A SERMON AT THE CLOSE OF EASTER SCHOOL
Given by The Revd Dr Jane Leach on 23rd March 2016 in Wesley House Chapel.
Cockerels have been in the news lately – at least in Cambridge. Following a wave ofstudent protests against other historical targets – like the portrait of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel college, Oxford – the centre of attention became a bronze cockerel from Benin that since 1930 had sat in the dining hall of Jesus College. For the college it was an obvious gift – the cockerel having been adopted as a symbol because of the name of its founder, John Alcock, Bishop of Ely from 1485-1500.
But, looted from the royal palace of the kingdom of Benin in 1897 the students argued that this cockerel was rather a symbol of colonialism and racism, for in the so-called Punitive Campaign the Kingdom of Benin was destroyed and over 3000 objects were stolen, representing some of the finest art ever seen from the African continent. In fact the metal work was so sophisticated that scholars first believed it must have been made by Portuguese settlers or by the Egyptians or even by the lost tribe of Israel rather than by indigenous Africans.
To those who made the cockerel however it represented something quite different – it was a symbol of their queens and was used as a decorative item on their tombs. The cockerel was in fact a name for ‘the Queen who stands at the head of the harem’ and gives orders to the other women. It was a symbol of female leadership and of the highest status awarded to a woman in that culture.
This particular bronze sculpture of a cockerel that I have brought today is from Benin but I can assure that it has not been looted from Jesus College; and in fact it is not old enough to have been part of the Punitive Campaign, nor to have stood on a royal tomb; it was probably made as a replica for sale after Benin bronzes had become world famous through the destruction of the palace in 1897. I bought it on ebay – knowing nothing about the head of the harem business, nor even about the looting business – rather, because I liked the stylization of it and its essence of pure cockerel. I bought it as an aesthetic object and also, like many of the things I buy, because I thought it might come in handy one day in a service at which we were thinking about Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crowed.
So here we have one cockerel but at least five symbols – of a medieval bishop, of a Cambridge college, of colonial racism, of the Queen at the head of a harem, and of Peter’s denial and betrayal.
But I wonder what the cockerel meant to Peter?
Before this day; the day of the last supper; the day of the scuffle in Gethsemane; the day on which Peter had said to Jesus, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ and Jesus had replied, ‘I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.’, Before this day, that we have been exploring in our readings since we first arrived on Monday, before this day, perhaps a cockerel had only been for Peter a symbol of the dawn – the sound that still in the countryside works as an alarm call.
And perhaps when Jesus said those words and predicted his denial, perhaps the words did not even then sink in… for it was not until Peter had been up all night by the fire in the courtyard and until he had been asked three times and responded three times and until he had heard the cock crow that Peter realized that all his protestations of loyalty and bravery had come to nothing.
And what then, did the cockerel come to mean to him? Reminder of his failure of courage, reminder of his expediency in distancing himself from one condemned, reminder of his shame?
One cockerel – three denials. Not a statue Peter would have bought to put on his mantelpiece I think – because the things of which we are ashamed we tend to want to bury; to put out of sight and out of mind; convincing ourselves eventually that nothing happened because no-one has noticed… until a bunch of students pass a resolution in in the Student Union and draw the world’s attention to our sins; and whether to deflect the attention, or because we recognize our fault in the matter, we take the symbol down and promise to return it.
Yet what can Peter give back in place of his loyalty? What can he do to put this right? And how could he even bury the memory of his denial when the wretched cockerel would continue to wake him up every day of his life, crowing its dreadful knowledge? No wonder Peter went out and wept bitterly.
And what does Peter do for the rest of that dreadful day? Whilst Jesus is mocked and blindfolded; whilst he is sent to Pilate and then to Herod and then shunted back again for sentence? Where is Peter? And where is Peter when they lead Jesus out to the rubbish heap and when they nail him to a cross and when Jesus breathes his last? He is not there.
He is not there. He is not there when they nail to a tree. He is not there when they lay him in the tomb. He is not there. Unable to look Jesus in the face. This Jesus who had known him well enough to know that Peter would deny him, Peter is not there, for – to quote John Donne’s Good Friday poem, ‘Riding Westwards’ – he is busy running away from the cross; away from the east; away from the dawn; away from that gaze..
In Luke’s gospel it is only the women who have the strength to see the day through. As it is only the women who on Sunday morning again face eastwards to go to the tomb…
And what kind of state is Peter in by then?
Luke does not tell us, except that when the women come back with the news of the empty tomb, Peter reappears in the story rushing to the empty tomb to see for himself… for how much must he have wanted betrayal and denial and death not to be the last word? How much must he have wanted the daily cockerel to have something else to crow about….
Yet Luke does not tell us that story… the only hint we have that there is an encounter between Jesus and Peter is the throwaway line in story of the Emmaus Road, told later, where the disciples rush back to Jerusalem to hear the apostles buzzing with the news that ‘The Lord had appeared to Simon!’
Luke does not tell us the story between Jesus and Peter. Instead Luke moves on into the Book of Acts where Peter is the main protagonist, the leader of the 12 and the great preacher. And what are we to read into that? That Peter in his usual way has forgotten half of what he has learned and missed the significance of half of what has happened? And has sailed on as he has sailed on before, missing the meaning?
Or are we to understand that the appearance to Simon to which Luke refers is the same appearance that John locates on the shores of Galilee after Peter has plunged into the sea desperate to get to Jesus? That encounter by another charcoal fire in which Jesus asks Peter three times whether he will feed his sheep? Three times. Three questions, but one cockerel crowing in the memory, making this a confrontation with the one who knows. The confrontation that when we are ashamed, we dread. The confrontation that alone can name what has gone astray and so put things right…
For Peter, now cannot put things right. He can assure Jesus that he will not do it again for all his worth, but Jesus, if he knew before what Peter was like, knows now. There is nothing Peter can say and nowhere for him to go. And yet though Peter cannot put it right and is humiliated to be brought to the place where he must acknowledge the cockerel hovering between them, the extraordinary grace is that Jesus wills to put it right and more than that, to commission Peter for the work he wants him to do… making the cockerel a symbol now, not only of denial and betrayal and death, but of forgiveness and commissioning and a new start.
Leopards do not change their spots, they say. And if you look up leopards you will see that they also were the subjects of great Benin pieces of art, guarding their kings and queens – and if you were observant you will have noticed a pair guarding the fireplace in my living room yesterday… Leopards do not change their spots so dare we think Peter has changed from the impetuous, fools rush in character that he once was? – Or do we think that he is still the same man with the same weaknesses – missing half of what has happened and half the point at every turn?
As holy week moves into Easter and we read the book of Acts, we can make up our own minds as we follow Peter’s exploits… but I suspect that Peter is like the rest of us in very many ways –whilst he does grow and learn, still he finds it hard to hold together the truth of his imperfections and flaws – his ‘rusts’ as Donne put it – still he finds it hard to hold these flaws together with the sense of hope that comes from the God who looks on him and knows him and still invites him still to follow and even to lead.
This cockerel. That sat so innocently on the table in the session on Monday evening. What does it symbolize now for you? For me?
I confess that part of me wants it still to be a thing of beauty; a simple thing as when I first saw it; and yet the more I have learnt about it the more ambivalent I feel. Should I keep it? Symbol of colonial oppression? Do I want it, now that it reminds of the world of the harem that I can hardly condone? And is it a symbol of Peter’s denial or a symbol of his redemption? And if it is both can I cope with it still in my house… calling me to hold the complex truth together that I both want to follow and yet fail? That I want to be in solidarity with colonized and oppressed peoples everywhere and yet still want to own beautiful things careless of their history. Do I want to be reminded by this cockerel that even whilst I am riding eastwards, parts of me are keep wandering westwards…
Mostly, we human beings, we want things black or white. He is a hero; she is a villain; we are a good country; we are a terrible country object; I am a worm; I am invincible. And yet when Jesus looks at us – as he looks at Peter – he sees us as we are: complicated; compromised; ‘rusts and all’. And whilst he invites into a deeper discipleship, a more profound self awareness and a greater love, he is not fooled by our attempts to fool ourselves.
It is not always easy for us to find our genuine repentance: to be re-oriented; to face the Sun. To grasp the double truth that we are so flawed and so blind to our condition that we cannot put things right, but that God, out of pure love for us, even as we are, desires us and gazes upon us still… refusing even on this day; even at the end of this terrible day; even in death to let us go…