Saint Peter and Saint Paul
2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Jesus had said to his apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[i] This certainly applies to Peter and Paul. I don’t think they would have chosen each another to be members of Jesus’ closest circle.
Paul was erudite, both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. He was literate and probably multi-lingual. Peter, on the other hand, was from backwater Galilee, way up north and nowhere. There was this rhetorical, tongue-in-cheek question people from Jerusalem asked about Galilee: “What good can come out of Galilee?” What did Peter actually know about? Fish. Peter knew his fish. In the ensuing years, two letters attributed to Peter eventually found their way into the New Testament. Whether Peter penned these letters himself or if he used a scribe, we don’t know. And Peter was married; Paul was not.
Peter and Paul did have several things in common. They were both very strong-willed. And they both had significant character flaws. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter publicly denied even an acquaintance with Jesus. And Paul was complicit in a murder, the murder of a fellow Jew, in an attempt to squelch the cult that was following Jesus.[ii]Both Peter and Paul were eventually arrested – their attention was arrested – by Jesus. Both of them became zealous, fearless followers of Jesus. Both of them were ultimately martyred for Jesus’ sake.
For many years following his conversion to Christ, Paul had lived in a self-imposed exile in the desert and in Damascus. Paul eventually comes to Peter to learn about his leadership in the church at Rome. Peter has come a long way. In his writings, Peter speaks of Paul as his “beloved brother” and acknowledges the wisdom of Paul’s writings, but as an aside, Peter says he knows that some people find Paul’s writings difficult to understand.[iii] On the other hand, Paul recognizes Peter’s seniority, Peter having been called by Jesus as “the rock” on whom Jesus planned to build his church. Peter and Paul held each other in deep respect and affection… except when they did not.
Did the non-Jewish converts to Jesus actually need to become Jews? Must Gentiles be circumcised? Must they adopt Jewish dietary laws? Or was baptism sufficient? Should the focus of Peter and Paul’s energies be on their fellow Jews, or should it be on the Gentiles? The two of them wrangled about these things and others, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not.[iv] St. Paul’s letters are very self-revealing. When Paul writes to his fellow Christians, more than once, about “jealousy, quarreling, anger, dissension, factions, slander, gossip, and conceit,” he’s not just writing about other people; he’s writing autobiographically, about himself. Peter is much the same. When he writes to “rid yourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” he’s writing to the church; but he’s first writing to himself.[v]
What ultimately unites these two deeply faithful, deeply flawed followers of Jesus is not their virtue, but their need. What unites them is their weakness, not their strength, what Paul calls “strength being made perfect in weakness.”[vi] What broke their hearts open for one other and for so many other broken followers of Jesus were two things: one, a humility, redeemed from their mistakes in judgment. Peter writes in a very self-revealing way: “All of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[vii] And Paul is first coaching himself when he writes to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[viii] Paul is reminding himself.
The other character flaw that unites them was their own need to be forgiven, endlessly. They realized that they, again and again, had either missed the mark or attained the mark but in the wrong way.[ix] St. Paul confesses: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”[x] These two very driven, very hard men were broken open by their own awareness of need.
Michael Ramsey, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, says that “the secret of the Christian is not that he [or she] is always in the right and puts other people in the right, but that he [or she] is forgiven. That is the secret of a Christian’s humility, liberation, and strength.”[xi] In the end, both Peter and Paul were driven to practice what they preached. They could not save themselves. They needed, daily, to surrender to the intervention of Christ’s grace.
Blessed Peter and Paul, whom we remember today.
[iii]2 Peter 3:14-16.
[iv]See Galatians 2:11.
[v]1 Peter 2:1.
[vi]2 Corinthians 12:9.
[vii]1 Peter 3:8.
[viii]1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
[ix]See 1Corinthians 13:1-3.
[xi]Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), was the 100thArchbishop of Canterbury.
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