A Sermon for
the feast of
By Dr. Robert Crouse
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."Our Christian Year is punctuated by the festivals of saints: Apostles and Evangelists, Martyrs and Confessors; holy men and women, and children, too, of all times and places, of all sorts and conditions. These festivals set before us, in a splendid panorama, all the Spirit’s gifts, the virtues and the graces of God’s Kingdom, in their marvelous diversity. They remind us, by their different emphases, that though there is "one Spirit and one hope, one Lord, one Faith and one Baptism, one God and Father of us all," yet our holy calling is expressed in so many different ways. "As the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being different, are one body; so also is Christ."
"There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God that worketh all in all." We have our unity in and through diversity. That is the pattern of the Church’s life, and that is the pattern of all true social order: a gracious reciprocity of gifts and talents; unity in diversity.
Both sides of that are crucially important: both diversity and unity. All our diverse gifts have a common source, and must serve a common end; all express and serve a common faith. Thus this great festival of St. Peter comes in the midst of the Christian Year, as a festival of faith - that virtue upon which all the rest, all the gifts and graces of the saints must hinge. All the rest must hinge upon that faith, that Petrine affirmation, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." That is the foundation of all the divers Christian virtues, the ground of Christian unity, the "rock" upon which the Church of Christ is built; all Christian life begins with that, and hinges upon that. And we who keep St. Peter’s festival must celebrate and share St. Peter’s faith.
But is such clear and confident assertion really possible for us? Amid all the complications of our lives, amid all the conflicting voices that assail us, from outside us and from within our own souls, can we be so definite as that? Surely, we think, surely it was easier for those first followers of Jesus. If we had heard Jesus teaching, if we had witnessed his miracles ourselves, surely faith would be an easy matter. So we tell ourselves.
But, you know, practically every page of the Gospel contradicts that sentiment. Faith did not come easily. The lame walked, the lepers were cleaned, the blind received their sight, the dead were raised, and the poor had the Gospel preached to them. The signs of divine presence were all there. But the people heard and saw as though they had neither eyes nor ears. They were disturbed, and cast about for explanation: "He casteth out the devils through Beelzebul," they said, "the prince of devils". There was great popular excitement, to be sure, but the excitement served only towards Christ’s rejection.
Even his closest friends hesitated when he asked them what they thought. "Some say that thou are John the Baptist; some say Elijah, or Jeremiah" - some great prophet, risen from the dead. Yes, "but whom do you say that I am?" It fell to Simon Peter - Peter the impetuous - to rise to the great affirmation: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." "And Jesus answered, saying, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon, son of Jonas: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father, which is in heaven.’"
It wasn’t easy and I don’t think it became much easier. There at Caesarea Philippi, we see one side of Peter’s faith: the moment of faith’s clear affirmation: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." A little later, in Jerusalem, on the night of Christ’s betrayal, we see another side. Still, there is the confident assertion: "Lord, I am ready to go with thee, both to prison and to death." But that very night, at the hour of cockcrow, there came the moment of denial: "I know him not", said Peter, as he warmed himself by the fire. And the Lord turned, and look on Peter, and Peter remembered how the Lord had said to him, "before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice." And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.
All this, you see, belongs to Peter’s fatih: the warm, clear light of affirmation, the dark cold night of doubt and hopelessness, and then the tears of penitence. St. Peter’s faith is sorely tried and tested. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." And, in the end, the faith of Peter does not fail; in the end, it is affirmed again, in tears of penitence.
We who share St. Peter’s faith must also know and understand the trial of our faith. We walk by faith, you know, and not by sight. We see darkly, through a glass, as in a clouded mirror; we know in part. There is, indeed, the moment of confident assertion: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God", but there is also the moment of doubt, and manifold temptation, the moment of denial and betrayal, when we say, "I know him not." And then our Saviour turns and looks upon us, and faith returns, in tears of penitence.
I think it is vitally important that Christians nowadays should have some understanding of the meaning of the trials of our faith. Around us, not only in the world, but within the Church itself, and within our very souls, there are the pressures of insistent worldliness. The hosts of compromise and shallowness besiege the very rock of faith. 'Adjust, revise, conform', they cry. "Surely thou are one of them", they cry, "for thy speech betrayeth thee." And how often, sorely tempted, do we reply, "No, I know him not". Then may we find the grace of Peter to shed the bitter tears of penitence.
St. Peters shows us that there is no easy Christian faith. Trials and temptations, the dark night of doubt, confusion and uncertainty, are not just unfortunate accidents. In God’s good providence, they belong to the very life of faith; for faith must be tried, like precious metal, "which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire". Do not suppose for one moment that we can avoid the testing. Indeed, as St. James says in his Epistle, we must "count is all joy...knowing that the trying of our faith worketh patience." "Let patience have her perfect work", he says, "that ye may be perfect and entire."
Christian times are always times of trial. Perhaps those trials take different forms in one age or another, and different forms for each of us; but always they are, and must be there. Doubt and confusion - even the moments of betrayal - do not destroy the soul which is ready to return in penitence. What alone destroys the soul, is the cold, hard cynicism, which blasphemes against the Spirit; which simply doesn’t care. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not."
Cling to the rock of St. Peter’s faith, and "count it all joy"; "Let patience have her perfect work." That rock will not fail us; we have our Saviour’s promise that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Amen. +
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