Sermon by the Revd Professor David Brown

Lent II: Genesis 17.1-7; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-8.

The men in the congregation who are my age or older will no doubt recall as children being told that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Indeed, in my case that lesson was heavily reinforced at boarding school where thanks to Thomas Arnold, the father of the poet Matthew, the idea of ‘muscular Christianity’ continued to exercise considerable influence. As you may recall, it was under Arnold’s headmastership of Rugby School in the early nineteenth century that that particular pattern was established. But there are of course alternative ways of thinking about education, not least as one reflects on the life of St Peter, one incident from which we heard as this morning’s gospel reading.

Hearing of Jesus’ commitment to the way of the cross, Peter impetuously bursts in to protest, only to be reprimanded by his Lord for offering a dangerous and seductively appealing alternative path; hence Jesus’ words, ‘Get behind me Satan.’ It was of course much the same emotional impulsiveness that also lay behind some of the major other incidents familiar to us from Peter’s life: for example, early on in Jesus’ ministry his attempt to walk on water towards Jesus, only to sink (Matt. 14.22-33); or again, after Jesus’ arrest his promising to remain forever loyal only to buckle at the first challenges he receives when some servants accuse him of having a northern accent and so an obvious connection with Jesus (Mark 14.70). It was this last incident of course that generated those tears of repentance, when he heard the cock crow.

But, intriguingly, these were not at all the scenes that were most frequently recalled in the centuries that followed. Because Peter was reputedly the first bishop of Rome, it was Jesus symbolically giving him the promised keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16.19) that appears repeatedly in art, making him thus a figure of authority and power, and not one of emotional impulsiveness or occasional weakness. Indeed, the relevant passage (that only appears in Mathew’s Gospel) came to be given a quite different interpretation from the one it had originally, for example in Saint Augustine. ‘Thou are Peter and on this rock I will found my church’ (Matt. 16.18) was interpreted as referring primarily to Peter himself and not to the confession ‘Thou art the Christ’ which had first elicited Jesus’ response – Augustine’s interpretation. Admittedly, at first sight it may seem odd to give Simon Peter such a nickname (the Rock) and not refers to his character but to something that he had said, but if you think for a moment of the genesis of the nicknames of some of your friends, you will soon note how various and unusual the ways are in which such nicknames originate.

What such a change of interpretation does indicate is how reluctant the papacy was to take the emotional character of Peter seriously, and indeed not just the papacy but male clergy more generally. Indeed it was not until the time of the Counter-Reformation that imagery of Peter crying becomes common, and that for two reasons. First, biblical scholars of the time had begun to attack Pope Gregory the Great’s equation of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who had washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and so a substitute figure to represent penitence was required. But a more powerful influence still was the desire of the new religious orders, especially the Jesuits, to get men more deeply committed to their faith and in particular to the religious upbringing of their children: remember that Peter was married (Matt. 8.14). The result was a penitent and crying Peter found in numerous images from the 16th and 17th centuries, among them a very famous one by El Greco. Even so, this image of male tears was oddly accompanied by a new resistance to women crying, and in particular the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross, the argument being that, if she truly knew that her son would rise again, how could she possibly be subject to such extremes of emotion, and so faint or swoon as he saw him die in agony.

So much, then, for your history lesson! I mention such facts from the past to draw two conclusions for our life of faith in the present. First, there is the need to acknowledge that, whatever the eventual outcome, emotions take time to work through, at their own appropriate speed. You may think this an obvious point but it is amazing how often Christians forgot the fact. I recall once attending a funeral in Oxford for a student who had died very suddenly and tragically, and was astonished to hear the vicar declare that there was no need to mourn, as his devout faith guaranteed that he was now with Jesus in heaven. What that sermon ignored was the need for parents and friends to pass through grief before any such greater reality could be recognized. Indeed, we can see the same process at work in Jesus himself. As I’m sure you all know the shortest verse in the New Testament is ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35). He wept because, whatever the longer term might bring, he foresaw what would happen to Jerusalem in the immediate short-term. Again, on the Cross he utters the cry of dereliction, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15.34) before he can work through to the more confident ending of the psalm from which he quotes (Psalm 22, part of which we heard this morning sung by the choir), and which is reflected in his later words, commending his spirit to his Father (Luke 23.46) and declaring that all has now been accomplished (John 19.30).

But there is also a second and deeper reason why emotions matter. Christianity teaches the resurrection of the body and not the immortality of the soul. By such resurrection it does not mean that our present bodies will one day be reconstituted from the same matter that they now have; as Paul observes, our new bodies will be as different from the old as seed is from the final crop I Cor. 15. 37). Rather, something much more profound is promised, that the totality of ourselves, everything that makes us who we are, will be redeemed in God’s new creation. So it is not just a matter of our intellects, of what we believe, it is equally a matter of where our bodies feel most deeply. Peter was hardly as great an intellect as St Paul but he can still show us one important way of following Christ, and that is learning what that entails through our emotions, and their development. And as one might expect of a man of emotion, he was also to bring his life to an end in one great symbolic bodily gesture, in his insistence on being crucified upside down – at one level a pointless act but at another profound since it demonstrated that to the last his body was Christ’s no less than his mind.