Dusty Road, Golden City

1 Peter 2.1–10; Psalm 122; Matthew 16.13–28
sermon at the 125th anniversary of St Peter’s Church, Stockton-on-Tees
10 a.m., 15 October 2006

by the Lord Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

It’s a long and dusty road, but you’d want to do it in a day because it might be dangerous to stop overnight along the way. It’s somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles as the crow flies, though you mightn’t want to think about crows because the only ones you’d see would be looking for people who were dying in the heat; in any case, since you’d be climbing up, and up, something like the height of Ben Nevis, the fifteen or twenty miles would often seem like thirty or forty. But you would do it; and you would do it with a song in your heart and a spring in your step, because you were glad when they said to you, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord’. It is the road from Jericho, the lowest city on earth, up to golden Jerusalem, high upon a rock in the Judaean hills: the pilgrim way, the way to God’s city, dusty and dangerous but, at the end, a destination to die for.

And that, of course, was the point, as Jesus spoke eagerly but darkly to his followers way up north in Caesarea Philippi. ‘Who do you say I am?’ ‘You are the Messiah, son of the living God!’ ‘Right: this is the rock we build on; this is where God’s people will find their city; so it’s time to go on pilgrimage, up the dusty road to the beautiful city that sits upon its rock. And of course as we go we shall be carrying the cross.’ Why? Because there cannot be two cities of God, two unique temples where the living God truly dwells. And if the earthly city is to be redeemed, it can only be redeemed when the weight of its woes is placed firmly on the head of its rightful king, when a strange new shrine is set up outside its gates, a sight of horror and hissing in front of all that beauty and glory. That is the strange and scary message Jesus announced to Peter and the others; we are not surprised that they shrank from it, unable to imagine the glory beyond the dust and the danger.

And we who rightly celebrate the glory today, and who rightly see that glory anticipated in a building set aside for God’s praise and made glad at this time with music and flowers – we who celebrate this glory must never forget that we are glimpsing in advance the glory that is yet to come, Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, and that we pause and relish these advance glimpses not in order to fool ourselves that we’ve already arrived but in order to steel our nerves and set our hearts firmly for the steep climb that still lies ahead. And we who celebrate in this place the patronage of St Peter must learn again and again the lessons that Peter himself had to learn between that moment of sudden understanding – You’re God’s Messiah! – and the time when he stood up in front of a surprised Jerusalem crowd on the first Pentecost morning and announced fearlessly that God had shown Jesus of Nazareth to be Messiah and Lord through his resurrection. (I should say, just for the record, that the idea that Peter himself, rather than his faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, was the rock on which the church would be built, and that this was to be passed on to his successors as Bishops of Rome, was an exegetical innovation in the counter-Reformation period of the late sixteenth century, when you get those remarkable settings of the Latin text of Matthew 16, ‘Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam’, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’. It is always frustrating when splendid music makes the wrong theological point, and I’m afraid those motets are examples of that problem.)

No; the point is this: when you confess Jesus, crucified and risen, as God’s Messiah, and Lord of the world, you are taking your stand upon the rock to which Jesus himself, and Peter himself in his first letter, refer, the rock where the true city of God is being built, even though the gates of hell roar their anger against it and do their best to distract us from the hot and tiring pilgrim journey by which we must come to it at last. ‘Come to him,’ writes Peter, ‘to that living stone; and like living stones yourself be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.’ And the letter goes on to reflect, from the Old Testament, on the image of the stone, the rock, cornerstone of the Temple, capstone for the corner, and underneath it all the rock which is the true Zion, the foundation of the whole place. All earthly houses of prayer, if they know what they are about, are designed not as ends in themselves but as signposts along the steep and stony road to that true Zion: as, at best, foretastes of what is still to come: ‘I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there; what radiancy of glory, what light beyond compare’.

But at this point we must pause and reflect on the meaning of this Zion imagery; because the church in the west has for many years allowed Plato to beguile it away from the true pilgrim path and send it off up a different mountain, which is less threatening to the gates of hell and hence less challenging to climb. When I speak of the true Zion, Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest, I wonder what image comes to your mind? I wonder what sense of the church’s task in the present time goes with that image? My guess is that most of us naturally imagine a heavenly city in the sense of a place far removed from our present universe of space, time and matter. Our thoughts are heavily conditioned at this point by a thousand years of imagery whether from Dante, from the Sistine Chapel, from Bunyan’s picture of the city across the deep river, or from all those less than satisfactory nineteenth-century hymns. We think of leaving this wicked world behind and of going to heaven for ever, safely away from the present mess.

But if we are to take seriously the biblical roots of the idea of the heavenly Jerusalem, and follow them through to their glorious climax in the book of Revelation, we will discover something very different. At the end, it isn’t we who will go up to the heavenly city, leaving this wicked world far behind: rather, the new Jerusalem comes down, from heaven to earth. Heaven and earth are not designed, at the last, to be separated for ever, but to be married for ever. That is why the promise of the heavenly Jerusalem is a dangerous promise to claim in the present time; because it speaks of the sovereign and saving rule of the one true God, through Jesus his appointed King and Lord,on earth as in heaven, as indeed we say day by day in the Lord’s Prayer. There is a direct line in Matthew’s gospel from the moment in today’s reading when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah to the moment, after Jesus’ resurrection, when he declares that now all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. And, to put it mildly, the earth has been somewhat resistant to the rule upon it of its rightful Lord, the Prince of Peace, and to the building of the city which has him for its foundation; and that is why, to this day, the pilgrim path of following him is dusty and dangerous, since it challenges all those other paths, all those other building programmes, which are conceived and operated not to the glory of the one true God but to the glory and power and wealth of this or that human system or tribe.

That is why our celebrations at this time must have about them that same note, from which we often shrink as Peter and the others shrank from it when Jesus first said it, the note of facing the challenge of the world’s powers and being prepared to go on singing the Lord’s song and building the Lord’s city whether the world likes it or not. If our churches are embodiments of the Platonic vision of leaving earth behind and going somewhere else altogether we are merely following the example of Peter and the others when they tried to distract Jesus from the way of the cross. We live in a day when a new and shrill secularism is on the increase, using the scare stories that the media drum up about Muslim extremists as an excuse for copying our French neighbours and trying to ban the wearing of all religious symbols; I never thought I’d live to see the day when a major company would sack an employee for wearing a cross – and yet of course the cross stands for something that extreme secularists hate and fear, so we shouldn’t be surprised. We live in a day when the church has to learn, and learn fast, that it isn’t here simply to be the chaplain who blesses whatever our late-modern society happens to dream up next, but that it will have to say, on several issues – euthanasia, marriage, immigration and plenty of others – that the heavenly city which comes down to earth challenges the earthly cities which set themselves against it. So to celebrate Peter and his confession of the faith on which we are founded, and to celebrate this church building, must simultaneously be to commit ourselves, in this parish and this town, to work for God’s kingdom even when – especially when! – it cuts clean across the programmes and agendas of the world around. Churches are not here to be centres of escapism, but bridgeheads for mission.

And in this task, as you know, we are all partners together. I have a special concern for this historic town at this time, as your neighbour, St Thomas, looks for a new incumbent; and I long to see all the churches here in Stockton-on-Tees bringing their varied and different gifts, histories, traditions and energies into the whole work of God’s kingdom in this place. ‘Come to him,’ writes Peter, ‘that living stone; and like living stones yourselves, be built into a spiritual house’ – a house in which all those living stones, of very different shapes and sorts and sizes, cheerfully discover that they are all part of the same building, doing different jobs no doubt but each contributing uniquely to the whole. I love churches like this, and I love services like this, because I can sense, stored up in places and events such as this, an enormous reservoir of energy that can be drawn on to enable the whole church today and tomorrow to set its feet once more on the pilgrim way, the dusty road that leads to the golden city, or as we might now put it to set our hands to the task of building the golden city right here in the dusty desert. That is why celebrations like this matter: they are not the climax of the whole thing, the great events after which we all go home and forget about being living stones until another twenty-five years have passed; they are the launching-pad, the starting-point, the powerhouse from which new work can begin.

That is my challenge to you this morning, in this splendid place and on this splendid occasion: that you allow this day, these flowers, this music and this building to pose the question to you as a community: where are we on the pilgrim road? Where are we, like Peter and the others, in danger of being distracted, of being sent off on a different pathway? What would it look like if we were to treat this celebration as what it truly is, a sign and a foretaste of the day when God’s holy city, golden Jerusalem, will come down from heaven to earth? How can we say, with Peter, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’, and claim the lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus over this parish, this town, this region? My prayer for you and with you today is that God will guide you and lead you to go forward from this celebration, forward along the pilgrim way without fear or distraction, and that he will enable you to work, together with all your companions on the way, for the signs of Jesus’ kingdom on earth as in heaven. The road may be dusty, but the city is golden. It’s time to be on the way.