Upon this rock

week of prayer for christian unity logoIf you go into Pizza Express in Cathedral Square you can sit next to a big picture of their founder, Peterborian Peter Boizot. Written on the picture is a simple play on words ‘Peter’s Borough’. And of course we know that this city is named after a Peter, but not the founder of Pizza Express and local philanthropist. Rather it is named after St Peter, one of Jesus’ first followers. The legend for Posh, our local football team, is ‘Upon this Rock’  – it is written on the crest on their scarf. Our second reading (John 1:29-42) gave us the source for this. Simon has his name changed to Cephas, to Peter, the Rock. We need to know the other gospels because they tell us that Jesus goes on to say that it is upon this rock that he will build his church, upon people like Peter. So, we are a town built on a rock, a follower of Jesus. And, of course, that is true since the Abbey was founded both on stone at the edge of the boggy fens and also on the rock of being a community of followers of Jesus Christ.

John’s version of the calling of Peter is different to the other gospels. There is no mention of a seashore, of Lake Galilee, but rather John the Baptist sees Jesus pass-by and tells the group with him that this is the Lamb of God, the one they are really looking for. He goes on and gives the account of the Spirit descending on him, he gives evidence for his statement. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, is one of those standing with John the Baptist when he says this. But note, it takes two goes. There is no hint of a response at the first statement, their first hearing. You can see them nodding wisely, thoughtfully, and taking it in, but not responding at that moment. Did they sit later that evening and think ‘that was a bit odd’, ‘what did he mean?’.

So, day two and John is standing about with two of his disciples and points to Jesus again. This time they follow Jesus, presumably to see where he is going, what he is doing, curious about him. Jesus sees them following and asks them what they are looking for? As ever with John this takes us to the heart of our souls. What do we desire, what do we really want? With it comes a hint at something further. If you really want this, what are you prepared to do to find it? As we know, because we have read the story so many times, when Jesus asks a question like that, he is asking how far they are prepared to go for it, will they bear the cost that will be required? And that cost will be everything that they are and have because he has the words of life, where else can they go?

Their response is not to say ‘here is the list of our hopes and dreams’, this is what we are looking for, but “where are you staying”. It is more cautious and keeps their desires a bit hidden just in case. These are dangerous times they are living in. If they say, ‘we are looking for the liberation of Israel from these Roman oppressors’, being overheard can lead straight to  being crucified by the roadside and they prefer to avoid that, understandably. So they need to know who they can trust. This is a quiet introduction. Jesus’ response is to invite them to come on a journey where they can ‘come and see’. He will show them what they are looking for and then they will have to make up their minds if their hearts are in the same place as he is. That is always a challenge for all of us. Andrew goes to find his brother and then off they go together and  so the adventure begins.

I want to concentrate on three things that come out of this passage. Firstly, Jesus is spotted by John the Baptist who realised who he is and points this out to his followers. John is not concerned about his following, how many friends he has on facebook or twitter reposts. For him the focus is on God and he is preparing the way for Jesus, so when he walks by, what else would he do. It is Jesus that is at the heart of this, he is the one to follow. And John has to be persistent, resilient and just not give up at this. It takes him two goes to get his message across. And these were people who were already on the way, on the journey because they had followed him, so they were thinking in the right direction. How much harder is it, and indeed was it, for those who are thinking in a completely different direction? Just because people don’t respond, or act or pick up on what we are saying does not mean we stop pointing to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Stick at it, take heart and don’t give up. The community of Jesus is built on some strange rocks, but they are rocks. So when pointing, when being persistent the simple focus is to be on Jesus who is the true goal of everything that we do. And that is an important message for all of us in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Secondly Andrew responds to John the Baptist’s signposting. He makes some initial enquiries to check out what he sees. John’s signposting is not taken without a few questions being asked. If Jesus really is the one, let’s see what he’s about. But for all the caution, there is a response. No one can do this for anyone else. There comes a moment when we all have to make it our own and make our own personal response. But our trust is that if what we are pointing to is genuine and holy, Godly, then it will attract and draw. 

Thirdly, Andrew goes to tell his brother. It is not Peter who tells Andrew, but the other way round. Peter’s place is brought about because his brother went to fetch him and brought him to Jesus so that he could be turned into a rock. The same is true for each of us. Even though we have made our own response, someone else has helped us in that journey of finding faith, of faith finding us. And as we know Peter turns into one of the first great leaders of the church. Who knows who we will help find faith, or have helped find it, but among them could be a future leader, someone who builds up the church and helps it find the vitality that it so needs. Peter is a rock, but he is one formed through the help of others.

So, this town, this city is named after Peter and built upon this rock. That rock is itself built on the help of others who guided his steps so that he could find Christ in the first place. And it is Jesus who is the true rock that we seek, that we show, and that we share as Christians together in this city built on the rock of our common faith. 

Sermon for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Westgate New Church, Peterborough, Sunday 19th January 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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