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St Peter's 150th anniversary

MATTHEW 16:21-28

This weekend we celebrate St Peter’s 150th anniversary. Congratulations.

It also happens to be Alison’ and my 17th wedding anniversary today.

I do like the story of Pastor Jones who had heard that Ralph was celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, and so he decided to take advantage of using Ralph as a sermon illustration. He asked Ralph to come on stage and share some insight into how he managed to live with the same woman all those years.

Ralph turned to the congregation and said, "Well, I treated her with respect and spent money on her—but mostly I took her traveling on special occasions."

The pastor asked, "Trips to where?"

"For our 25th anniversary," Ralph answered, "I took her to Beijing, China."

The congregation nodded and murmured in appreciation. When things quieted down, the pastor said: "What a terrific example you are to husbands, Ralph. So, tell us where you're going now for your 50th anniversary?"

Ralph replied, "I'm going to go there again and bring her back."

Well anniversaries give us the opportunity to look back with thankfulness, and to look to the future trusting in God.

I guess when a church building reaches a particular age – and 150 is not bad – we need to recognise that in some ways the building is bigger than us. There is a heritage that we need to work with, just like a carpenter working with the grain of the wood.

And I am so grateful for the heritage that we do have here. A church building that is simple in design, uncomplicated, not fussy, that was built to be in the centre of the community to serve the community, and that is focussed on the reading and preaching of the word and the place where we gather to celebrate the Lord’s supper.

And I am grateful for the person in whose name this church building has been dedicated: Simon Peter – the disciple who first declared that Jesus really was the Son of God, and who went on to become the first president of the church.

And today I would like us to go back, not 150 years, but 2000 years – and look at that incident and also what happened afterward.  It is an incident when Peter makes the great confession, and then makes the great mistake: both of which we can learn from (can be found in Matthew 16:13-28)

 Peter’s great confession.

Jesus has asked his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. And then he asks them: “And who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter who answers: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.

In other words he confessed that Jesus is not only God’s king in God’s world, but that Jesus is the unique expression of God on earth, the presence of God on earth. He is, as Paul says, ‘the visible image of the invisible God’.

And then Jesus says, ‘I tell you are Peter (which means rock), and on this rock (Peter)  I will build my church’. And people argue whether Jesus means he will build his rock on the confession of Peter, or on the person of Peter.

But we do not have to decide. When Jesus changes Simon’s name and calls him Peter, what he is doing is linking Peter and his confession. Peter, in his role in the church, cannot be separated from his confession. Indeed, when Peter starts preaching someone other than Jesus Christ, preaches something that has not been revealed, he ceases – as we saw in our passage - to be Peter and becomes satan.

And when we as a community, who worship in a building which bears the name of Peter, preach Jesus, the Son of God, we are Petra, the rock, on which Jesus has founded his church. And when we as a community, cease to preach Jesus, the Son of God, and start to preach something else: our building, ourselves, what makes us feel good – we preach the words of satan.

This church has been known for its confession of Christ.

Its very existence stands as a witness to Christian worship.

Its name points people back to Peter and through him to Jesus

And for 150 years people have come in through those doors and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is Lord and Saviour
And for 150 years people have come in through those doors and worshiped Jesus, the Son of God, listened to Jesus, and received mercy and comfort and strength and purpose and grace from Jesus.
And for 150 years people have gone out through those doors and lived in the name of Jesus, under the Lordship of Jesus for Jesus.
And for 150 years people have gone out through those doors and declared to the world that Jesus is the Son of God

Some have not gone far – in fact just as far as where the double roundabout is, where they stood in the open air and preached – although it is sad that it became known as hell fire corner, rather than Jesus corner or salvation corner or resurrection corner. And a mission church was established.

And some have gone much further in the name of Jesus - most recently to India, to Ethiopia, and to Tanzania.

And it is with great joy that we today echo the words of Peter, and of those who founded this church, and of those who have worshipped in this place – and affirm the confession that Jesus, the Jew who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, is the Messiah: God’s king come to claim God’s world, and that he is the Son of the living God.

Peter’s great mistake

When Jesus tells his followers that he is to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die (and to be raised from the dead), Peter tells Jesus that that must never happen to him.

Peter’s great mistake is THE great mistake.

It is the mistake that glory, praise, greatness and power is to be achieved through the things of this world – through self-assertion, money, influence and physical strength

It was Satan’s mistake. He saw glory and he tried to grab it.
It was Adam and Eve’s mistake. They wanted to become like God and they tried to grab it. 

Jesus says: That is not my way. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v24)

What does that mean?

The call to deny ourselves is not a call to a stricter asceticism; it is not a call to give up everything that is precious to us; it is not a call to feel guilty whenever we do something because we enjoy it. If it were saying that then we could always deny ourselves more. In fact a life of total self-denial in this sense would be pretty short: I would not eat or drink.
This call to deny ourselves is the call to put Jesus first: first before possessions, career, family and life. It is not necessarily a call to a greater asceticism, but to a greater devotion and obedience. It is about saying 'I will obey Jesus even if it means that I have to be crucified'.

And the call to take up our cross is the call to live as people who have been condemned to death by this world. A man carrying his cross was a man who had been sentenced to death. To take up our cross is to live as dead people to this world: dead to the trophies of this world, dead to the demands of this world, dead to the ways of this world. 

Paul writes in one of the most important verses in the New Testament about what it means to live as a Christian, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20

And as a community, which bears the name of Peter, we need to remember that we too are called to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow Jesus.

The great mistake that so many church communities make is the mistake of seeking the trophies that this world offers - reputation and status and wealth - using the things of this world: celeb endorsements, high profile leaders, media management,  the latest technology and the current fashion or style.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t make use of those things. I am just saying that if we think that those things will buy us success and glory, we have made the big mistake

True success and glory comes when a community and a people deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.

This is not really the food and drink of birthday parties. It is hard stuff.

But it is so important. 

True glory never comes to a person or community when they seek their own glory. Glory comes when we give glory to God and we give glory to others.  

True praise never comes to a person or community when we seek praise or praise ourselves. True praise comes when we forget self and praise God and praise that which is worthy in others.

True greatness does not come through fame or reputation or achievement. True greatness comes when we learn to serve. It comes when we walk into a room of other people and do not think, ‘Here I am’, but ‘Here they are’. It comes when we pray for others in the name of Jesus, when we give to others in the name of Jesus and when we serve others in the name of Jesus. It comes when we kneel down and wash the feet of another. 

True power is not measured in terms of the age or size of our church building, or in the number of significant people we have in our congregation, or in the wealth of our people, or in the number of our staff, or in the size of our band, or in the number of events in our programme, or in the ability of our ministers, or in the quality of our miracles.  True power, the power that matters, comes when people give themselves in self-sacrificial love.

And the more that we are prepared to love others sacrificially – whether they are members of the congregation, visitors, people in the wider community – the more we will grow in true power

I came across a very powerful illustration of what this means. I quote, "At the close of a long day of speeches and music to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the coming of missionaries to the part of Africa that we know as the Congo Republic, an old, old man stood before the crowd and insisted on speaking. He soon would die, he said, and if he didn't speak, information that he alone possessed would go with him to his grave.

He said that when the missionaries arrived, his people thought them strange and their message dubious. The tribal leaders decided to test the missionaries by slowly poisoning them to death. Over a period of months and years, missionary children died one by one. Then, the old man said, "It was as we watched how they died that we decided we wanted to live as Christians."*

Those who died painful, strange deaths never knew why they were dying or what the impact of their lives and deaths would be. But through it all, they didn't leave. They stayed because they trusted Jesus Christ."

And, of course, the single greatest act of  power: the defeat and destruction of evil and death, came from the greatest act of loving self-sacrifice: the self-sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross.

So on this, our anniversary, we give great thanks to God for the men and women who had the vision and then made possible the building of St Peter's. We give great thanks for the heritage of this place: rooted in the teaching of the bible. We give great thanks for the men and women, some of whom we remember, many of whom we don’t, who have worshiped and served and been sent out from this place.

And my prayer for the future of St Peter's is that 

1. We will remain faithful to the great confession. So that when they ask, 'What is St Peter's all about', they answer, 'Oh, those are the people who believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, and they are the people who live as if Jesus is Lord'

2. This will be known as a truly great church: not great in the eyes of the world, but great in God's eyes - so that when the real story of Bury St Edmunds is told - the story that God sees, the story that will one day be revealed - people will be able to say, 'Yes, those were the men and women, girls and boys, who denied themselves and put God first, who lived as dead people to this world, who were faithful to his word, obedient even when it hurt, who went on trusting God even when he seemed absent, who allowed the Holy Spirit to work in them and who gave themselves in self sacrificial love. They really were - and are the great ones'.


 * Leith Anderson, "Mystery Martyrs," Men of Integrity, (January/February 2004)


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