SMC – St Peter and St Paul 2019
It’s very good to have our new curate with us this morning, Fr Rimmer. Some of you may have heard me speak before of the day when I was a seminarian, training to be a priest, and was due to be preaching at a church in Oxford. I pulled up in my motor car and got out, arriving in good time because of course I wanted to prepare. Oddly I could hear the organ playing inside the church. I was surprised because the organist didn’t usually arrive early enough to play before the service but I thought maybe he was making an extra effort, so I carried on. I pushed open the big wooden door to the church and I noticed the priest, Fr Wilkinson, was standing at the altar in his chasuble. This too struck me as rather odd because properly trained priests don’t wander round in their vestments before the Mass begins. And the church looked rather fuller than normally thirty minutes before the Mass was due to begin. And then it suddenly dawned on me: it was the last Sunday of March and the clocks had changed! I was an hour later than I thought and the congregation was saying the Creed. I had missed the sermon slot and I was meant to be preaching. Blushing and embarrassed I went and sat in the back pew, where thankfully there was a space.
We all make mistakes and being a Christian community is about being able to live with other people’s mistakes, which is want I want to talk about this morning. First it is perhaps worth us noting there is a difference between a sin and a mistake. Mistake has the sense of not meaning to do it. Not all sins are mistakes because we wilfully sin more often than not. Not all mistakes are sins because they do not necessarily contravene the law of God. It’s useful to spend time contemplating the difference and knowing the different categories in our own life, sin and mistake.
The saints made mistakes, the saints sinned. They dealt properly with those sins by making confession and seeking to turn their lives around. Peter and Paul, whose feast days we celebrate today, were no different, indeed the details of their sinful lives were part of what has been handed down to us. We read in Acts 7 how Paul consented to the murder of St Stephen. We know how Peter denied ever having met Jesus on the night before He died. These were sinful men who became increasingly grace-filled so that they might sin less and less.
But we also know they made mistakes, which weren’t necessarily sinful. Peter was all too aware, I’m sure, of his impetuousness, which will have led him to regret saying particular things. In today’s first reading we don’t hear of Peter making a mistake but we do see him in a rather pitiful state. He’s been imprisoned in Jerusalem and the angel of the Lord comes to set him free. Peter is led, half asleep, out on to the street and we must surely smile a bit when we read of him having “no idea that what the angel did was all happening in reality.” At one level, it hardly fills you with confidence in the Prince of the Apostles, who is this clueless drowsy soul walking through the street! In Paul’s life I couldn’t really think of mistakes that were not sins but maybe it was a mistake for him to have trusted Alexander the Coppersmith, whom he mentions as being strongly opposed to the message and fit for some divine retribution (II Timothy 4:14). Maybe the rather isolated Paul we see at the end of his second letter to Timothy is because of his own mistakes? We can only conjecture.
And, of course, we’re not called to have faith in the Apostles. Remember the psalmist’s words, “Put not your trust in princes,” (Psalm 146:3), and how wise too! For, it’s really easy to put our faith in holy nuns on the television, celebrity sages who write about the stars in the newspapers, parish clergy of our childhood, evangelists who are electric in their appeal. It’s true undoubtedly that God works through individuals but it is God whom we are to love, worship and adore and Him alone.
Things we need to be if we’re to be a community where people are free to make mistakes:
First, we will need also to be a place where we’re able to be told that we ourselves have made mistakes. Are you open to someone telling you that you’ve made a mistake or is your instinct to whack bearers of such news? It’s not easy hearing criticism no matter how well it is devliered! Sometimes we can do this better by asking people: was this alright? was that alright? I’m not sure whether I’m doing this correctly or whether I should have done that. Foster relationships within your life where you’re able to have such conversations. Make time to have proper conversations. One of the problems with talking to people during Mass is that you’re not able actually to have a proper conversation, let alone the irreverence or the distraction it causes others in their prayer lives. As Christians we will be able to have good conversations with others because it will be part of our desire to learn.
Secondly, if we’re a community where people are free to make mistakes, we will learn from our own mistakes and value that opportunity. For example, it’s not a sin necessarily to sleep in on a Sunday and have a lazy start to the day. It might be a mistake if you’ve set the alarm for 7am and you sleep through it. It becomes a sin if you don’t then go to Mass at 5pm at the Good Shepherd or somewhere else when you’re perfectly able to. So we’re to ensure that we respond well to our mistakes so they don’t become pernicious habits or make us familiar with godless lives.
Thirdly, if we’re a community where people are free to make mistakes, we will respond to others’ mistakes with the right smile. Often we smile when someone trips over a word when they’re reading or knocks something off a pew when they were looking the other way. The right smile is with that person if he or she is also able to smile about it, it’s born out of love for that person and an appreciation that God loves them and that their salvation is important to us. But sometimes we can respond to the mistakes of others with the wrong smile, born out of disdain or judgement or a desire to criticise. Remember the description of love St Paul gives us in I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient … it does not rejoice in wrongdoing … it bears all things.”
But, why do we need to be a community where people are free to make mistakes? Well, surely because otherwise no one would be welcome! None of us is perfect here on earth, but by God’s grace we will be in Heaven. This is a place for sinners where together we’ll learn from our mistakes, sometimes working it out ourselves, sometimes working it out from the example and words of others. Our priority is not to present to the world a veneer of respectability or to seem that we’re coping or that we have a perfect family. Rather, our priority is to work jolly hard here on earth to cooperate with God’s grace at work in the sacraments so that we can then be in Heaven sooner than we might otherwise be. This is how we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul encourages the Philippians to do (Philippians 2:12).
With this urgency, we really can’t afford not to take the lessons from others about when we have made mistakes, that we might not fall deeper into sin. Paul puts it like this later in his letter to the Philippians: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).This is true in our individual lives but also in our shared life here at St Mary’s and at the Good Shepherd. Over the last few months particularly I’ve felt like I’ve wanted people to talk to me more about how things are going in the parish and where things aren’t going right so that we can put them right together.
I remember seeing in the entrance foyer of a local school a sign which said, “It’s alright to make meestakes mistakes.” I rather liked it and maybe we should have such a sign at the door to our churches. Father, you’ve come, I hope, to a community where it’s alright to make mistakes and I hope you’ve also come to a community where we will hear God speaking through you to tell us when, individually and corporately, we have made mistakes as well. As we celebrate St Peter and St Paul who had their fair share of mistakes and sins let us rejoice that we celebrate the God who called them, chose them and strengthened them, the same God who calls us all to learn from our mistakes and to put away sin. Amen.