Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton on Sunday 3rd April, Easter 2, at St Georges and St John the Baptist

Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton on Sunday 3rd April at St Georges and St John the Baptist

From our first lesson: “But Peter and the apostles answered “We must obey God rather than any human authority.””
There is a tomb in Munster Cathedral with these words inscribed on it.
“We must obey God rather than any human authority.””
It is the tomb of Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen. He was born into an aristocratic German family in 1878. He was ordained in 1904 and served in Berlin. He was a nationalist and patriot and viewed the Treaty of Versailles as unjust and that Germany had only been vanquished due to defeatist elements at home. He was cautious of the Bolsheviks. In June 1933 he spoke against scholars who had criticised the Nazi government and called for “a just and objective evaluation of the new political movement.” A few months later he was appointed Bishop of Munster.
But things were about to change. He soon found he was clashing with the Nazis as they tried to take control religious instruction in Catholic schools, and next he was appalled by and attacked their racial ideologies. In 1941 he spoke out publicly against the Gestapo and in particular against the murder of the mentally ill. His sermons were printed and widely distributed, and some of those passed them on were executed. Local Nazis proposed to the higher powers that the bishop also be executed. But they decided to bide their time. The Bishop lived under house arrest and survived to the end of the war, and shortly thereafter was made a Cardinal. He died in 1946 a few months later.
For the next few Sundays until Pentecost (15th May) we are treated to readings from Acts which remind us of the fortitude of the early disciples and bravery of Peter in particular, as they come to understand the true meaning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The Acts of the Apostles is a remarkable book. If you have the chance, do please sit and read it at one go, without a commentary and see how the church came into being.
What you will find is that the order of our readings today is wrong. That we should really start with the Gospel and the commissioning of the disciples because it is from this, so vividly described by St. John that gave the disciples the power to be transformed from a broken, dispirited lost group into articulate, confident and compassionate leaders able to take on the highest spiritual authorities un the land.
On the first Easter evening, Jesus appeared to the disciples:
“Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
It must have been difficult for the disciples to appreciate quite what they were being given. It is difficult for us too.
What is the Holy Spirit? Archbishop Temple in his commentary on St. John defines it as “the spiritual energy from Christ. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is that we may bear witness to Christ.”
They were commissioned to continue the divine mission, inaugurated by Jesus, the Son of God, and the Word made flesh. This is the ending of the St. John’s Gospel which comes full circle from the magnificent 1st Chapter we read on Christmas Day “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and power.”
The commissioning of the disciples by Jesus, present in the body that grave clothes could contain no longer, inaugurates the church.
The circularity of St. John’s Gospel brings to mind TS Eliot’s “In my end is my beginning.”
And so we come today’s first reading. By way of background, the Apostles had been put in prison. It had all began with Peter healing a crippled beggar in the Temple. This caused consternation and things got worse when Peter and John stood in Solomon’s Portico in the Temple and explained that they were witnesses to the power Jesus Christ who had been wrongly crucified by the Jewish people and had now been raised from the dead. Peter did not attack them for what they had done but merely showed them that they had taken the wrong action. “And now friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. ”
The Temple authorities could cope with that, so arrested the two of them and Peter and John was brought before the highest court which included Annas the high priest and Caiaphas, names we now know well because they were instrumental in arranging the crucifixion of Jesus. This was the very High priest in whose courtyard, Peter had denied three time being associated with Jesus.
And what does Peter do this time? Instead of running away he faces up to the High Priest and as Luke, the writer of Acts describes “filled with the Holy Spirit” when asked by what power or by what names did you do this, Peter replies: In the name of Jesus Christ and then continues:
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” quoting Psalm 118, which the observant of you which includes all of you, will have noticed is our psalm today.
Personally I find this episode deeply inspiring, that two men, who know the great personal risk they were taking, standing face to face with the executioners of Jesus, and in the words of Luke 2were uneducated and ordinary men” were transformed into brave, confident articulate leaders. That is the power of the gift of the Holy Spirit that they and the other disciples, including “Doubting Thomas” had been given.
The Sadducees and High Priest this time, unlike the Court that tried Jesus, did not know what to do. So they give Peter and John a ticking off and tell them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
And what do Peter and the disciples do?
Exactly the opposite to what Annas, the High Priest had commanded, and exactly what Jesus who came to be known as “the Great High Priest had commanded.
They keep going back to Solomon’s Portico, doing many signs and wonders such that the High Priest has no other choice than to attempt to stop this campaign of civil disobedience in its tracks and arrests the Apostles and puts them in prison.
And we have Peter once again before his now regular adversary. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
The power given to Peter and the disciples came from Jesus’ commissioning:
“Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
These words are addressed both to them and to us.
This gift of the Holy Spirit, the spiritual energy of Christ, whose purpose is that we may bear witness to Christ, is too good to keep to ourselves.
The forthcoming weeks give us the opportunity to listen deeply to the Acts of the Apostles and explore how this gift of the Holy Spirit can power our lives.
“Lord Jesus, as we read the story of the apostles and the early church, and are reminded of the example of Cardinal von Galen, help us to catch a glimpse of what it means to be your disciples, and to take our place in your mission to the world.”

Holland Park Benefice