First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2021
A story goes that during a persecution of Christians in first century Rome their Bishop fled. The Bishop was none other than the Apostle St Peter. Christians were being crucified like their Lord and Peter was running away. As he did so he saw the risen Jesus walking towards the city. Peter asked him, ‘Quo vadis?’ (where are you going?) to which Jesus replied, ‘Romam eo iterum crucifigi (‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’). From that encounter Peter gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.
There is a bitterly poignant moment deep in the heart of Holy Week. Jesus has been arrested and brought to the High Priest’s house; his death on the cross is imminent.
In the crowd that’s gathered Peter is recognised as one of Jesus’ followers, but Peter flatly denies it. As St Luke records:
The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22.61,62.)
Having heard this morning’s gospel there’s an eerie inevitability that it would come to that with Peter.
Throughout the gospels Peter wrestles with himself: he recognises Jesus as the Christ and is devoted to him; but also he can’t bear the cost of what this all means.
Peter is a man of contrasts:
Peter is the Rock on which Christ will build his Church (Matthew 16.18) and he is the denier;
Peter is praised by Jesus for his declarations of faith and, as we see in today’s gospel, also rebuked by Jesus as ‘Satan’, an adversary, opposing Christ’s purposes.
We all have an inner Peter: at times we can be passionate about our faith in Christ and at other times deniers. We can’t just look at Peter and shrug or tut; it is ourselves we see.
So what’s Peter’s problem? Or rather what is your problem? What’s the Church’s problem?
The issue is being so earthbound that we don’t, won’t or can’t see the Cross as the path to life.
Peter was so scandalised by the reference to the Cross – suffering, rejection, death - that he even took Jesus aside and rebuked him. It was too much for Peter to stomach; perhaps he saw what was coming, that the way of discipleship is the Way of the Cross.
Peter’s denial of the Cross means that he has set his mind on earthly concerns and not heavenly ones. In St Augustine’s terms Peter is preferring the Earthly City and not desiring the City of God.
Peter has yet to grasp St Paul’s phrase in the letter to the Colossians, ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3.1-4).
Peter’s mind is set on Peter, not on Christ. There’s the challenge for you and me today: setting our minds on Christ publicly and proudly.
Martyrdom is the most extreme outcome of setting your mind, and living your life, in Christ: and there are Christians around the world who are living that, now, today.
Do you find yourself wondering why they don’t just keep quiet about their faith, keep their heads down? If so, that’s your inner Peter coming out.
Martyrdom is a remote prospect for us, but there is much in our culture that assails the Gospel today, that calls us to walk the way of the Cross.
Christianity is routinely ridiculed, caricatured, diminished and pushed aside in our culture. The vision of the reign of God is being replaced by the reign of self, the culture of ‘me first, me alone’. A culture of grievance, shame and blame is flourishing: the things of earth, rather than reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; the things of God.
Our culture is not beyond redemption. There are many people of goodwill, but the signs of the times show that people’s concerns are with themselves first and God a distant second. (Remember, though, Jesus described his generation as ‘perverse and adulterous).
Now is the time to witness to the way of Jesus Christ more than ever: proclaiming faith, hope and love; being of service to our neighbour out of love for Christ; honouring the body, cherishing the young and the frail; drawing people into worship that sets their minds on the stuff of heaven; handing on the Faith humbly and confidently.
Now is the time to reorient our hearts, minds and lives: setting our bearings and compass to be followers of Christ, who died for us and for our salvation.
Will you walk, with Peter and with the Crucified and Risen Lord, on the Way of the Cross back towards the City of God?