Today we celebrate our Patron Saints, St Peter and St Paul. When this church was first built someone decided that it would be dedicated to these two great leaders from the Church’s history. Who made that choice and when it happened is lost in the mists of time. But the decision was made, and we were put under the protection of these two great figures. They are called Patron saints because we are under their patronage. In the thought of the time, this meant that in the courts of heaven we would have some very powerful advocates. They’d have a word with God on our behalf if we needed it, just you might ask an earthly courtier to speak to the king for you. Patron saints were the mediators between humanity and God, friends in high places; and who better to have as Patrons than two of the most important leaders of the early church?
Patronage was a normal part of daily experience in the ancient world. Society wasn’t meritocratic or equal; it didn’t even pretend to be. Everyone had their place and they knew it. In the Roman social order if you wanted to make your way in the world you needed to find a patron to take you under their wing, and there were quite formal agreements made between patrons and their clients, spelling out the obligations on each side. The Patron saint was just a heavenly version of what people experienced on earth.
My guess is, though, that the practice of dedicating churches to particular saints has even deeper roots than this social arrangement. In pre-Christian times the people who lived here would have worshipped local gods and goddesses, the spirits of the place, who they believed inhabited sacred springs and trees and rocks. They just took it for granted that there was more to life than met the eye, that there were forces that dwelt beyond their sight in the landscapes where they lived. It mattered that those forces were on your side if you wanted things to go well for you. When Christianity arrived I suspect that many people just grafted the saints onto that existing spirituality, letting them take the place of the local spirits they had prayed to before. Many of the things churches have traditionally done on their Saints’ days – processions, well-dressing and so on were probably originally about honouring or placating those local gods. Seal’s local spirits obviously need strawberries, which we are happy to share with them…as long as we can eat them too…!
All of this carried on quite naturally right up until the Reformation, but at that point things changed dramatically. The Protestant reformers still recognised and revered Christians from the past, the heroes and heroines of faith, but they insisted that there was only one mediator between us and God, and that was Jesus Christ. God isn’t like an earthly king, they said. Heaven isn’t like an earthly court. We don’t need “friends in high places” because God himself is our friend and we have direct access to him through Jesus.
They were uneasy, too, at what they saw as superstitious practices – those rituals which they thought had more than a whiff of paganism about them. So statues were smashed and pictures destroyed in an attempt to purge the church of those old beliefs.
It was never going to work completely, though. Banning the celebration of people’s Patron saints was always going to be a step too far. Ordinary churchgoers would probably have thought it seemed dangerously disloyal to abandon their old allegiances; they were far too deeply woven into the popular consciousness. Anyway, people don’t like it if you take away their parties. Everyone needs a knees-up now and then. Even the rhythms of commerce were tied up with Patronal festivals. They were often marked by charter fairs, as they were here at Seal. They were an important local source of revenue; do away with saints’ days and your business might suffer.
So the celebration of patron saints clung on in some form, perhaps less extravagant than before, and here we are today, on the feast day of Peter and Paul, celebrating not just any saints, but “our” saints. In doing so, we are celebrating the life of this church and this place as well.
It might seem, from that brief history, that those Reformers were just killjoys, but I think they did have a point in their wariness of all this business of saints. The idea of sainthood tends to bring with it such a lot of baggage - local gods, spirits of place, friends in high places - that it’s easy to forget that saints like Peter and Paul were real, flesh and blood people, ordinary people, people like us, people who might have lived next door, sat next to us on the bus, people who were originally far from the “heavenly courtiers” that later tradition made them. And when we forget that, oddly, their power to inspire and influence us is diminished. If they are superhuman, then there is no way we can be like them, and we are let off the hook of even trying. We feel we can delegate the work of holiness and mission to them – they’ll be better at it than we will.
In reality, though, Peter was just a fisherman, trying to make a living to support his family, hoping for no more than a good catch and fine weather until he met Jesus. Paul was just a Pharisee, a religious expert certainly, but one of many in his time, and, of course, one who was fanatically opposed to the way of Christ, convinced that his message was blasphemy and that God had proved that by allowing him to be crucified. This could surely never happen to God’s chosen Messiah, he thought.
Neither Peter nor Paul were promising material for the job of leaders of the church. If you’d been selecting candidates for the job, they’d never have made the short list. It’s only with hindsight that we see how influential they were, shaping the Christian faith, spreading its message across the world, laying foundations which we still rest on.
My guess is that they would have been astonished if they’d known that one day there would be churches all over the world named after them, let alone people eating strawberry teas in their honour. It was the last thing they were expecting. It’s clear from the New Testament that they were as surprised as anyone else to find themselves playing such an important role. All they were doing was responding to the call that they’d had, dealing with what was in front of them, doing what they could with integrity and love to spread the message of Christ.
“Come and follow me”, said Jesus to Peter, and he left his nets and followed, getting it wrong as often as he got it right, but learning what he needed to learn along the way, gradually being transformed from Simon the impulsive fisherman, into Peter, whose name meant the Rock. He was the one who had the courage to say to Jesus what everyone else is wondering about - “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” the one who later has the courage to stick to his message, even if it means he is thrown into prison, or worse, as we heard in our second reading.
Paul’s experience was different, but it was also a story about transformation. He never met Jesus in person, but when he heard his voice as he travelled to Damascus, hell-bent on destroying the fledgling Christian movement, he had the courage to change his mind, to learn to see anew, to realise that God’s love was bigger than he thought, wider than he thought and could embrace all.
The impact that Peter and Paul had came not through any superstar quality they possessed, but simply from their faithful willingness to hear and respond to God in the circumstances they found themselves, to do what they could with what they had. And that, to me, is why they still matter to us, and why, on this Patronal festival I hope we might be able to draw on their lives to enrich our own ministry and mission.
Peter and Paul discovered that they had work to do, that God had a purpose for them, despite the fact that they seemed the least likely people for it. Their lives remind us that however unlikely it feels to us, God has a purpose for us too, things to do that only we can do. Those things might seem small, but it is often the small things that make most difference in the long run. It’s great that here at Seal we have produced an ordinand in Nicky Harvey – it’s a big commitment - but I am equally delighted when someone says to me that they want to investigate helping out with the food-bank, or in the school, or that they want to learn more about their faith, or talk through some issue that’s been bothering them. In all these ways we show that we are letting our faith affect our lives, that we are growing in God, letting him change us, and when that happens those whose lives we touch are changed as well.
I think Peter and Paul would be astonished to find that all over the world there are Christian communities that bear their names and that are celebrating their lives today, but I think they’d be disappointed if that was as far as it went. As we honour them today, I wonder whether they in turn might want to ask us – “what about you?” If fishermen and Pharisees, flawed and fallible like us, can hear God’s call and answer it, can change their ways and turn their lives around and bring blessing to those around them, surely you can too? Our church is built on their foundations, and named for them, but the church of tomorrow needs us to build it.