Sermon - Sunday, 19 January 2020

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 19 January 2020

Readings: Isaiah 6: 1-8 / John 1: 35-42

Text: Jesus looked at him, You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas         (John 1 : 42)


One of the gifts Margaret and I received during our year of travels as Moderator was a small rectangular lump of granite.

Yes, I know, it might not be the first thing to put on the Manse mantelpiece but it was much appreciated nonetheless.

The occasion was our visit to the Presbytery of Gordon in rural Aberdeenshire when we were guests one evening at the village church of Kemnay.

A ceilidh had been arranged  in our honour – had kilt, will dance – and as the evening drew to a close, the Session Clerk stood up to make a little speech.

Thanking the pair of us for our visit, he presented us with a memento of the occasion – a piece of granite taken from the local quarry – and was astonished when we were able to tell him we were very familiar with the local quarry and several pieces of much larger Kemnay granite adorned our church hall and the Cramond waterfront.

Kemnay quarry has been where Ronnie Rae, our local sculptor, has sourced many of his stones – the figure of Christ at St John’s Episcopal Church in Princes Street, the Lion of Scotland in St Andrew’s Square, the elephant in front of our church hall and the fish in the gathering space as well as the much larger fish on the waterfront – there is a lot of Kemnay granite to be found in various parts of Edinburgh.

Those of you who park at the back of the Kirk halls will see Ronnie is hard at work again with what he tells me is one last stone – in fact you will see two stones and Ronnie has been telling me this was his last stone for over twenty years – but it is a different sculptor, Michelangelo, who provided the inspiration for this morning’s sermon.

As he worked away chiseling a huge and seemingly shapeless piece of rock, someone asked Michelangelo what he was doing – to which the great artist replied

I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble

Releasing the angel – that is the image I want you to hold this morning - a beautiful image - and one which I hope will take us to the heart of discipleship and what it means to be Christian.

As the four gospels unfold their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, they report he quickly gathered around himself a group of followers – disciples – from the Greek word meaning learners.

Far from being something unusual, it was common practice in Biblical times for a charismatic teacher such as Jesus to attract people into his orbit and from the evidence of the Biblical text it would appear Moses had disciples[1], so did John the Baptist [2]and so too did some of the Pharisees.[3]

Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, James and his brother John, the sisters Martha and Mary – many of us will have been familiar with the names of these disciples since our Sunday School days.

Equally familiar is the evocative account in what are called the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – of Jesus meeting the fishermen brothers early one morning on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

We learn the men had spent a fruitless night on the waters and were now ashore mending their nets.

Borrowing a boat, Jesus pushed out a little so he could speak to the crowd gathered at the water’s edge and, having finished speaking, told Simon Peter to let down his nets for a catch.

Understandably reluctant to do so – what did the preacher know about fishing – the nets were cast and in no time filled with fish, so many fish help was needed to land the catch.

Seemingly overwhelmed by the experience the account ends with Simon Peter on his knees pleading with Jesus to leave him and Jesus dismissing the protest and inviting Simon and the others to follow him.

Little could any of them have imagined where the journey would take them?

As you heard from this morning’s gospel, John’s account of events is significantly different.

There is no mention of the Sea of Galilee and a night’s fishing, or of Jesus borrowing a boat to speak to the crowd.

Instead the encounter takes place near the river Jordan and features John the Baptist.

As Jesus passed by, John pointed him out to two of his disciples.

Look, he tells them, the Lamb of God.

And one of the two was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.

As the narrative unfolds we learn John’s two followers engage Jesus in conversation and find out where he was staying – and with the information to hand, the first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him the news they had found the Messiah.

In St John’s version of events the episode ends, not with Simon on his knees but with Jesus giving him a new name, Cephas, from the Aramaic which means rock.

Immediately the irony of the name is evident because knowing what is to follow we know Cephas, the rock on which Jesus would build his church, proves anything but rock like.

Far from a hard lump of Kemnay granite, Cephas turns out to be a crumbling sandstone, impulsive, hot headed, unable to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed and denying knowing him when confronted by a servant girl in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

Some rock!

It wasn’t until much later, the day of Pentecost, Jesus’ confidence in Cephas would be fulfilled when Peter – the Greek translation - spoke to the crowd of Jesus crucified and risen.

And that is just the point: Simon was not given a new name and called to be one of Jesus’ disciples because Jesus knew Simon was perfect, a man who could be relied upon always to do the right thing, believe the right thing, think the right thing and say the right thing.

Rather Jesus called Simon so that like the sculptor Michelangelo he could release Simon’s inner angel and set free all that was good and brave and loyal and kind and determined and true and holy about the man.

I wonder if the five people to be ordained as elders this morning hear in this story a word of encouragement.

I hope so.

And I hope too we all hear in this story a word of encouragement.

If the criteria for being an elder, a minister or even a member of a Church of Scotland congregation like Cramond Kirk included always living and doing and believing and saying and thinking the right thing, would I be right in thinking there would be an empty pulpit and an empty church?

Now it is not that I want to suggest you are all miserable sinners with no redeeming qualities……………..but didn’t St Paul speak for all of us when he described his capacity for doing the evil he did not want to do rather than the good he wanted to do.[4]

Whatever else you glean from this morning’s gospel, being worthy and deserving and never making mistakes in life are no more qualifications for discipleship than being unworthy and undeserving and sometimes getting things wrong count against you.

Evidently something else matters – and that something takes us to the heart of the gospel and what it means to be a follower of Christ, namely, the grace, compassion, forgiving, healing and renewing love of God in Christ.

It is not who we are, it is who Christ is that matters.

Perfection and true holiness are not found in us but only in the one who calls us to follow him.

And as Simon Peter, Andrew and all the others would discover these years ago – and as I have discovered in my own life and ministry -  and as I am sure you have discovered too -  being part of the family of Christ that is the church and being called to serve as a minister or elder or a member of a congregation like Cramond Kirk comes to us as a gift, the gift of the One who has known us since our mother’s womb and who, well aware of all our faults and failings, still sees within each seemingly shapeless lump of humanity the angel.

Releasing the angel ……………….it is a beautiful image…………and more importantly, one in which we can all take courage, hope and faith.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] John 9: 28

[2] John 1: 35

[3] Mark 2: 18

[4] Romans 7: 18ff