Sermon given at Choral Evensong in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London on the occasion of the Patronal Feast Day, 22 July 2015.
The Church of St Peter-in-Chains in Rome is a great tourist attraction because it contains Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of Moses. But the visitor can also find there the double set of chains believed to be those from which St Peter was freed, as we have heard in the first reading this evening.
It is a dramatic account, made all the more telling by the later added fact that when daylight broke there was a great commotion and public enquiry as to how this could have happened. It resulted not only in the execution of the sets of Roman soldiers to whom Peter had been chained but also in the death of Herod himself. Peter, meanwhile, returned immediately to the Christian community to continue his courageous mission.
It is the Gospel reading which we have also heard, however, that shows how these remarkable events began. St Matthew tells us that the proclamation by Jesus of the primacy of Peter among the disciples took place at Caesarea Philippi. Why there? Why did Jesus put this particularly telling question to his disciples in that place?
At Caesarea Philippi there was a huge marble temple, erected by Herod the Great, to honour the godhead of Caesar. It was later embellished by his son Philip, who actually added his own name to the name of the place itself to emphasise his point. This, then, was the focal point and most important symbol of the might and divinity of Rome. It was here, then, that Jesus said to his disciple, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And it was here, standing in front of this vast temple that Peter declared: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!’
This set the course of his conflict with the power of the state, a conflict in which he was warned not to preach, and flogged for doing so, a conflict in which he witnessed the beheading of James, the brother of John and in which he himself was thrown into the Jerusalem jail, in preparation for a great show trial. Peter will have remembered and observed the clear instruction of Jesus that he was to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (Mt. 22.21), but throughout this time, he never stopped insisting that he must proclaim what ‘we have seen and heard’ and that ‘obedience to God comes before obedience to men’ (Acts 4.18 & 5.29).
Such conflict has arisen many times and in many different ways throughout history. Whenever the state sees itself, or indeed is, under threat, the question of religious freedom surfaces. Only yards from here lay the remains of many who faced that dilemma and whose principle was that of St Thomas More: ‘I am the King’s good servant but God’s first’.
Last week’s debate in the House of Lords explored again this issue.
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of religious freedom as fundamental to the raft of freedoms which we so cherish. It is the freedom to think, act and worship, in public and in private, according to faith and conscience.
The Archbishop states that it is the recognition of this freedom that ‘prevents the state claiming ultimate loyalty in every area – a loyalty to which it has no right, never has done and never will do if we believe in the ultimate dignity of the human being’. I fully support those words.
Of course, religious freedom has its own duties, too. They are duties to respect the human dignity of every person. Those duties flow directly from the duty of religion to the Creator. For this reason alone, the Prime Minister is right in defining extremism as any ideology which glorifies violence and subjugates people. We must see this for what it is and work hard to defeat it in all its expressions.
In this challenge, religious belief is to be respected and seen as a vital resource. After all the remarkable achievements of this country, spoken of at present as British values, are founded on, and nurtured by our long effort to express in practice the treasures of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The religions now present in this country, will find their place when they sense they have a real contribution to make to our public and shared life, a positive contribution which goes beyond demonstrating their support for ‘British values’.
For this to happen we have to recall the clear appeal made by Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall that ‘the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and on-going dialogue, for the good of our civilisation’. (17 September 2010).
The conversation we need, therefore, is always one that appreciates and explores positively the place of religious faith in true citizenship, even as St Peter claimed when he said to the authorities ‘If you are questioning us today about an act of kindness to a cripple ... I am glad to tell you that it was by the name of Jesus Christ ... that this man is able to stand up perfectly healthy here in your presence’. (4.8)
The building of our society as a stable foundation for its traditions of democracy, the rule of law, desire for peace and respect for all people, needs the best from everyone.
May the freeing of Peter from his chains be a constant reminder to us of the strength to be gained when the truths of our own faith flow strongly in the mainstream of our society.