Sunday, 21 August 2011

A window tells the tragic story that inspired a novelist

The East Window in Kenure Parish Church remembers Mary Ellen Peel who died in 1863, ten days after the birth of her baby daughter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

After my attempt to reach Lambay Island from Skerries Harbour on Friday night, I was back in the area this morning for three services in the churches in this part of Fingal or north Co Dublin: presiding and preaching at Holy Communion in Kenure Church, Rush; leading Morning Prayer and preaching in Holmpatrick Parish Church in Skerries; and celebrating the Eucharist and preaching in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan.

In Kenure, I was asked to make an interesting announcement about a local fund set up almost 200 years ago to benefit young women in the Rush area. The fund, which makes no discrimination on religious grounds, is administered by the local St Maur branch of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and was established in 1820s by Sir Roger Palmer of Kenure House. Later, standing at the altar or Holy Communion table in Kenure Church, I was conscious of the beautiful stained glass window in memory of Mary Ellen Peel and the tragic story this window tells about another member of the Palmer family from Kenure House.

And, little more than a week after another visit to Lichfield, her story also reminds me of how searches for family origins in south Staffordshire brought my great-grandfather into contact with the Peel family.

Mary Ellen Peel was born Mary Ellen Palmer, and was the daughter of Sir Roger Palmer (1802-1869), the 4th baronet, of Kenure House. She grew up in Rush and on 25 May 1857 she married Archibald Peel.

For Ellen and Archie, life must have offered many promises on their wedding day. Archie came from a distinguished political family. His uncle, Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), had been the British Prime Minister, while his father, General Jonathan Peel (1799-1879), had been Secretary of State for War. Soon after Archie Peel and Ellen Palmer were married, his first cousin, Sir Robert Peel (1822-1895), became the Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1861 – a post that made him the head of government in Ireland, I suppose the equivalent in pre-independence Ireland of being Prime Minister or Taoiseach in those days.

Ellen and Archie Peel moved to Broxbourne in rural Hertfordshire, half-way between Cambridge and London, close to Hoddesdon and the present High Leigh Conference Centre, where I attended the USPG Conference earlier this summer. Ellen and Archie had three children, but only one of those children – their third child, Ellen – survived. To compound the tragedy, Ellen Palmer died on 9 September 1863, only ten days after giving birth to this child.

The East Window in Kenure Church which recalls this sad story is the work of James Powell and Sons, who worked on so many of the Pugin churches in Ireland and England. The three-light window depicts the Crucifixion, with images on either side of Christ in Gethsemane and the Empty Tomb on Easter Morning.

Three years after Ellen Palmer’s death, Kenure Church was built in 1866. A year later, on 15 August 1867, Archie Peel married his second wife, Lady Georgiana Russell, aunt of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Lady Georgiana Peel was a daughter of the former British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, and through her mother, Adelaide Lister, she was direct descendant of Nathaniel Lister and the Lister family of Armitage Park or Spode House, halfway between Lichfield and Rugeley.

In 1899, Archbishop Joseph Peacocke of Dublin consecrated the burial grounds around Kenure Church. On that occasion, Ellen Peel’s brother, (1832-1910), Sir Roger Palmer read the lesson, and his wife Lady Gertrude presided at the organ, and “conducted the psalmody of a hearty and efficient choir.” Afterwards, it was reported, the congregation and clergy dined in Kenure House.

A novelist’s story

Ellen (Peel) Graham, whose mother is commemorated in this window in Kenure Church, survived the tragic death of her mother and grew up to be a successful writer. She wrote under her first married name as Mrs Henry Graham, even after she married her second husband, Lord Askwith.

Ellen Peel’s tragic yet colourful and romantic life was also described by her grand-daughter, the novelist Betty Askwith (1909-1995), only daughter of the Askwiths. In her introduction to Crimean Courtship, she draws on the diaries of the two Ellens, her mother Ellen (Peel) Graham and her grandmother Ellen (Palmer) Peel.

Comberford Hall … home to Archie Peel’s cousin, William Fenton Peel, when James Comerford visited around 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, sometime around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902), in search of his ancestors, turned up on the doorsteps of Comberford Hall, then the home of William Fenton Peel (1839-1907). This other member of the Peel family was a son of Archie Peel’s second cousin, Captain Edmund Peel (1801-1871).

William Felton Peel was born in Tamworth and worked as a cotton and foreign produce merchant in Alexandria in Egypt and in Bombay in India, where five of his eight children were born between 1868 and 1874. He later returned to England, and was in business in Broughton, Salford, near Manchester, where the other three children were born between 1876 and 1879. He lived at Hawley Hill, Blackwater, Hampshire, before moving to Comberford Hall with his wife Sarah Edith Willoughby and their children around 1900.

Almost a century earlier, Sir Robert Peel had foreclosed the mortgage on Comberford Hall and other estates in the Lichfield area owned by the Chichester family, forcing their sale to the Howard family.

When James Comerford turned up on his doorstep that year, I wonder did William Peel know the tragic story of his cousin’s Irish wife, Ellen Palmer Peel, who is commemorated in the window in Kenure Rush?

James Comerford died in 1902, shortly after publishing privately his account of the Comberford family, based on his travels through south Staffordshire; William Felton Peel died five years later in 1907.

Rock solid faith with everlasting significance

George O’Connor’s circular-plan bartizan clock tower on the library on the corner of Saint George’s Square and High Street, near Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 August 2011,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

12 noon, Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, the Parish Eucharist.

Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last month, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in south-west Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples. Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, in places such as Petra in Jordan.

When you see breath-taking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Christ to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26) – a Gospel reading we have missed this year in the Lectionary readings that take us through Saint Matthew’s Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday.

The Tomb of Amyntas, carved into the rock face in the cliffs above Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, was laying the foundations for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would last long after those who had built them had been forgotten.

And so, when Christ says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the Church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, everlasting significance.

In the past, Christians have got tied up in knots over very silly arguments about this morning’s Gospel story. Some of us shy away from dealing with this story, knowing that in the past it has been used to bolster not so much the claims of the Papacy, but all the baggage that goes with those claims. In other words, it was argued by some in the past that the meaning of this passage was explicit: if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy; if you accepted that, then you also accepted Papal infallibility, Papal claims to universal jurisdiction, and Papal teachings on celibacy, birth control, the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.

And that is more than just a leap and a jump from what is being taught in our Gospel passage this morning. But to counter those great leaps of logic, Protestant theologians in the past have put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, petros (πητρος), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, petra (πητρα), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock you would use to carve out the rock tombs of Fethiye.

A little pebble, or a fisherman with rock-solid faith?

They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint Matthew was writing his Gospel. Petros (πητρος) was the male name derived from a rock, petra (πητρα) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra in Jordan or the rocks from which the tombs in Fethiye are carved, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it’s the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.

And Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.

How could Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28; 14 August) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.”

This is the same Peter who a week before (Matthew 14: 22-33; 7 August), tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Christ said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31).

This is the same Peter who, in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21, 31 July), was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).

This is the same Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Christ has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Christ knows everything, and Christ then calls him with the words: “Follow me” (John 21: 15-19).

The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but he has rock apostolic solid-faith

Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.

But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.

Despite all his human failings, despite his often tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verse 16).

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who do you say Christ is? Who is Christ for you?

This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again.

He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.

Who is the messiah for you? Again, many people at the time had false expectations of the Messiah. Who is Christ for you?

Visiting Lichfield last week, I was reminded of George Fox, the founding Quaker, who walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield. But George Fox also challenged his contemporaries with these words: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you? Is he a personal saviour? One who comforts you? Or is he more than that for you? Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading. Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

Peter’s faith is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery or treasury, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.

There are other people in the Bible and in Jewish tradition who are commended for their rock-solid faith, including Abraham and Sarah (see Isaiah 51: 1f).

It’s the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).

Throughout the Bible, as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.

Why would Christ pick me or you? Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?

It is not how others see us that matters. It is our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.

The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation, the faith that we must depend on, that we must live by, is not some self-determined, whimsical decision, but the faith that the Apostles had in the Christ who calls them, that rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Peter’s confession this morning is the most direct yet sublime and solid example.

Apostolic faith like Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).

It doesn’t matter that Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgements. I’m like that too … constantly.

But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the Church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer in ministry, in service to Christ, “each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned” (Romans 12: 3).

Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.

Let’s not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let’s not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let’s accept the gifts God has given us. Let’s use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.

And so, may all we think, do and say be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, on 21 August 2011.

Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Have you a faith that is rock solid?

Pebbles on the seashore at North Strand in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 August 2011,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

10.30 a.m., Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, Morning Prayer.

Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last month, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in south-west Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples. Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, in places such as Petra in Jordan.

When you see breath-taking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Christ to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26) – a Gospel reading we have missed this year in the Lectionary readings that take us through Saint Mathew’s Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday.

The Tomb of Amyntas, carved into the rock face in the cliffs above Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, was laying the foundations for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would last long after those who had built them had been forgotten.

And so, when Christ says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the Church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, everlasting significance.

In the past, Christians have got tied up in knots over very silly arguments about this morning’s Gospel story. Some of us shy away from dealing with this story, knowing that in the past it has been used to bolster not so much the claims of the Papacy, but all the baggage that goes with those claims. In other words, it was argued by some in the past that the meaning of this passage was explicit: if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy; if you accepted that, then you also accepted Papal infallibility, Papal claims to universal jurisdiction, and Papal teachings on celibacy, birth control, the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.

And that is more than just a leap and a jump from what is being taught in our Gospel passage this morning. But to counter those great leaps of logic, Protestant theologians in the past have put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, petros (πητρος), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, petra (πητρα), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock you would use to carve out the rock tombs of Fethiye.

A little pebble, or a fisherman with rock-solid faith?

They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint Matthew was writing his Gospel. Petros (πητρος) was the male name derived from a rock, petra (πητρα) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra in Jordan or the rocks from which the tombs in Fethiye are carved, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it’s the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.

And Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.

How could Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28; 14 August) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.”

This is the same Peter who a week before (Matthew 14: 22-33; 7 August), tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Christ said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31).

This is the same Peter who, in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21, 31 July), was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).

This is the same Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Christ has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Christ knows everything, and Christ then calls him with the words: “Follow me” (John 21: 15-19).

The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but he has rock apostolic solid-faith

Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.

But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.

Despite all his human failings, despite his often tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verse 16).

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

Who do you say Christ is? Who is Christ for you?

This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again. He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.

Who is the messiah for you? Again, many people at the time had false expectations of the Messiah. Who is Christ for you?

Visiting Lichfield last week, I was reminded of George Fox, the founding Quaker, who walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield. But George Fox also challenged his contemporaries with these words: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”

Who is Christ for you? Is he a personal saviour? One who comforts you? Or is he more than that for you? Who do you say Christ is?

It is a question that challenges Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading. Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

Peter’s faith is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery or treasury, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.

There are other people in the Bible and in Jewish tradition who are commended for their rock-solid faith, including Abraham and Sarah (see Isaiah 51: 1f).

It’s the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).

Throughout the Bible, as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.

Why would Christ pick me or you? Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?

It is not how others see us that matters. It is our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.

The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation, the faith that we must depend on, that we must live by, is not some self-determined, whimsical decision, but the faith that the Apostles had in the Christ who calls them, that rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Peter’s confession this morning is the most direct yet sublime and solid example.

Apostolic faith like Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).

It doesn’t matter that Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgements. I’m like that too … constantly.

But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the Church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer in ministry, in service to Christ, “each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned” (Romans 12: 3).

Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.

Let’s not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let’s not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let’s accept the gifts God has given us. Let’s use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.

And so, may all we think, do and say be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen,

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, on 21 August 2011.

Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Who do you say Christ is?

Cricket in late summer afternoon sunshine in Rush, across the road from Kenure Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 August 2011,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

9.30 a.m., Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, Holy Communion.

Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last month, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in south-west Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples. Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, in places such as Petra in Jordan.

When you see breath-taking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it is for Christ to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26) – a Gospel reading we have missed this year in the Lectionary readings that take us through Saint Mathew’s Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday.

The Tomb of Amyntas, carved into the rock face in the cliffs above Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, was laying the foundations for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would for generations and centuries long after those who built them had been forgotten.

And so, when Christ says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the Church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, everlasting significance.

A little pebble, or a fisherman with rock-solid faith?

In the past, some people have tried to argue that it is Peter himself who is the foundation of the Church; others have argued that the word used for Peter, petros (πητρος), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, petra (πητρα), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock you would use to carve out the rock tombs of Fethiye.

They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint Matthew writes his Gospel. Petros (πητρος) was the male name derived from a rock, petra (πητρα) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra in Jordan or the rocks from which the tombs in Fethiye are carved, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it’s the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.

And Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.

How could Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28; 14 August) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.”

This is the same Peter who a week before (Matthew 14: 22-33; 7 August), tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Christ said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31).

This is the same Peter who, in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21, 31 July), was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).

This is the same Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Christ has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Christ knows everything, and Christ then calls him with the words: “Follow me” (John 21: 15-19).

The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but he has rock apostolic solid-faith

Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.

But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.

Despite all his human failings, despite his often tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verse 16).

Who do you say Christ is? Who is Christ for you? This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again.

It is a question that challenges Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading. Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?

Peter’s faith is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery or treasury, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.

It’s the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).

Throughout the Bible, as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.

Why would Christ pick me or you? Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?

It is not how others see us that matters. It is our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.

The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation is rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Peter’s confession this morning is a solid example. Apostolic faith like Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).

It doesn’t matter that Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgements. I’m like that too … constantly.

But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the Church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer in ministry, in service to Christ, “each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned” (Romans 12: 3).

Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.

Let’s not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let’s not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let’s accept the gifts God has given us. Let’s use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.

And so, may all we think, do and say be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen,

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in Kenure Church, Rush, Co Dublin, on 21 August 2011.

Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.