Eleventh Sunday after Trinity - Eucharist

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Isaiah 51.1-6; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

Instead of the golden sands of the Costas we chose the shingle of Brighton; instead of the Pueblos Blancos of the Spanish hills we chose Cockington with its thatches and forge; instead of sangria and tapas we chose fish and chips and tea

This has been for many of us the staycation year.  In fact, in some ways it was a gift.  I hadn’t been on a summer holiday in the UK for, well, maybe thirty-two years!  Shaming isn’t it.  Driving around the south coast we realised what we’d been missing – and not all of it good things.  But it did mean that I got to see places that I’d never been to before.

Can you believe it, I’d never been to Bath.  I’d been there in my head of course, with Jane Austen and especially when I was first reading ‘Northanger Abbey’.  The impression that one of the characters had on arrival in the city was not mine

‘The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations.’

I loved it – and especially I loved the stone.  And it was stones that particularly made an impression on us in the journey we made.  Not only had Bath evaded my attention – I’d never been to Avebury nor to Stonehenge – I can hear the gasps of disbelief even from the online congregation!

I knew what to expect of course.  I’d seen plenty of pictures and watched enough documentaries about both places to have my head full of images and expectations.  I knew to expect a bunch of stones, arranged in ways that we still don’t really understand.  What I didn’t expect was how powerful those rocks would be.  That was particularly true for me at Stonehenge with its distanced crowds of visitors, standing in some silence simply looking at the work of our forebears who’d dragged these immense lumps of rock to this section of the plain and with monumental effort raised them.

Jesus has taken his disciples on a bit of a trip.  They’ve left the towns and villages around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, their usual stomping ground, they’ve taken a break amongst the hills in the north, what we now know as the border with Lebanon.  The place they visited was where the River Jordan emerges from beneath the rocks, streaming out, fresh and clear and icy cold.  Mount Hermon, snow capped, stood majestically in the distance and they stood in this place where lots of visitors came to gawp at the rocks and the shrines to Pan and other Gods carved into them.  It’s a rocky place.

And here Jesus makes a joke.  Looking around he calls Peter, Rocky, his rock, the rock on which the church would be built

‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’

People gathered rocks in Wales, huge stones and by one means or another moved them across the country to raise them, to create something sacred, to build what we might describe as some kind of church, holy place.  People took their hammers and chisels and carved niches in the rocks from which the water flowed and created their shrines.  Jesus took this man and called him the rock, the foundation stone on which he’d build.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,

   and to the quarry from which you were dug.

writes the Prophet Isaiah in our First Reading. 

The stones standing there on Salisbury Plain for all these millennia have basically survived.  The stones were well chosen by the keen eye of our ancestors.  But surely Jesus really was joking when he called Simon, Peter, the rock.  Here was someone deeply flawed, unreliable, flaky, the stone that would be rejected by the builder, more sand than stability, nothing you would place a structure on with any confidence.  Three denials in a courtyard, get behind me Satan, nothing in the story suggests that Jesus was not simply being ironic when in this rocky place he directed their attention to Peter.

Yet Jesus himself is the ‘stone rejected by the builders that has become the keystone’, a phrase from the Psalms that he himself picks up and uses.  God does not build as we might build, God does not choose as we might choose, God does not test as we might test.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn,

   and to the quarry from which you were dug.

In his poem ‘Choruses from the Rock’, the poet T S Eliot says this

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.

The church is built of stuff like us, flawed, flaky stone.  Almost every church we drove past, every cathedral we got into on our staycation travels had scaffolding, somewhere, rock was being replaced, stone was being renewed.  ‘Always decaying and always being restored.’  Perhaps we should have chosen better stone with which to build.  But Jesus chooses Peter and God chooses us, the living stones of which the temple is built.

The pandemic has so many challenges for us, but for the church some fundamental ones.  Who are we and what will we be?  We call it ‘ecclesiology’, how we understand the church. It was the challenge from day one as Jesus and his disciples turned their backs on the rocks and headed for the lake where Peter would sink in the waters.  Some rock?  Some church?

But the stone rejected by the builder breaks free of the rock hewn tomb where her had been laid and lives, and an elderly man wearing the shoes of the fishermen stands in an empty quarry like church on Easter Day, Peter’s successor, and in his weakness and vulnerability looks strong. And we, living stones, build and are built.  But into what?