Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul – Sunday 28th June
(Based on Matthew 16: 13 – 19)
I’m not always a great fan of “Vicar jokes” – but I heard one the other day which I quite like – not only because it’s short, but because it possibly has a grain of truth behind it!
A vicar goes to see one of his elderly parishioners who’s not been well for some time. The signs are not good and, sensing that time may not be on her side, he decides it’s time to ask some serious questions. “My dear”, he says, “do you ever ask yourself about the hereafter?” “Oh yes,” she replies, “all the time! Three or four times a day I make my way upstairs – and when I get to the top I stand at the window, and look out at the world spread out below me, and say to myself ‘now, Edie, what have I come up here after?!”
The grain of truth that I deduced in that all that was the tendency that we sometimes see among clergy – and the Church as a whole – to want to ask deeply serious questions, things WE think are really important, while failing to recognise that for most people there are far more immediate things on the agenda.
This morning’s gospel contains one such crucial question, from the lips of Christ himself “Who do you say that I am?” That is a serious question – a profoundly important question: the way in which we answer and shape our lives in response to that question is what defines us as Christians, and separates us out from Muslims, or Jews or any other kind of religious believer. Ultimately, ALL of us will need to answer that question for ourselves – but it’s probably not a good starting point in conversation with someone just beginning to explore our faith.
And at the end of our gospel reading there’s a really peculiar statement, addressed to Peter – “whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
That’s quite a claim to authority for the early church, and one that doesn’t sit too well perhaps in our age. There’s certainly no presumption today that the Church has a God-given right to be heard – still less that her teaching is to be accepted without question.
Pope Francis – who generally has a good treatment in the media and is generally well liked I think – is only presented as an authority figure when he says things that newspaper editors already agree with. When his words are more controversial, or challenging to the status quo, he’s suddenly “out of touch” and backward. And so even the Pope can’t command real “authority” in the direct sense of guiding and changing the general mindset.
But if it’s true that people do not want to be told how to live their lives, I think it’s also true that very many of them DO want to be shown how to cope with life – and that they are more than ready to allow the Church to help them with that.
Again it’s a question of starting places – recognising that people who want to make sense of the “here and now” will see little relevance in questions about the “here after”!
Within the last 48 hours, there’ve been two large gatherings here – one the funeral of a woman in her 80s, who lived at one side of the crossroads, the other the wedding of a woman in her twenties, who has a business just the other side of the crossroads.
In both cases there were conversations with friends and family of those involved: memories of other family events here, and a real sense of connection. Fascination with the architecture, or the decoration or the organ playing or the sense of history.
You’ll have noticed that those conversations neatly skirted round the subject of God, or faith, – things which were confined to the services themselves – and I honestly don’t know how much of that any of those individuals took away with them.
As is so often the case, I can only be glad that they wanted to come – that they were prepared to listed – and then to trust that God can go on nurturing whatever stirrings of the soul may have been initiated here.
I referred obliquely to that process on Wednesday as our Deanery Meeting launched into a six month project of “Renewing Hope”.
Our own PCC chose to celebrate three aspects of our mission here as signs of hope.
Firstly, the work of the Middle School Trust – which, through targeted giving to our communities, enables us to signal that ours is a life-affirming faith, that we are interested in the fullness of live, not just in questions of personal morality or religious theory.
Secondly, the success of the Coffee Corner in attracting a considerable number of young mothers and toddlers over the course of the year. And also the challenge that has now arisen from that, of how we follow on and provide something for those mums who’ve returned to work, or whose children have moved on to nursery and school – but who desperately want a gentle way to stay involved here.
Thirdly, our working jointly with other Christians – specifically the “open the Book Group” and the increasingly Nativity at the Town Tree lighting ceremony. There we celebrated not only the ability of the churches to work as one and to be SEEN to do so, but the fact that many other people clearly do want to hear the stories of the Bible. On their own terms, perhaps – where they can be safely anonymous and with no commitment to anything yet – but it seems they do want to hear and be reminded of something older, something more than just the here and now.
In common with all the parishes of the Diocese, we’re being asked to consider three questions posed by Bishop Nicholas. And, again, we may think of this as yet another clergyman asking serious questions when we have more immediate things on the agenda!
But let’s give him, and them a chance – and see where it might encourage us to sharpen our thinking and deepen our faith.
The Bishop asks us:
What do you pray for?
Whom do you serve?
How will you grow?
Over the next few months I’ll be exploring those questions with you in various ways. And we’ll see where they lead us in our thinking and in our attempts to tell and live out the Christian story here in Wilton, and so to give new meaning to other people’s lives.
We need first to ask the serious questions of ourselves – and not only the Bishop’s three questions, I suspect, but others that arise from them – before we can learn to recognise the questions other people are asking, or be confident in guiding them to a satisfactory answer.
And if we can all engage in this process of questioning our own thinking, and working out what we can do next, then, God willing, we will find ourselves with a renewed sense of hope and purpose in doing God’s work here, and more able to inspire and renew hope among our neighbours.
It’s through that prayerful thinking, and loving service that we, and the Church as a whole, can hope to show true relevance to people’s daily lives and to speak with TRUE authority.
Over the past few days, I’ve spent more time than usual in here, and I happened to notice that our Visitors book is almost full – itself perhaps a good sign of hope!
As always I was intrigued to see what people had written there – had our VISITORS noticed just fine architecture, or might they have sensed something more than just beauty or history?
This week, I have two favourites: from Charles and Joanne Hill of Folkstone, we had this “A striking church and a living community”. And Paul and Calista Simmons, from Brisbane, wrote only 2 words “Just lovely!”
If only all those who gather here for our various services could go home with those same sentiments – a striking church, a living community, and all just lovely – then we could be confident that this church will grow.
Let’s hope and pray for the gifts to make that happen!