s077 St Peter and Paul Somerton Park 29/6/97

"Feed my sheep" John 21.17

C S Lewis in his book "Letters to Malcolm" (chapter one) writes astringently of worship: "A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God" and "Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant ... Try as one may to exclude it, the question "What on earth is he up to now?" will intrude. It lays one's devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, "I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks." (Quoted from "The Business of Heaven, daily readings from C S Lewis W Hooper editor Fount 1986 p205,6)

"Feed my sheep" - not get them involved in this or that exercise, supporting this or that cause, attending this or that function.

I cannot find out how long the feast day of St Peter and St Paul have been joined, as the feasts of Simon and Jude, Philip and James are joined.

We are often tempted to think that the conversion of St Paul is the turning point in the history of the Church as described in the book the Acts of the Apostles. It is indeed true that the miraculous events on the Damascus road are three times described, in Acts 9:3-8 the original story; repeated by Paul in Acts 22:14-15 where he defends himself before the people of Jerusalem, and again in Acts 26:12-18 when he defends himself before King Agrippa.

It becomes clear that St Paul, not unnaturally, uses the experience of his conversion in his proclamation of the gospel.

However I suspect the real turning point in the life of the Church as described in the book the Acts of the Apostles, was the rather longer account of the conversion of St Peter. This is a long narrative, beginning in Acts chapter 9 verse 32 where the circumstances surrounding Peter's coming to live at Lydda, and how the Lord, through the raising of Tabitha brought him to Joppa. The story continues in chapter 10 to describe how one Cornelius has a vision from the Lord to summon Peter from Joppa, and Peter at the same time had a vision of the sheet of animals which he is bidden to kill and eat; which is repeated three times. Peter agrees to go with the messengers and arrives in the house of Cornelius where they swap stories of their respective visions. The "penny drops" for Peter - he is not to call anyone unclean - that "God shows no partiality" - and explains the ministry of Jesus - his crucifixion and resurrection. To the astonishment of all, these words have divine approval, evidenced by the Holy Spirit poured out on the Gentile listeners. The story doesn't end there for chapter 11 continues with Peter defending his actions to the apostles and brethren in Judea.

However successful St Paul might have been in his mission to the Gentiles and however legitimate this "new" direction might have been, it required the theological imprimatur of the Jerusalem Church and St Peter in particular. It was the theological imprimatur denied Jesus, when the theological hierarchy refused to acknowledge his mission to tax collectors and sinners in his earthly ministry and he was rather crucified.

Instead of just one vision that was given St Paul, St Peter is given three, confirmed by signs and wonders, the religious experience of Cornelius and confirmed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We are meant to be left in no doubt as to the validity of this development, which was indeed the subject of some controversy.

The precise terms of the admission of gentiles to the early Church remained an issue until the Council of Jerusalem decreed that circumcision was not to be asked or required for Gentiles.

God's will therefore is not a matter of personal revelation or for trivial matters. God acted then to show Peter and through him, the Church, that God's mercy stretched beyond the Jewish faith and tradition, which the Church had hitherto not realised or anticipated - indeed it often resisted it. God acted then and continues to act now to do precisely the same thing. God is continuing to show the Church that divine mercy is far far wider than we to realise or imagine. The Church of God, which is the company of all to whom God is merciful, encompasses those who have faith, those who have little faith, those who doubt, those who express their faith in a different manner to us, even to those who adhere to religious faiths other than what may be initially thought of as "Christian".

For if Jesus came to set up another Church amongst many - a true Church - opposed to "false" ones, Jesus is simply a good prophet and healer, not the Son of God.

If the Church of God is the company of all to whom God is merciful, encompasses those who have faith, those who have little faith, those who doubt, those who express their faith in a different manner to us, even to those who adhere to religious faiths other than what may be initially thought of as "Christian", then the real issue is not which particular doctrines we need to accept to be the true Church, whether the particular form of service is correct, or whether people speak in tongues or not, or whether we accept women priests, or whatever. The Church of God exists already, it is just that the Church "militant here in earth" hasn't yet perceived the breadth of just who it is.

One of the other quotations I have picked up in the course of preparing for this retreat is one by Charles Royden, Vicar and Associated Methodist Minister Bedford UK, quoted in Revelations (Mary Loudon p399): "I once heard a minister say, "All who love the Lord Jesus are welcome to come forward." That's an evangelical way of saying, "Come up if you're in the club." I'd want to turn that around and say: "All whom the Lord Jesus loves can come forward to Communion." And that's everybody, I'm not into barrier Christianity ... giving Communion to a Buddhist might help him to believe ..."

I am not of course suggesting that the Church needs to become a giant and powerful multinational corporation, it already is the company of all to whom God is merciful.

I recall a senior member of the clergy saying of a young priest sent to a particular parish telling the congregation that God had called him to this parish. A couple of years later, he told the congregation that God had called him to another parish. Someone in the congregation commented to the senior priest: "I wish God would make up his mind!". I'm not sure than I've never said that God had called me to a particular parish. We are, in the church, in the habit of thinking that God has an awful lot of opinions about this or that. We think God is concerned about trivialities - our trivialities. But God is far more concerned with the big picture, with the acceptance of all, with people not getting in the way of other people, using God's name.

It is not a matter of my personal revelation, or a revelation to other particular person. If it is of God then all of the normal authorities will point us in the precise direction God would have us go.

Tradition, the second leg of authority in Anglican thought, has always to be seen as an evolving entity, with the interplay between radical and conservative movements. It is not sufficient to say: "Jesus said this" which Augustine interpreted in this manner - therefore our faith is determined. It is important to see what C S Lewis, Charles Royden and other contemporary scholars have to say as well. The Church has moved in leaps and bounds since Augustine and Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Cranmer spoke their words. The Church was not perfect in the past, and we are now simply in a slow decline. The work of God is not finished, nor is it our only duty just to slavishly adhere to the sacred deposit, with the only grace that we know because we have been told ...

The Church of God which is the company of all to whom God is merciful, is something which God is continuously showing us how extraordinarily broad we are to be. We haven't got there yet, for it is a joy to find more and more included, as the Gentiles realised they were included through the ministry of Peter and Paul so long ago.

 

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