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.
I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.
I wonder how many of you remember Kathryn Kuhlman. Ms. Kuhlman, who died in 1976, was a well known evangelist and faith healer. Her television program featured a now familiar mix of preaching, music (with Dino at the piano) and faith healings. Ms. Kuhlman began each of her broadcasts with these very carefully enunciated words, “I believe in miracles” or more precisely in Ms. Kuhlman’s own inimitable pronunciation, “I believe-a in miracles.”
Tender is not a word that easily comes to mind when I think of Saint Paul or Leviticus. Usually Paul seems sharp or at times condescending and sometimes downright confusing. Leviticus, so concerned with purity laws is downright off putting, because I often feel that I could never make the grade, even if I wanted to. But this morning tender is the very word that springs to mind when I read them both. Listen again to Paul:
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring
for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we
are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God
but also our own selves, because you have become very dear