Sunday, 26 June 2016

Patronal Festival of St Peter & St Paul: Pilgrim people

1 Corinthians 15. 1-11, Luke 5.1-11

Yesterday, a group of our more energetic church members walked from Seal to the mother church of our Diocese, Rochester Cathedral. I joined them for the last five miles or so of their 18 mile trek, which may seem like cheating a bit, but I thought I had better leave myself some energy for this morning…  Some of the journey was great. Some of it was hard going. The rain poured down towards the end, but our spirits weren’t dampened – or not much at any rate. There may have been a blister or two along the way, but everyone made it to the end, and no one got lost. There are some photos here, and I’m sure any of our pilgrims will be happy to supply a few travellers’ tales if you ask them.

The choice of the choir anthem for today – “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bringeth glad tidings” – wasn’t entirely prompted by the Rochester walk, but it seemed appropriate. I don’t know how beautiful the feet of our walkers are this morning, but I hope they felt they were bearers of glad tidings, to each other if not to anyone else, encouraging each other on the journey.  

Pilgrimage is an ancient custom, of course. Pilgrims have walked as our walkers did  since the

Middle Ages, going to Rochester or Canterbury, or even heading to the channel ports at the beginning of longer journeys to Compostela or Jerusalem. Pilgrimage isn’t just a feature of Christianity either. Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca, Hindus to the Ganges, and long ago our pre-Christian forebears seem to have headed for places like Stonehenge at significant moments too. There’s probably always been an element of simple fun and curiosity about pilgrimage –  an excuse for a change of scene and a break from routine – but for most who make these sacred journeys there is much more to them than that. It isn’t just the destination that’s important. True pilgrimage is about the journey itself; what you learn on the way about yourself, about your fellow pilgrims and about God.  It’s been said that a pilgrimage is “a journey in search of itself” – you have to make it to find out what it is about, and sometimes it’s not until afterwards, looking back, that you see its significance. The power of pilgrimage is that, in some sense it is a symbol, even a microcosm, of life itself. It is a reminder that the whole of life is a pilgrimage. We are all pilgrims, on a journey through our lives, finding the way, losing the way, coming to turning points and forks in the road, sometimes walking through the sunlit uplands, sometimes battling grimly through mud and rain, enjoying the company of our fellow travellers, or feeling at odds with them, yet knowing we all somehow need each other.

Our pilgrimage was timed to coincide with this Patronal Festival weekend, of course, and it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate it, because our Patron Saints, Peter and Paul, travelled great distances themselves, not only physically, taking the Gospel out into the world, but spiritually as well. Their lives were pilgrimages which took them along very different routes as they journeyed with God. We are given glimpses of their journeys in our readings today.

St Paul’s faith journey was dramatic and unexpected. “I am the least of the apostles” he says – the least of those send out to proclaim the good news of Christ  - “because I persecuted the church of God.” He had started out bitterly opposed to Jesus and his followers. He didn’t change his mind until he was struck down, dramatically, on the road to Damascus, where he was heading to root out and arrest members of the church. He was the last person anyone could have imagined becoming a Christian, but the fact that the community he’d once persecuted accepted, loved and forgave him transformed him completely. There is a lot in his writings about forgiveness, inclusion and the breaking down of barriers – he preached this message because he knew its truth and power in his own life.

Peter’s pilgrimage of faith was different, in some ways less dramatic, a more gradual process. The Gospel story we heard today wasn’t the first time Jesus and Simon had met – Simon was his birth name, and it’s the name he is mostly called in this passage. In the stories in Luke’s Gospel that lead up to this one, Jesus had arrived in Capernaum, Simon’s home town, by the side of the sea of Galilee. His first port of call was the synagogue. He’d made quite an impact there, healing a man possessed by demons. We don’t know if Simon was present – if he was, it’s not mentioned - but straight afterwards Jesus headed for Simon’s house for some reason- we’re not told why. And when he got there he discovered that he had walked right into the middle of a crisis. Simon’s mother in law was ill with a fever, a dangerous thing in the days before antibiotics. With one word from Jesus, though, the fever abated, and she was healed. Again, we don’t know whether Simon was present – he’s not mentioned. If he was there, he was in the background, apparently saying and doing nothing.

Jesus went on with his mission, healing and preaching, and at some point, perhaps days later, maybe weeks, he came back to the shore at Capernaum.  A great crowd gathered around him, but again, Simon wasn’t one of them. He was nearby, mending his nets, but seeming to take no notice of what was going on until Jesus asked to borrow his boat. Even when Jesus suggested directly to him, after the crowds had gone, that he put out into deep waters to let down his nets again, Simon was politely sceptical. Simon didn’t  mind humouring him – after all they were out on the lake now anyway – but he didn’t expect anything to come of it. What did a carpenter from Nazareth, 20 miles inland, know about fishing? 

Of course, the rest is history; the nets were filled to bursting point. Simon had never seen anything like it.

This is the moment when it finally sinks into Simon’s heart that Jesus is not only a man with a message, but also a man with a message for him.  This demonstration of the generosity of God touched something deep in Simon – we know nothing of his life before this, but maybe he had grown up, as so many people do, expecting very little out of life and not feeling worthy of more. Now he discovers a God who gives him more than he can ask or imagine, just as he is.  At first, Simon falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave him – a common reaction in the Bible when people realise they are in the presence of someone or something holy. But Jesus takes no notice, and far from going away, he calls Simon to follow him, and eventually he will call him to lead the church too.

The pilgrimages of Peter and Paul – their journeys through life - are very different . One starts from a position of indifference and apathy, and the other starting from fanaticism and bitter hatred. Paul is suddenly turned around by God, but Peter’s change of direction is a gradual one. It’s good to have these two very different stories to ponder. I wonder which is more like your own?  You are here today, and something has drawn you here, but what is it? If you could draw a map that described your pilgrimage to this point, what would it look like? Maybe it would be a dead straight line, with never a doubt, never a question – not many are like that, but if that’s yours then that’s fine. Maybe you have gone along every diversion and back alley possible and are amazed to find yourself here at all. Maybe you’ve  gone backwards and forwards on the path – David Cameron once memorably described his faith as like the radio signal for Magic FM in the Chilterns, coming and going. Maybe you have very deliberately walked away at some point, and then come back again. Maybe you are hovering at the entrance, on the way in, or tempted to leave. Maybe you are at a fork in the road, aware of a nagging sense that God is calling you in a new direction. Maybe you are eager to explore that, or maybe inside you are kicking and screaming against it, sitting down stubbornly and refusing to go on at all. If you want to talk about your pilgrimage, your journey of faith, where you are now, and where you might be heading, do make a time to come and chat – I will be glad to travel with you.

Our pilgrims yesterday knew the route they had to follow, or at least they knew someone who did – Stephen had prepared it impeccably. Our journeys through life are not like that. Even if we think we know where we are going, and think we can imagine the route ahead, the future can’t be mapped and predicted precisely. All we can do is listen, as we travel, for the voice of God, and trust that however unlikely the path looks, he will be with us on it.  And vague though that sounds, it’s enough for me, because  where God is, there will always be blessing, love as abundant as the fish which filled Peter’s nets, forgiveness as freely given as that which Paul found.

That’s good news for all of us in our individual pilgrimages thorough life, and good news for us as a nation at this time of change and turbulence. Let’s make sure that wherever the path leads us, we look for God’s presence, so that we can “bring glad tidings” to those around us.

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