Commemoration of Saints Peter and Paul, two leaders, two martyrs. A joint commemoration, although they each have one of their own. Probably it was Paul who had the worst of it over the years of converting the world. He was beaten, stoned, run from town to town. I can imagine those who were with them, or who left him, or who came back to him, had their hands full with this endlessly energetic Apostle, driven to bring the word and way of Jesus to the limits of his world. We know from Acts that Peter did become an important leader. The tales of Uncle Peter and Uncle Paul. But what is important is what their lives teach us about Jesus’ commission, and how we also are Apostles, all chosen by God, sent out to spread the Gospel. A Gospel that is not just another set of ethical laws, or another mystery cult from the Graeco-Roman world of Late Antiquity. But a Gospel that brings us to the one God, the Holy One, who adopts us and loves us and, here is the difference, forgives us, and whose mercy is stronger than the bonds of death.
Peter would fulfill his commandment to feed Jesus’ Jewish sheep, while Paul would be free to convert the larger Gentile world, as decided by the Council of Jerusalem. The example with which the Peter/James party and Paul and companions’ party found reconciliation gives us hope. But we need to go back to Jesus’ call to these two men. Peter was first, straight off his fishing boat. Leaving everything. Until the end. We remember that Peter had run, when he denied Jesus three times, to lock himself in a rented room with the rest of the eleven, shaking with terror, a feeling as strong as the hopelessness, the screaming sorrow of what was happening to their Rabbi, their Lord. Paul held coats, having aided and abetted the rage which caused Stephen to be dragged out and stoned. And then went on to do the dragging himself, far and wide, seeking out those who saw God and the Law in a different way than the Temple taught. Those who were the earliest followers of the Way, the very first Christians. Those who had encountered Jesus, followed him, now dispersed but bonded in a new way. The woman at the well and her village. Those who encountered the 70, those first pairs of deacons sent to teach and convert those who had ears to hear. Paul went after them as blasphemers, traitors. Until Jesus came to him, knocked him to the ground, shamed him not with fire or by opening the ground under him, but with mercy. And took his false sight from him, until the kindness of Jesus’ followers brought Paul to his senses and God gave him back his sight. In many ways both Peter and Paul, our pillars, God’s martyrs, led a life of penance. Penance, like sin, is much misunderstood. Penance is punishment, yes, even suffering. It is a time of retraining after the recognition of how a person turned from God and heard the Spirit within them, were brought to contrition, confessed, and begged forgiveness. A forgiveness which is given, freely, by God and the offices of the Church. But a good penance isn’t five Hail Marys, and it certainly isn’t a beating or a pointless fast or prayer. It is much more painful than that. Yes, it may include fasting and prayer, time in the desert to meditate, wrestling with God, in order to come out changed. Another step in a lifetime of change.
In the Gospel for today’s Eucharist, Jesus, resurrected, met Peter and others by the sea, where Peter again was fishing. Jesus was seen as a stranger until he performed a sign, and the catch was huge. Then he called them together and fed them breakfast of fish and bread. He asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Yes, three times for the three betrayals, but betrayals which Peter had already regretted, cried over, for which prayed for forgiveness. But Jesus made him say it. And before witnesses. “Do you love me?” “Yes, yes, Lord, I love you. You know I do” (John 21:15-19). Peter is pleading, in shame and regret. But Jesus doesn’t say, “I absolve you.” What Jesus says is “Your penance, your service to me, your reformation, is to feed my sheep.” To continue the work of God on earth in Jesus’ name. To be the promised fisher of men and women. It would lead him to his death by crucifixion. Perhaps a servant is not better than his Master, but in one last sin of control, crucified upside-down. But that is our Peter, for you. The Rock on which Jesus built his church. Flawed, slow on the pick-up, always in need of repentance, of forgiveness, of penance to remember that it isn’t all done yet. He is just like us.
Paul knew that suffering was part of his price. The mysterious thorn in his side. But more so, the drive to preach, convert, challenge, confront – almost obsessional. He says in a letter to Timothy, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching (2 Tim 4:1b-20.” His wasn’t a gentle way. And he paid with imprisonment, about which he bragged, stoning, beatings, death. He stepped into church/parish business from modern Turkey to Rome with a heavy hand. Took sides. Was he always so sure of his message? Did he ever ask himself if he had said or done something wrong? Yes, that very enthusiasm, that drive, was both his talent, his blessing, and his perpetual penance for what he had done to his fellow Jews, the first Christians, who had come to see that Jesus’ had revealed a new way to see God. Penance for what he had done to followers who were still young in their faith, struggling with belief Jesus was the Messiah, but were faithful and obedient, giving up, in holy poverty, everything they had, been taught at home and at synagogue. And Paul is tired. He says, seeing his end, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Tim 4:6-7).”
The message is simple. Round up, care for, teach, and feed my sheep. We see it in the reading from Ezekiel where shepherd, sheep, and instructions for the care of them, are repeated 18 times (Ezek 34:11-16). A shepherd leads a hard life. Cold nights. Hot days. Little food. The pay is poor, the work is dangerous. Predators, poachers, bandits. You are always on watch. And you must especially care for the weak, the ewes, the lambs. It is not your flock, but your Master’s.
Then why penance? Why not just happy warriors? Because we are all broken vessels, vulnerable, fragile, flawed. And we have all betrayed Jesus. We have all cried, “Crucify him” as often as we have wept at the foot of the cross. As often as not, wept in contrition, knowing that there is no way we can pay off that debt. And that kindled our gratitude and love as it drove us deeper into penance. But shame and sorrow are not what we are called to, but to look upward to our Father and outward to our neighbor. As Jesus did, and as the sorrowing Peter and Paul did, faithful, but also atoning for their human weakness, amending for their sins, led by the Spirit. Feeding Jesus’ sheep, carrying Jesus’ message to the world. In penance.
We, in the U.S. must now re-examine our attitudes, beliefs, and treatment of people of color. The Episcopal Church has much to repent. Our greatest atonement must be ongoing repentance, not shame or self-destruction, but dialogue amongst ourselves and with those we don’t see as like us. But always in prayer, listening to the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote, “let us also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom 5:3b-4).
St. Augustine sums it up when he writes “Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” (Sermon 295). Pray for us sinners, St. Peter and St. Paul.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.