Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the Third Sunday in Epiphany)
In 1908, a Franciscan Friar, Father Paul Wattson, proposed an octave devoted to Christian Unity, bracketed by the feasts commemorating the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. The point then and now is to address reconciliation of all branches of Christ’s Church. Healing the Body, Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant, Liturgical and Evangelical, is a call we all should heed. But I want to look at these two magisterial saints who were critical to spreading the Gospel of Christ, and, in many ways, the founders of his church.
Next Thursday, Jan. 25, is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This past Thursday, Jan. 18, was the feast of the Confession of St. Peter. Two pillars of the early church, called to spread the Gospel, called to die for their mission. How different. How much the same. The collect above stands between those two feast days this year.
Peter first. The three synoptic Gospels all say that Jesus asks the question, “Who do you think I am.” The answer is the usual litany of prophets: John the Baptizer, Elijah, another prophet. It is Peter who declares Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and, in Matthew 16, that Jesus is the Son of the Living God. In Matthew, Jesus praises him, his rock solid disciple, but when Peter, almost immediately afterward, tells Jesus not to go to Jerusalem, he is in for a scolding. Poor Peter. Aren’t we all Peter? Jesus’ rock? Petra? Cephas? Head? Sometimes a colossal blockhead. The following chapter in all the Synoptics tells of the transfiguration, and Peter still isn’t quite on board. Loyal. Good hearted, but not quite there. Jesus is loving, patient, but firm with Peter. Formation is a slow process, and we all make mistakes. It is that same Peter who denies Jesus at the time of trial. Yes, by falling asleep and denying his Lord and God the community support he just might need. But outright, in fear, “I do not know the man.” The one that really gets me is Luke 22:61-62. The Lord looks straight at him. If you have ever experienced that look from a beloved parent or mentor, as I have, would you not have rather been shouted at or punished? It is devastating. It is also a model for all of us in renouncing sin, for turning in self-realization of our sin in shame, repentance, and finally in reconciliation. Not all tears are bad.
This is the rock on which our Church is built. No wonder we are split like flawed rocks, unfit for the builder. But that is our human condition. That human condition is the one God came down to experience, to teach us, and to heal us.
Now for St. Paul, or Saul, the Good and Righteous Jew. Of course, Christ chose him. He was a good man, learned in the ways of the Law, of God as he knew God. Faithful to his belief. So much so that he didn’t want yet another crazy Messianic preacher to subvert what he had been taught and by which he lived. Saul held coats, one of the favorite sayings around my house. A person who holds coats is one who may not want to sully his or her hands in confronting evil, in this case the stoning of St. Stephan, but supports it by watching over the garments of the stoners. Heaven forefend someone should steal a nice, expensive outer tunic while its owner is smashing in the head of someone he disagrees with. When we hear “Pharisee” we think of those bad people who persecuted Jesus, but the Pharisees were the religious, the followers of the Law of Moses, and, after the destruction of the Second Temple, were the Jews who kept the word of God alive and were the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism. Jesus came to tear down the oppression of the Law, but not obedience to the Law of God through him, through his love. So God sends a vision to Saul, the Christian persecutor-in-chief. “Saul, Saul, do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:3) And on the road to Damascus, Saul is struck blind. But he already was blind, wasn’t he? It would take a smack to the head to get his attention, so convinced he was that he was right. Blindness is terrifying to him. How can he read the scrolls of the Law? How can he make a living? He is healed, renamed, forgiven, by the kindness of strangers and the mercy of Christ. Isn’t Paul us, too? Isn’t that what the splintering of God’s church is all about? My way or the highway? Perhaps the highway to Damascus might be a lesson all around.
I don’t want to give up the liturgy, history, the feel of the Episcopal Church. I don’t want to be a Roman Catholic, or an Evangelical. But I have prayed with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. They are truly us. The lesson of Christian reconciliation goes beyond our differences. It is differences which can turn to hate and persecution, which has fueled racism, exclusion masquerading as righteousness, and a host of sins. They are the sin of humanity, self-protection from Other, the dangerous Other. Or they can be the glorious expression of how many ways we worship the Living God.
Two men who were called by Christ to found his church. One, Peter, who was always the observant Jew, who had problems with the Hellenized Gentile welcoming Paul. Paul, whom we know from the letters and Acts, was a troublemaker, a pain in the neck, but his zeal and Rabbinic learning were tools to bring viable Christianity to the world.
We have seen great strides in Ecumenical reconciliation. More and more bits and pieces are recognizing each other’s sacramental theology and liturgical forms. More important, we are standing together for human rights, for the protection of the Earth, and against injustice toward people of other beliefs or customs. It doesn’t hurt to look back to the early Church, a group of people guided by the Holy Spirit and a handful of faithful men and women who didn’t hold coats, who didn’t always get it, who were just foolish people like ourselves, who followed, loved, and listened to their Good Shepherd. They are us.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
Image: Saints Peter and Paul By Mihalko Golev – http://corect.ceti.gr/print.php?id_mnimeio=83&id_lang=2&ontotita=all, Public Domain, Link