St Stephen's Lewisham

18th April 1999

Year A Easter 3

Acts 2: 14, 2228
1Peter 1: 17 21
Luke 24: 1335

Three Sermons on I Peter: No. 1

Strangers and Pilgrims

 

The First Epistle of St Peter began its life as a sermon preached to those who had just been, or were just about to be, baptized. Those people would have been adults who were risking a great deal,perhaps even their lives, by committing themselves to following an illegal Religion.

All right. Persecution was a hit-and-miss affair but it was always there in the background. So one of the important questions we must ask is why those people were prepared to take such a risk.

One clue that the writer gives us are those words "you are living away from home". In another passage he refers to his listeners as "strangers and pilgrims" which conjures up the same idea of Christians as people who are passing through a foreign country.

Now a lot of us have gone on pilgrimage in our lifetime. Some have been to Lourdes, some to the Holy Land; most of us have been to Walsingham and many will be going to Glastonbury or Walsingham in a few weeks' time.

All these Pilgrimages have two things in common. One is that they all have a destination: that is to say pilgrims are aiming to arrive somewhere at the end of their journey. It's not just a matter of going out for a ride in a car or or a coach or a plane.

The second thing all Pilgrimages have in common is that the actual journey is an important part of the processes almost as important in fact as what we do when we arrive at our destination. The reason why this is so will become apparent in a moment; but this fact that the journey is almost as important as the destination is something which can easily get overlooked. So even if by some magic process we could dial up a number and find ourselves instantly at Fatima Walsingham, that might be very convenient, but it wouldn't be the same as going on pilgrimage.

Let me explain why. A pilgrimage is a parable, an acted parable about life in this world and life in the world to come.

The journey itself corresponds to the passage of our life through this world; the destination towards which we are progressing represents the fulfilment of the purpose for which God made us to glorify and enjoy him for ever in his heavenly kingdom. To get from the one to the other means that there has to be a continuous progress: that is why in John Bunyan called his famous book The Pilgrim's Progress from this world to that which is to come to give it its full title.

The other thing to notice about pilgrimage is that it's never a solitary affair. You may set out on your own but soon you find yourself meeting up with fellow-pilgrims. Most Pilgrimages start out as a number of individual pilgrims who happen to be going to the same place. But the important point to remember is that, for the duration of the pilgrimage anyway, those are the very people that God has chosen for us to travel with.

Now let's go back to that reading in 1 Peter. Baptism represents the beginning of our pilgrimage. From the moment we are baptized we are "living away from home". We are, so to say, guests in a foreign land. Which reminds us that as Christians we can never be totally "at home" in this world. We are like visitors from abroad, guests passing through a foreign land or on our way to our desired destination.

But there are guests and there are guests. Some visitors to foreign countries show their contempt for their hosts by leaving litter all over the place, by drinking too much, by making a lot of noise and by generally failing to respect the customs and traditions of their hosts. We all know what a bad name they get for their fellow-pilgrims.

There are others, however, who get so fascinated with the lands they are travelling through that they forget altogether the destination of their pilgrimage. These are like the people for whom the things of this world are a serious distraction from the things of God. They come some of the way with us but then suddenly one Sunday they are missing from Church and we never see them again. They abandon their pilgrimage in order to stay in the place they should have been passing through.

But the good Pilgrim is one who learns to appreciate the world through which he is passing without allowing it to distract him from the fact that he is on a journey to somewhere beyond. If he is wise he will learn to respect the country through which he is passing, he learns a bit about its language, its values, its history and its customs. As far as possible he seeks to be a model Guest, someone that the natives of the country are glad to have with them as a visitor. But when it's time to move on, as sooner or later it will be, he will instinctively seek to be rejoining his fellow pilgrims in order that they may embark upon the next stage of their journey.

And what should he and his fellow pilgrims do together on the journey as they travel along?

Well, God has provided us with a set of maps of the country through which we are passing. This Map is called the Holy Bible and the Catholic Faith. But in order to use them properly it's first necessary to find out something about the way it works and how to use it.

Remember how Jesus "explained to those true travellers on their way to Emmaus the passages throughout the Scriptures that were about himself?"

Cleopas and his friend knew all those passages well enough. What they had failed to grasp was that those passages referred to Jesus and the events of his passion and resurrection that they had been discussing on their journey.

Of course they were in good company there. The Apostles hadn't understood; the Chief Priests hadn't understood; the Roman Governor and his soldiers hadn't understood; the common people haven't understood; only perhaps the penitent thief and the Centurion who was standing by had perhaps begun to understand.

But Jesus, as their fellow-Pilgrim, opened the minds of Cleopas and his colleague. Then, as they sat down to eat together, which is another thing that pilgrims find themselves doing during their journey, St Luke tells us that Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to them... and immediately "their eyes were opened and they recognised him and he vanished from their sight".

As fellow pilgrims we have come together this morning to do three things: to meet together; to hear the word of God read and explained which is rather like being given a lesson in Map-Reading; and to know Jesus in the Breaking of Bread.

This process requires us to stop whatever we were doing in the world through which we are passing; it requires us to walk away from our families and friends (unless of course they happen to be fellow-pilgrims) and rejoin the assorted company of fellow-pilgrims that God has chosen for us to travel within on our pilgrimage towards him.

Like the newly-baptized to whom Peter wrote and preached in the second reading, we do these things because we know that this world is not our homeland.

But every time we do these things we find that we have been joined by the Unknown Traveller, Jesus Christ. "You did not see him, yet you loved him; and still without seeing him you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described because you believe; and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls".

That was how last week's Reading ended. "Through him you now have faith in God who raised him from the deigned and gave him glory for this very reason so that you would have faith and hope in God" is the ending of today's passage.

That Unknown Traveller is really present amongst our fellow Christians though we may have some difficulty recognised him among them; he is really present to open our minds by what we hear in the Ministry of the Word; but it is in an the Breaking of Bread that he is present to open our eyes to make himself known to us.

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