Although today celebrates Saint Peter and Saint Paul, I’d like to start by talking about James and Fiona.
Earlier this week, I conducted the funeral of a man called James McCann. For many years he had been a homeless gentlemen, travelling from one town to another, asking for food and company at the doors of many churches. Two years ago, I helped him to get a council flat near Porth. Now, often, when James rang my doorbell, he was both drunk and rank – by which I mean he had a rather large B.O. problem. Occasionally, if I didn’t lock the outer door of my back porch at night, I would find him sleeping there the following morning. And sometimes that meant I would have to clean the floor of the porch because he had – and I am going to use a polite word – made a mess there.
James couldn’t help himself. And yet, when he had sobered up, he was always sorry. Often, he would be back within a day or two clutching a small bunch of flowers, a little gesture of apology. I think James was always genuinely regretful, but he was never willing to make the next step – never able to ask for help to change his life.
At the end of his funeral, we walked him out of church with a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace. It brought a tear to my eye when I thought of the words – that God’s grace has “saved a wretch like me”. Yes, that’s what our faith is all about – when we mess up big time, God wants to be there to catch us. Whatever we have done wrong, God can forgive us and help us make a fresh start. James is now in God’s hands, and because he was always genuinely sorry for what he did wrong, I believe that he is now on the way to heaven, where at last he is free from all temptation and the power of alcohol.
Then there’s Fiona. Fiona was a student at the University of Glamorgan, who became pregnant, panicked, and had an abortion. Then she was racked with guilt and found herself sitting in the confession box at St Dyfrig’s. Of course, I can’t tell you about anyone’s actual confession, so I am using a false name. I meet one or two Fionas every year. Each time, I first re-assure them that although they have done something very serious in taking away the life of their unborn child, it is not too big a thing for God to forgive. Next, I ask if they ever thought of coming to the Church for help before they had the abortion – and they always say NO. I remind each Fiona that what God wants for them, is that they wait until they are married before they do anything that could make a baby – but if they slip up again and find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, the church is here to help.
In 1997, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Winning, shocked Britain by a powerful speech:
Today I issue an open invitation to any woman, any family, any couple who may be facing the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy… to come to the Archdiocese of Glasgow for assistance.
Whatever worries or cares you may have … we will help you.
If you need financial assistance, or help with equipment for your baby and feel financial pressures will force you to have an abortion … we will help you.
If you cannot face your family, or if pressure in your local area is making you consider abortion, come to us, we will help find you somewhere to have your baby surrounded by support and encouragement. We will help you.
I’ve only quoted a few of the things Cardinal Winning said – but you get the message: the Church wants to help you out of the mess that you are in. And Cardinal Winning’s charity still helps women who are in that difficult situation.
My friends, I want to apologise to you. Our church is not always good at communicating what we stand for. Often we present ourselves as the Church of “Don’t Get Into Trouble”. It’s true that part of my job, and the task of every preacher, is to stand up and talk about right and wrong, because God wants us to choose good and keep away from evil. But we are also called to be the church of “Let’s Help Each Other Out Of This Mess”. The Church isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people who mess up and need to know they can make a new start.
Two of those people were called Peter and Paul. St Paul went round murdering Christians before he realised that Jesus was real. St Peter was a coward who talked big talk but ran away when Jesus was arrested. They were both man enough to admit that they got it wrong.
They became saints because they had the courage not only to admit they were in the wrong, but they were willing to choose to live their life differently. The couldn’t do it on their own, but they asked God for help. The Bible stories we have just heard tell us that God rescued them time and time again – God sent an earthquake to bust Peter out of jail, and Paul had so many narrow escapes he could write to Timothy that “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom”.
Friends, do you want to be like James and Fiona, or like Peter and Paul? James and Fiona were willing to say sorry, but not ask for help; and because of God’s amazing grace, they can just squeeze into heaven. Once Paul realised that Jesus was real, there was no stopping him; and as for Peter, when Jesus looked at him and saw a man who would be willing to say sorry, ask help, and start again every time he messed up, what did he say? On this rock I will build my Church.