Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 26 June 2016, the 5th Sunday after Trinity, but celebrated as the feast of St Peter, transferred from 29th June.
In early May on a trip to Rome I paid my respects to St Peter’s head.
Both St Peter’s head and St Paul’s are kept together in a beautiful medieval shrine above the high altar of the great Basilica of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome - or so it is claimed. These relics are some of the greatest treasures of the basilica, and they’re venerated by many pilgrims visiting the holy sites in Rome.
I don’t believe in the sanctity of relics myself – and the older they are, the more suspicious I am that they’re faked. But I would not want to belittle the piety of those who do believe they are holy.
It’s a common, very human thing, to keep mementos that remind us of people and events that are dear to us. I’m sure you do, and I’m no exception - I live surrounded by bits and pieces, which mean a lot to me for the memories they evoke. And it surely does no harm to keep something to remind us of Peter, that great Apostle. Even if we do find the idea of a 2,000 year old head a bit gruesome!
So as we celebrate St Peter on his feast day, let us remember his life and reflect upon it.
The NT tells us a good deal about Peter – rather more than we know about the other apostles, except St Paul.
Peter’s given name was Simon, the son of Jonah, and he worked as a fisherman at Bethsaida on the North shore of the Sea of Galilee, with his brother Andrew. John’s Gospel tells us that it was Andrew who first met Jesus and brought his brother Simon to meet him. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’, and they both ‘immediately left their nets and followed him’.
It was Jesus who gave Simon his nickname Peter, meaning ‘Rock’. As Matthew tells us in today’s 3rd reading (Matthew 16:13-19), Jesus tells him, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’.
We also know Peter was married. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at their home in Capernaum. But we are told absolutely nothing about his wife, nor whether they had any children. Was he widowed at the time of his call? We just don’t know.
The Gospels place Peter very much at the centre of Jesus’s small inner circle of disciples. He was there with James and John at incidents where the others were not present - among them the Transfiguration, and Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane.
The Acts of the Apostles goes on to portray Peter as a leading figure in the early church in Jerusalem and Judea. So much so that the authorities marked him out as a ringleader of the troublesome Christians: twice he defied the Jewish Sanhedrin court by continuing to testify to his faith, and King Herod had him arrested and planned to kill him - Peter escaped through the intervention of an angel, as we heard in today’s 2nd reading (Acts12:1-11).
According to ancient tradition Peter later left Jerusalem, and after serving as Bishop of Antioch for several years, he moved on to become the first Bishop of Rome. There he was martyred along with Paul, most likely in Nero’s persecution of Christians there, who were blamed for a great fire in 64AD. His body is said to be buried under St Peter’s Basilica in Rome - even if his head is kept in St John Lateran.
These are the bare bones of Peter’s life.
But we must dig deeper to discover why he made such an impact on his fellow disciples. What sort of a person was he? And how did this fit him for the leading role he played in the early church? Here are three things that I notice about him.
First, Peter was blessed with spiritual insight.
We see it in today’s 3rd reading - he is the first to make that great confession of faith, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, in response to Jesus’s question, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
But perhaps we see it best in the story of the baptism of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. In a trance Peter sees a sheet filled with meat that is unclean in Jewish law, and he hears a voice commanding him to eat it. When he objects, the voice tells him not to call unclean that which God has cleansed. Peter grasped the essential truth that God welcomes all people, whether Jews like himself or gentiles like you and me. Soon after, when he meets Cornelius and his family, he tells them, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’, and he goes on to baptise them all.
This was highly controversial among early Jewish Christians, who believed that gentile converts must first become Jews - undergo circumcision and follow Jewish law. Later, it was Peter’s support for Paul’s case at the leaders’ Council in Jerusalem that swayed the crucial decision, that gentiles should not be required to follow the old Jewish law. Without Peter, the infant church would probably have remained just one more millenarian Jewish sect, worthy of no more than an historical footnote, if it was remembered at all.
Second, Peter was a brave and decisive - a man of action.
This was evident on the day of Pentecost when Peter assumed the role of spokesman for the disciples. Empowered by the gift of the Spirit, on the spur of the moment he decided to speak out about his faith in Jesus, his Lord and Messiah. How brave he was to open his mouth, a provincial from Galilee in front of a crowd from all over the Empire, only 50 days after the Jewish authorities had connived to have Jesus brutally put to death. He was risking his life – what a change from the man who had denied knowing Jesus three times after his arrest. We are told Peter spoke so powerfully that day that 3,000 accepted baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.
It was also part of Peter’s brave, decisive nature that he sometimes acted and spoke impetuously, without thinking things through. Several times, Jesus had to reprimand him. When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from teaching that it was necessary to go to Jerusalem where he would be killed, Jesus responded, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ And when Peter refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet in John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’.
Third, Peter was faithful to Jesus through thick and thin.
Peter learned from the times Jesus reprimanded him, and continued to follow Jesus faithfully, where another might have left in a huff.
His faith did waver at times, but when it did he sought safety in the love of the Jesus he recognised to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. When Peter started to sink because the wind frightened him as he tried to walk on the water, Peter cried out, ‘Lord save me!’, and Jesus reached out to catch him.
And Peter did remain faithful. Starting with his calling in Galilee to fish for people, through his travels with Jesus learning to be his disciple, through the trauma of Crucifixion and the bemusement of Resurrection in Jerusalem, then later as an apostle obeying Jesus’s great commission to make disciples of all nations and baptise them, right up to his final martyrdom in Rome - Peter was faithful to Jesus.
It was these qualities, I think, that made Peter the leader of the apostles that he was.
Spiritual insight, decisiveness and bravery, and faithfulness – these were the qualities that Jesus found in his friend Peter.
These were what made Peter the right man, at the right time, in the right place to lead the infant Church, which Paul likened to Jesus’s body, to continue Jesus’s saving mission to the world.
I believe these are still the qualities Christ’s Church needs in its leaders today, to enable us all to continue Jesus’s mission through the 21st century.