Has anyone ever said to you, or have you ever said to anyone else, ‘why do you always have to have the last word?’ It can feel a little like this with St. Paul. Paul, unlike Peter, always seems to have the last word. Peter often seems to say the right thing, but then needs correcting. Sometimes with Peter his words run ahead of his actions and the depth of his understanding. With Paul by contrast, everything can seem so final; so settled.
And yet in today’s readings both Peter and Paul get right to the heart of things. From Peter we hear the most wonderful words a Christian can ever hear: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal Life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.’ These words are so important, to me, that I pray them each and every morning as my basic affirmation of faith. Above all else these are words which we must cling to. But we must go further for, as I challenged the PCC last year, the entire rationale of the church is in bringing people to a place where they truly believe this to be the case. Every single decision we make as a church must serve the aim of facilitating the possibility of every one who enters through our doors coming to the earth shattering realisation that he, Jesus has ‘the words of eternal life,’ and that he truly is the Messiah, the saviour, ‘the Holy One of God.’ Coming to know and understand this is the whole point of Christianity. Christianity’s central claim is that being able to say and believe these words is the only true source of liberation, freedom and salvation.
As we know from the gospel this is actually quite a hard lesson to accept and learn; certainly it was beyond the capacity of ‘many of his disciples,’ who ‘turned back and no longer went about with him.’ It’s a hard lesson because it demands humility and suppression of the ego, for I suspect that for many of us we would prefer salvation to come through our own merits and efforts. Sometimes we struggle to accept the simple lesson that all we really have to do is ‘believe.’
Believing doesn’t of course make everything easy and straightforward. Our belief is always carried in the midst of real life, with all its joys, trials, and tribulations. Real life can be an anxious and unsettling experience, for all of us. Sometimes, and sadly, I have met Christians who have sincerely believed that faith was supposed to immunise them from the pain of life. The point of faith isn’t, as I understand it, to be a form of magic which guarantees ease and pleasure and dispels disease and pain, but rather a living relationship with the one who has ‘the words of eternal life.’ St. Paul points us in the direction of active faith through his injunctions to ‘stand firm’ and dress for the spiritual battle. But, for Paul, the first and last word is ‘prayer:’
‘Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…...pray also for me,’ and so forth.
Its really simple: if we are to be truly people of faith; people who can stand in solidarity with St. Peter in affirming that Jesus Christ truly and uniquely has the ‘words of eternal life’ and that he truly is the ‘Holy One of God,’ we must also stand in solidarity with St. Paul and become people of prayer. To pray must be our first instinct, prayer must be the oxygen we breathe, as individuals and as a community we must be rooted in and routed from prayer. If we are, two things will happen: we will find our own freedom and liberation and others will come to know that Jesus really is the Messiah, the one with the ‘words of eternal life,’ and the ‘Holy one of God.’