Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. So far, we have meditated on the notion that All Roads Lead to Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Martyrdom of Rome’s Patron Saints, Peter and Paul. This morning we turn to relics and the Church of St. Peter in Chains.
The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is located in the historic center of Rome, and yet it is far from the busy stream of daily visitors. Sitting atop a hill, and tucked away behind a steep staircase, the Church of St. Peter in Chains has stood on the site for 1500 years. While the entrance is quite assuming, the church itself was built to house the relics of the chains which St. Peter wore when he was arrested and imprisoned in Jerusalem. Most visitors today overlook the relics and turn instead to the imposing muscular sculpture of Michelangelo’s Moses.
Many Christians, today and Protestants in particular, are skeptical of relics and view them as inconsequential, superstitious trifles- as substantive as a rabbits foot or a lucky coin. The betrays scripture. Surprisingly, there is actually precedent for honoring relics in the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, there are stories of the bones and the possessions of the prophets and apostles being capable of performing miracles. From the earliest days of Christianity, there was a desire to remain connected to the physical presence of God’s holy people. For that reason, the fledgling Christian community began gathering the reliquum, the remains or relics of their holy ones. Even before the Christian church had cathedrals, it had martyrs – men and women who were beheaded, burned alive, crucified or devoured by lions because of their loyalty to Jesus and their outlawed faith. Whenever possible, the martyrs’ mortal remains or relics were protected and preserved. This was especially true in Rome where in the catacombs, the communities gathered to worship among the graves and tombs of the martyrs.
Of course, the persecution of Church didn’t last forever. Within 300 years, the Christian movement had conquered the Roman Empire. And then, instead of worshipping in homes or gathering in the catacombs, its members were able to build ornate buildings sometimes on the site of old Christian burial sites. Inside these new churches, they placed the remains of the martyrs, plus personal possessions which were sometimes of questionable authenticity.
These questionable relics, all for making money for the church, bothered Luther, “What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a flame from Moses’ burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?” He concluded, “There are enough relics of the true cross to build an entire ark!” Other Protestant writers were even more skeptical and harsh. In 1543, Jean Calvin published his Treatise on Relics questioning the authenticity of all religious artifacts and abandoning completely the veneration of relics.
During Luther’s only visit to the Eternal City, he came face to face with the worldly corruption of relics. Christians did not visit the relics in the churches for inspiration and encouragement. No, in the relics they sought relief for themselves or someone they loved from the torments of purgatory through a plenary indulgence for visiting the relics. Rome, of course, was the richest place in Christendom for relics which helped make it the ultimate destination for pilgrims and relief from purgatory. As a good dead and a contribution to the church, you could see the crib which held the infant Jesus, the holy table used by Christ for the Lord’ Supper, the Holy Stairway that Jesus ascended to speak to Pilate, the marble pillar against which Jesus was scourged, and the nails and portions of the cross on which our Savior died, and in the process lessen a loved one stay in purgatory. Incidentally, all these relics are still there today.
Now, you may be wondering, so what does a good Lutheran pastor in Rome following in the footsteps of Peter and Paul do with relics and the Church of St. Peter in Chains? Luther, no doubt visited the church and studied the chains. Though we don’t know if he received a plenary indulgence for his visit. A year before writing the 95 Theses, Luther actually preached in Wittenberg on the Feast of the Liberation of St. Peter. Of course, contemporary Protestants might avoid the relics all together by studying the massive statue of Moses instead created by Michelangelo three years after Luther’s visit.
But sometimes, my friends, we need to remind ourselves, that relics don’t have to worshiped to be important and inspirational. Sometimes, relics should just tell us a good and inspiring story. This is certainly true of the chains of the martyrs. Sts Peter and Paul wrote about being bound in chains in their letters from prison over 20 times.
In the Book of Acts, we read that for some unstated reason, King Herod had had enough of the new Christian movement called the Way. His intention seemed to be to destroy the 10 year-old church in Jerusalem by eliminating its leaders. And it wasn’t simply Herod that was seeking to bring an end to this Christian movement. There was growing animosity among the leaders of the Temple and the inhabitants of Jerusalem as well. James, one of the sons of Zebedee, and a member Jesus’ inner circle, was the first to die. Oddly, his brother John the evangelist was the last. The Apostle Peter was soon arrested and placed in chains in the center of the prison in Jerusalem. He was sentenced to die the following day.
Today’s reading tells us only a portion of that colorful and dramatic story of Peter’s liberation. The story surely teaches us of the power of prayer, and the faithfulness of the church praying for its leader Peter. It is also the story of God’s ability to bring about salvation to desperate lives even in their darkest hour. Peter’s own human response to his liberation by the angel tells us that sometimes we may not be aware of what God is doing. There is even a wonderful, comical ending to the story. When Peter arrives back at the home of Mary where the church has gathered to pray for him, he knocks impatiently at the door, and no one answers. Finally, the crowd opens the door and stands around in disbelief. Certainly, this isn’t Peter? They say to one another. Did God really answer our prayers? At the end of this story, Peter is faced with a decision. He recognizes that one man has died, while another has been spared. Should he run and escape for his life, or should he get back to work of telling the good news of Jesus Christ? The chains of Peter make that story real and incarnate.
For Luther, relics were not to be worshiped, but neither were they to be abandoned. Relics could be amusing and laughable, just as scripture could be. For Luther, relics were to be the divine words through which God revealed the incarnate word of truth in Jesus Christ. Luther went on to say, “The apostles wrote very little, but they spoke a lot … Notice: it says let their voices be heard, not let their books be read. The ministry of the New Testament” he underscored, “is not engraved on dead tablets of stone; rather it sounds in a living voice … Through a living Word God accomplishes and fulfils his gospel.” God uses all kinds of means to fulfill his gospel- music, sacraments, prayer, conversation, painting, art, pastors, apostles and even relics.
So, my friends, do not be embarrassed about your curiosity in visiting the Holy Steps in Rome, or the Tomb of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Shroud of Turin in Italy, or even a family baptismal church in Sweden. Neither should you be ashamed of taking out your family Bible and reading the names of those who have gone before you, or studying the window given in honor of a beloved parent. They are all holy relics, yes, remainders, to tell you and the next generation, the story of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.