Ezekiel 34:11-16; Ps 87; 2 Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
Today is the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul. You may have noticed something interesting about these two stalwarts of the early church — neither of them has a feast day devoted to him and only to him.
There are, however, two feasts that carry their names. One, entitled “The Confession of St. Peter” commemorates Jesus asking the Disciples, “Who do people say I am?” and then more pointedly, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter’s answer, which came from his heart, “You are the messiah! The son of the living God.” and we celebrate that answer.
The second, a week later, is called “The Conversion of St. Paul” which commemorates Saul’s encounter with a voice — Jesus’ voice — that changed his name as well as his life and we celebrate the change of heart, mind, and soul that that experience worked in Paul.
But neither St. Peter nor St. Paul have a day devoted to them as individuals, as St. Alban or St. Francis or many other Christian notables do. What we have instead is a feast which honors the two of them together. And there must be a reason for this combination, a reason other than two very human players who heard and responded to God’s call. Why this feast to honor them both? There must be something common to these two men which speaks to our faith, something which, if we pay heed to it, will draw us more deeply into relationship with God in Christ; Peter and Paul must have spoken this message more eloquently together than apart.
Consider, for a moment, who these two fellows were. They were an “apostolic odd couple” who, it seems, were and remained “sparring partners” throughout their common life in the early church. The New Testament clearly shows that Peter and Saul were bitter opponents — unable to agree on the issue of whether Gentiles (non-Jews) should be included in the early Christian Church. Peter was certain that the “unclean” Gentiles should not be included and, until he met up with Jesus on Damascus road, Saul was just as certain that Jewish followers of Jesus were heretics to be arrested, tried, and put to death.
It wasn’t until the first council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. that the issue of Gentile membership was settled. It was there that the leadership agreed not to subject the Gentiles to the Mosaic Law, including circumcision; they decided that Gentile Christians would not be required to first convert to Judaism before they could be accepted into the community of Jesus’ followers. There are two lessons here. First, that there has never been a time, since the very beginning of the church, when the church has lived without conflict and disagreement over something – frequently about who or what is in and who or what is out. Second, it gives us a model for reaching consensus about and living with our disagreements under the direction of our leaders, particularly our bishops, for it was neither Paul nor Peter who settled the issue of Gentile membership, it was James, the brother of Jesus and first bishop of Jerusalem, who actually led the church to a solution.
But although the council, or similar disputations, may have had an impact upon the lives and strongly held views of these two saints, what changed their minds was not the logical arguments and reasoned debates of colleagues and opponents. What really changed these men and set them and the church on very different paths than they might otherwise have chosen were visions: Peter and Paul both experienced a vision from God which showed them that they had been too narrow in their views of who receives God’s salvation.
I’ve already mentioned Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus, his encounter with the Risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
And Saul went to Damascus, where he was instructed in the Christian faith by Ananias and thereafter began his career as a great missionary and preacher. Saul, who had been so sure that the followers of Jesus should be arrested, tried, and executed as heretics, became Paul the apostle – not so much because of any reasoned argument – but a personal encounter with God, in a vision.
Then there is Peter’s encounter: Up on the roof to pray, he falls into a trance. “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter says, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice spoke again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” A while later, when confronted by some Gentile believers who have come seeking his aid, he tells them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” And, a little later still, he says to the same Gentiles, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter, who had been so sure that only Jews could be admitted to the company of Jesus, who had insisted that Gentiles convert to the whole of Judaism before being baptized into the church, became the one who asked his fellow Jewish Christians, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
I suggested as I began that there must be something common to Peter and Paul which speaks to our faith, some message which their witness speaks more eloquently together than apart. I suggest that it is this: that no matter how strongly we hold our opinions and beliefs, we must be prepared for the possibility that God holds a different opinion, especially if the question pertains to our fellow human beings. Indeed, the examples of Peter and Paul suggest that the more certain we are about who is in and who is out, the greater the possibility that God disagrees with us, and …. if we are so convinced of our own rectitude that it causes us to exclude anyone from the household of God, God’s disagreement is a virtual certainty. God, as Peter said, shows no partiality, and we should not call anyone profane or unclean.
But no matter what the issues may be, the lesson to draw from the examples of these two great saints is to expect the unexpected from God. Do you remember the old TV show Candid Camera? Allen Funt, the originator and host of the show had a famous line he’d say to end each episode: “Remember, when you least expect it, someone, somewhere, may walk up to you and say, ‘Smile! You’re on Candid Camera.’” The lesson to take from Peter and Paul is that God is like that: When you least expect it, sometime, somewhere, God may walk up to you say, “Smile! I’ve got a different plan for you.”
It is not reasoned argument, logical debate, adherence to the Law, or acceptance of some propositional maxims, that makes us Christians and children of God. It is vision, and vocation, and conversion, and grace. That is what made Paul and Peter who they were, and made it possible for them to do what they did, and that is why we venerate them as the two pillars of the church of which Jesus Christ is the foundation. May we, as we prayed in our opening collect*, be instructed by their example and ever stand firm upon that foundation.
Let us pray….
Make us to know your ways O Lord, teach us your paths. Lead us in your truths, and teach us for truly, you are the God of our salvation. It is for you that we wait. Guard our lives, Father, deliver us, keep us from shame, for we take refuge in you. Please, Father, let uprightness and integrity preserve us while we wait for you. Amen.
*Collect for Sts. Peter & Paul, The Book of Common Prayer – 1979, p. 241: Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Pete Hoffman is a retired Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter pilot and a Licensed Lay Preacher in the Diocese of Oregon. A life-long Episcopalian, he is also a Cursillista and an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Astoria, having served there as Vestry member, Junior and Senior Warden.