terror and death is remembered.
What’s true for places is equally true of people. We can’t all be eternally nice; just as we can’t all be perpetually good. We are human beings, with all the flaws, the failures, the gifts and the graces that make us who we are. There are going to be times when we will shine-out as the remarkable people we are; and times when we are going to get it badly wrong.
This morning’s Gospel doesn’t try to hide any of this as we focus on Peter, one of Jesus’s closest followers. For all his fervour and sincerity, he so often got it wrong. In our Gospel, today, he blurts out the truth about Jesus, that the others were too diffident, too self conscious or too hide-bound to see: “You are the Christ; the anointed one, the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” An affirmation that earns him high praise from Jesus: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”. But in the course of this same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the prince of the Apostles is seriously admonished by Jesus for his lack of vision, his failure to grasp the significance of Jesus as the one who must suffer and die. We’ll hear all that next week. True disciples of Christ are made of such conflicting virtues and vices.
Of course, the Church in its triumphalist way has tended to emphasise and remember Jesus’s words “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” It has seen itself as the carrier of the keys, imposing its own moral idealism on human lives; and often forgetting just how flimsy was the foundation stone on which its authority was built.
If Peter is the flimsy, rather unstable rock on which the Church is built, what kind of Church is being most true to its Lord and Saviour?
I’ve been looking again at some old newspaper clippings I’ve kept from 2005. One set of clippings concerned the election of Pope Benedict XVI – the man Roman Catholics acknowledge as the successor to Peter. The others covered the brutal killing of Brother Roger, the ninety year-old founder of the Taizé community in Burgundy, around the same time. One paper in particular attempted to contrast the two men, and the type of Church they were supposed to represent.
Brother Roger and the Taizé Community, the article suggested, “represents everything that the future of religion ought to be. It is non-sectarian, and enormously attractive to seekers after truth who felt alienated from organised religion. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pilgrims, many of them young, left the place feeling strengthened and affirmed.” The article contrasted the open door generosity of the Taizé community with the more orthodox and authoritarian style of Pope Benedict. The article went on, “The Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was the embodiment of orthodoxy; Brother Roger seemed not to care who came to pray with him, nor where they came from.”
Of course, the truth is more complex. Brother Roger’s obituary in the same newspaper admitted that he was “humble and stubborn, childlike and cunning, mystical and realist, mild and authoritarian.” He seems to have had the sort of mix of human vices and virtues that recalls the character of Peter and of other Christian disciples from the very start. And though the election of Pope Benedict understandably caused some dismay both within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church, we saw enough of his humanity, his intelligence, as well as his compassion and vulnerability, to suggest we would be unwise to collude with popular stereotypes of him as “God’s Rottweiler”.
Peter emerges out of today’s Gospel as a hero, carrying the keys to the kingdom. He will emerge from next week’s Gospel as a man with feet of clay. The past, as well as the future, of the Church lies in the hands of such flawed and fragile human beings! Through the working of the Holy Spirit, each generation sees gifted men and women re-establish among us the mind of Christ. But always, always, God calls Peter-like characters, people like you and me, to that ministry. We may not be called, like Peter, to possess the keys of the kingdom, or, like Brother Roger to be founders of new monastic communities, or, like the Pope to be leaders of the worldwide Church. But each of us, with our all-too-human flaws and failures are called to embody the Church’s mission, and to offer a generous space for others to grow into holiness.
Christ is dangling a set of keys in front of us, just as he did to Peter, waiting to hand them on to anyone who is brave enough, or humble enough, to open the door to the Kingdom of Heaven, and find themselves welcomed and surprised beyond their wildest imaginings.