On this rock I will build my church
David Suchet reflects on the life of St Peter in a service from the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, which this year celebrates 500 years since its foundation.
David Suchet reflects on the life of St Peter, the fisherman from the Sea of Galilee who was called by Jesus to be one of his first disciples, and who was the rock upon which the early church was built. He's also the apostle to whom the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London is dedicated, which this year celebrates 500 years since its foundation by King Henry VIII. The service is led by the chaplain, The Reverend Canon Roger Hall, and the choir is directed by the Chapel's Master of Music, Colm Carey. Producer: Ben Collingwood.
ROGER: Good morning, and welcome to ‘Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London’, as it should properly be called. The oldest of the buildings here were constructed almost a thousand years ago, and there are two chapels in the Tower’s precincts. This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of one of them – the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula or St Peter-in-Chains – and that is where we will worship this morning. We begin our service with a hymn that draws on two themes, one of dedication and the second, the life of St Peter, Christ is made the sure Foundation.
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Christ is made a sure Foundation (Westminster Abbey)
ROGER:Let us pray.
The collect of St Peter ad Vincula:-
Almighty God, who released the blessed apostle St Peterfrom his bonds, and did send him out unharmed,release us we pray from the chains of our sins,and by thy great mercy keep us from all evil.Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
In 1520 King Henry VIII commissioned a new chapel to be built after a fire had destroyed the original chapel built in 1110; that first chapel was built by King Henry I and is often described as the parish church. The new chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula served the community that worked principally for the Royal family and all those who lived and worked in the White Tower; the largest, most distinctive and most recognizable of the buildings within the precincts.
It wasn’t long before this chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula took on another role, other than regular worship for the local community. All those who were condemned to death and executed on Tower Hill were to be buried inside this chapel, without the rites of the church, and often without their head. It didn’t take long under King Henry’s rule, for the place to start to fill up, this included two of his wives, Queen Ann Boleyn and Queen Katherine Howard – his second and fifth wife respectively.He also had Thomas More and John Fisher executed and then buried here; today they are saints of the church. But perhaps saddest of all amongst those who found themselves condemned to death and buried in the chapel, was the 17 year old Lady Jane Grey – Queen for just nine days. Well, I’m pleased to say that we have moved on from those sad old days. Today the chapel has thousands of visitors who come for the Tower experience; when they visit the chapel, they hear the Beefeaters tell the stories of those who lie beneath the floor, they light their candles, say their prayers and wonder at the simple beauty of a Tudor chapel built to the glory of God 500 years ago.
Scholars believe that the chapel was dedicated on the 1st August 1520 the feast day of St Peter ad Vincula. There is no evidence to connect the chapel’s dedication with that of the Tower being a high level prison, but the connection can’t be overlooked. As we begin to explore our dedication to St Peter the choir will now sing Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus – ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’.
CHOIR: ANTHEM: Tu es Petrus (Palestrina) Our first lesson this morning is an Old Testament reading from the second book of Chronicles, chapter seven; it reminds us of God being at the centre of any worshiping community. Although this is one of the most visited churches in England its function is first and foremost the worship of God. It’s read by one of the regular parishioners, Chris Weston Simons.
CHRIS: 2 Chronicles 7: 11-12, 15-1611Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord, and the king's house: and all that came into Solomon's heart to make in the house of the Lord, and in his own house, he prosperously effected. 12And the Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice. 15Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place. 16For now have I chosen and sanctified this house that my name may be there for ever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.
ROGER:Our next hymn is based on the great Lutheran text, ‘Lo God is here’, written in the early part of the 18th century by the German religious teacher and leader Gerhardt Tersteegen. The words remind us that God is at the centre of all worshiping places and communities.
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Lo, God is here (Mach’s mit mir Gott)
ROGER:Debbie Whittingham, the Deputy Tower Governor, will read the second lesson from St Matthew’s gospel, in it, Jesus challenges Peter and the disciples and asks them ‘who do people say that I am’, his reply and that of Jesus, is one of the cornerstones of Christian teaching.
DEBBIE: Matthew 16:13-1913When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. 18And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
ROGER:So profound are the words of Jesus ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church’ that many composers have set them to music. We’ll now hear a second interpretation of these words by the 19th century composer Robert Pearsall.
CHOIR: ANTHEM: Tu es Petrus (Pearsall)
ROGER:Along with his role as Poirot, and his many stage and television appearances, David Suchet is one of the most popular present day actors of his generation. He is also a committed Christian, and member of our congregation, and was delighted when asked to take part in a television programme on the life of St Peter. David will now share some of the reasons why St Peter is important to him.
DAVID:In the New Testament there are two letters attributed to Peter, bit as a Christian and an actor it is Peter’s character, his relationship with Jesus, and what motivated him that has always intrigued me. How did a simple, uneducated first-century fisherman, in Palestine, become the founding father of the most powerful Christian Church on Earth?
Peter is mentioned, by name, in the New Testament more times than anyone except Jesus. He was Jesus’ right hand man and part of his inner circle, witnessing with the apostles John and James at the Transfiguration of Jesus, and later becoming the leader of the early Christian movement. Later traditions have him being martyred in Rome, being crucified upside down and being revered as first Pope by the Roman Catholic Church.
We know he was a real person, born in Bethsaida in Galilee, and who has become for all Christians possibly the most accessible of Saints. Why?
Well, perhaps because he made errors and blunders, leading Jesus to admonish him quite viciously with the words “get thee behind me Satan, thou art an offence to me!” when all he did was to rebuke Jesus for telling them that he would be killed and raised again on the third day.
He was never fully understanding, as we see him rushing into the empty tomb but walking out slowly “wondering in himself at that which came to pass.” A little confused maybe? He was a faithful friend as when we see him defending Jesus as he was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. We read in St John’s Gospel, that Peter “having a sword, drew it and smote the High Priest’s servant and cut off his right ear.” And yet he was a denier, as when we see him in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas’s house being accused of being one of Jesus’ disciples and denying it – in fact he denied knowing Jesus three times.
We know him as Simon Peter – chosen by Jesus together with his brother Andrew to “follow me” – which they did immediately and followed him for three years. But this is amazing as we know he was married (because Jesus healed his mother-in-law) and being Jewish we might even conjecture that he had children. Plus he walked away from his thriving fishing business to follow this Jesus, who he would later confess to be “The Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
When Jesus was crucified Peter must have been very distressed, depressed and full of confusion. Jesus’ death wasn’t supposed to happen, wasn’t his “king” going to defeat the Romans? In the end he most probably was tempted to put his three years with Jesus down to one of life’s great experiences. We read that he then went back to being a fisherman until he was reunited with his resurrected friend and Lord. And at that time, we also see Jesus restoring and forgiving Peter’s three denials. And this episode culminated in Jesus handing over his baton to Peter commanding him to “feed my lambs.”In other words to become the next Shepherd.
Let me now jump cut to the moment after Jesus’ resurrection known as Pentecost. The twelve Apostles (a replacement having being found for the traitor Judas) were together in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit came upon them. We read that they were filled with the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ promised His Father God would send them. Jesus said that this Holy Spirit “shall testify of me And Ye also shall bear witness.” Well Peter certainly did bear witness. In the huge courtyard of The Temple today known at the Dome of the Rock Peter being filled with this Holy Spirit preached his first sermon which saw 3000 people being converted! The first Billy Graham perhaps?
From this moment we see a transformed Peter. He was no longer timid or confused and he witnessed with the strength of conviction. He performed miracles of healing – and some of those who were sick were even healed by Peter’s shadow falling on them.
We read he converted a Roman Centurion, a pagan. This transformed Peter caused ructions with the Roman authorities and he was imprisoned. During one night in prison sleeping between two soldiers and bound with two chains, an Angel of the Lord came upon him telling him to “arise up quickly”, which he did, and his chains miraculously fell off from his hands. Hence the name of this Chapel – “Peter ad Vincula” – Peter in Chains. He is then reunited with his astonished group of Disciples.
Immediately after this we read that “he departed and went to another place.” And apart from one brief mention of his appearance in the Book of Acts at the Council of Jerusalem – which took place around 25 years after Jesus’ death – he is never mentioned again. What an extraordinary exit. Did he go to Rome? Was he martyred –being crucified upside down as he is portrayed in several much later paintings – we will never know for sure.
But what I would like to emphasise however, is the transformation of Peter’s character after being filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As Christians we are now living in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and his promised return. The gift of the Holy Spirit therefore is still given to all those who have been baptized into the Christian faith.
This same Holy Spirit can transform us in the same way that Peter was transformed. Every day we can call upon the Holy Spirit to empower us, to embolden us, and enable us to walk out in Faith and be led to do God’s will in our lives.
Like Peter we can and will of course fall short, feeling we have failed. But in those times let us, all of us remember this great Apostle whose name this Chapel bears and have the courage to step out of the safety of ‘our boat’ to meet and follow Jesus – The Christ. Amen.
ROGER:We were delighted when Archbishop Rowan Williams agreed to write us a new hymn to mark this, our 500th anniversary of the chapel. Below the floor of the chapel lay the bodies of men and women Queens and commoners all who like Peter have lived and died at the hands of other people. Being a Christian is not always easy as this chapel bears witness to. Archbishop Rowan’s hymn brings together all those qualities of St Peter that help to reassure us, as we travel our own journey of faith. The setting of the new hymn has been composed by our own Master of Music, Colm Carey.
CHOIR/ORGAN: Hymn for St Peter (St Peter ad Vincula)
ROGER:Let us pray – it is our duty and joy at all public services to pray for Her Majesty the Queen as part of our Chapel Royal duties:-
GILL:O Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of Kings,Lord of Lords, the only ruler of princes, who dost from thy throneBehold all the dwellers of the earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold out most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth:And so replenish her with the grace of thy holy spirit that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously withHeavenly gifts: grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies, and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ROGER:Let us pray for the needs of the world.
GILL:Almighty God, as we meet as a commonwealth of nations we pray for the people of Australia. Grant them courage as they face the challenges that are set before them; and strength to deal with the crisis they face. We pray for lasting peace in the Middle East and for all those working for reconciliation and justice. May wisdom prevail over rashness and hope bring light out of darkness. We ask these prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ROGER:And now we say together the Lord’s Prayer:-
ALL:Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread: And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom the power, and glory, For ever and ever. Amen.
ROGER:Clearly St Peter struggled with his faith, in much the way we do from time to time, but as David pointed out in his address, in the end faith in Christ was everything to him. After Jesus’ resurrection Peter went out into the world to proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with a new confidence and zeal.
Ernest Bullock’s anthem ‘Give us the wings of faith’ is set to a text by Isaac Watts which draws on Peter’s love and faith in Christ. It’s a work of hope, stirs our conscience and encourages us to go out into the world knowing we have Christ at our side.
CHOIR/ORGAN: ANTHEM: Give us the wings of Faith (Bullock)
ROGER: Jesus said ‘thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’. This chapel, which celebrates 500 years of faithful witness,has seen change all around it here in the city of London, and yet, some things never change. To love God and our neighbours as ourselves. Saints of the past and saints of the future will continue to uphold our faith in this chapel and other churches for many years to come. Our final hymn celebrates people like St Peter, St Thomas More and St John Fisher but most saints are only known to God.
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: For all the Saints (Sine nomine)
ROGER: God give you strength to follow his saints in faith and hope and love, and may your guardian angel watch over you and those you love and pray for, and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen
ORGAN: VOLUNTARY: Flourish for an Occasion (Harris)