The idea I took away from my Sunday school days, was the idea the saints Peter and Paul were very much like brothers. The fought like cats and dogs about the fundamentals of the nascent Christian faith but both passionately believed in what they were building. That shared passion is reflected in the letters that tell their stories.
Today’s lessons for their shared feast day encouraged me to broaden my understanding of the ideas Peter and Paul brought to the communities they worked with.
In the reading from Acts, Peter tells the story of two visions that brought him to a Gentile family. He had a vision in which he is told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 11:9b). At the same time, men from Caesarea had their own vision of an angel who said: “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” (Acts 11:13b-14)
When Peter met and spoke with them, he saw the Holy Spirit come down on them as it had with his fellow disciples. He tells this story to help his fellow apostles and the believers in Judea who were critical of him for eating with the uncircumcised.
I had always thought that it was Paul that lead the way among the Gentiles and who opened up Christianity for all who wished to follow the teachings of Jesus and that Peter was deeply opposed to it.
I think part of that idea came from the other New Testament reading for their shared feast day. In this reading, Paul comes right out and says: “On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised…” (Galatians 2:7).
Given their histories, it makes a lot of sense that Peter, one of the first disciples of Jesus, would work among the circumcised; while, Paul, a Roman citizen with his ‘road to Damascus’ conversion, would serve the uncircumcised. They had very different life experience and had come to their faith in very different ways.
However the passage from the book of Acts is a good reminder that these two saints, while being so different, did work in tandem. The shared the goal of getting the Good News of Jesus’s message of the Grace and Love of God into the wider world.
I wonder if Peter had taken to heart the experience Jesus had with both the Samaritan woman at the well and the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter.
Peter had also had the experience of hearing Jesus’s parables first hand, and it would not surprise me if the vision he related in the book of Acts sprang directly from from the parable found in Matthew 15.
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ … But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
~Matthew 15:10, 15-20
So while Paul would later come to see his role as that of the main missioner to the uncircumcised, Jesus had already planted the seed in Peter’s mind that his message had the potential to reach far beyond the original disciples.
The story Peter tells also acts as a conversion experience for his audience in Judea:
And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
The apostles and the believers in Judea go from criticizing him for spending time with the uncircumcised, to being stunned into silence by the power of Peter’s story, to praising God for giving the Gentiles such a gift.
I suspect this conversion effect could only have come from Peter. Peter had a shared background with the group in Judea and a rapport with them that Paul probably didn’t have. Paul had, after all, spent the first part of his life persecuting any Christians he could get his hands on. If the same message prompting acceptance of Gentile believers had come from Paul, even if by then the Christians in Judea trusted his conversion, it might not have had the same underlying power that Peter’s telling of the story had.
Peter and Paul figured out that the messenger can matter in their shared ministry of spreading the Good News. There were communities that Peter could more easily reach because of his Jewish background and his direct connection to Jesus. There were communities that ‘got’ Paul better because he was a citizen of Rome (and therefor of the Known World at that time). There were communities that would trust Peter because they had known him all their lives and there were communities that better related to Paul’s ‘road to Damascus’ conversion story.
For all that the narrative of Peter and Paul can be one of battling it out for the soul of the early church, from the passages appointed for their shared feast, it is clear that they agreed on at least three things: the message of Jesus was important enough to spend (and risk) their lives on; all are welcome to follow Jesus and enter into the community of believers; and sometimes, the messenger matters.
All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.