June 29, 2014
- St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles
- Donna G. Joy
Ezekiel 34:11-16, Psalm 87, 2 Timothy 4: 1-8, John 21: 15-19
In one of my all-time favourite Peanuts cartoons Lucy (back in the day when people actually got up from the couch to change channels on the TV)… demands that Linus get up to change the channel for her, threatening him with her fist if he didn’t. So, Linus asks her, “What makes you think you have the right to make these kinds of demands?”
And Lucy responds, “These five fingers. Individually they’re nothing, but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”
And Linus immediately asks, “O.K. So which channel do you want?” Turning away, Linus looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Indeed, unity is strength. And this, I suggest, is a message that we might receive as we celebrate the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. In many ways – at a glance – they were NOT united; they were separate and apart, they differed in many significant ways, but once they joined together to serve on the same team, their efforts were unstoppable. But indeed, they were different people with different temperaments and different roles to fulfill within God’s plan.
Their ministries were focused on two different groups of people: Peter spread the gospel and ministered to a Jewish audience, while Paul’s focus was on the Gentiles, that is – the world beyond the Jews. Because of this, Peter was surnamed the Apostle of the Jews, and Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles. Paul once had a public disagreement with Peter on whether Jewish Christians could eat together with Gentile Christians. This is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where we find one whole section in which Paul opposes Peter. Here Paul writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong…”
They each came from different places. Peter was called directly by Jesus; Peter walked this earth with Jesus, and was included among those who were first called to follow him; and Peter was given “the keys of the kingdom”. In icons he is portrayed as carrying the keys.
Paul, on the other hand, probably never met Jesus face to face. Once a persecutor of the church, his conversion came about through a vision on the road to Damascus. His inspiration and his style of presenting the gospel came from visions and charismatic experiences. He is portrayed in icons as carrying either a sword or a book.
So, clearly these two apostles differed in many ways. What, then, may define the ways in which they were similar? Well, they are joined together – intimately linked – through and with God’s love made known through Jesus. They have each (in the midst of all their differences) been called by Jesus to receive forgiveness and to share Jesus’ own work – his own ministry. Jesus is the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Peter’s sin included, and Paul’s – this is what unites them.
Bringing these two uniquely different individuals into the same ‘Gospel project’ is analogous to Lucy using her five different digits to come together in one effective fist. Both Peter and Paul – each in their own different ways – have lost their way. Peter, who was particularly gifted in missing the point throughout the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry, was also known to deny even knowing Jesus as Jesus walked the long and lonely road that was to lead to his death. I have to think that the burden of this denial must have weighed heavily on Peter’s heart. But in the midst of all this, Jesus never gives up on Peter.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear that familiar exchange between the risen Jesus and Peter. Jesus takes Simon Peter away from the others and he asks the question that goes to the heart of everything: ‘Do you love me?’ There is much to be said about the different Greek words for love that are actually used within this question and answer period between Peter and Jesus, but what matters most in this reading is that each time when Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus responds with giving him a job to do. Jesus offers Peter a fresh challenge; a new commission. Jesus is telling Peter that it is time to learn how to be a shepherd; time to feed his lambs and sheep; time to look after them on Jesus’ behalf.
Jesus is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophesy which we heard this morning: “God said, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will care for them in every possible way. I will feed them with justice.” This has been fulfilled in Jesus, and now Jesus is calling on Peter to share this work with him. It is Jesus who was called by God to feed his sheep and lambs, guide them to and from pasture, keep them safe from predators. He knows them and they know him. He has given his life for them. And now the commission in this morning’s Gospel reading is quite specific: ‘As the father sent me, so I’m sending you.’ And this is what this means. Peter is to share Jesus’ task of caring for his sheep.
And then there is Paul who has also lost his way. While his temperament – his particular role to fulfill – his theological position in some important matters may differ from Peter, he – too - is called by Jesus to serve on the same team. Paul, as he is on the road to find, imprison and probably kill members of this new Christian movement is struck by a blinding light that darkens his path that would lead him to this task, but enlightens his heart allowing him to see a much deeper truth. And, long story short, that vision of Christ immediately catapults him into action. He immediately began to preach, and rather than tearing down the new Christian movement, he spent the whole rest of his life establishing Christian communities; sharing with them the teachings of Jesus; chastising them when their behaviour fell short of the love that Jesus called them into. It seems to me that this is simply another way of seeing the same story of Peter that we heard this morning. Paul do you love me? Feed my sheep. Peter and Paul: Extremely different in so many ways, but thrown together to serve on the same Gospel team with Jesus at the centre.
Indeed, Peter and Paul were different in temperament, theology, roles to fulfill… But they were united in Jesus’ love and forgiveness and in Jesus’ mandate to share that love in feeding his sheep. And just as Peter and Paul were commissioned to carry out this task, so are we. I have spoken of the icon of Peter holding up the Keys to the Kingdom to which he was given, and the icon of Paul (defender of the faith) holding up a book… Well when we venerate the icon for this feast, we often see Peter and Paul (together) embracing one another in love. In spite of the tensions between them, we see today in this feast an example of how we are to live with each other in the church.
Certainly, as people from all walks of life, we will have differences. We are all different people, with different needs. However, today’s feast shows us that the church is first and foremost a place where God’s love reigns. As with Peter and Paul, it is this love from God that enables us to discover unity in Christ in the midst of our diversity.
Today’s feast also reminds us that we cannot live our Christian life alone. Peter was one arm of the Body of Christ, and Paul the other; both of which Jesus used to build a foundation which stands rock solid to this very day. We – in the midst of our continued diversity – join with them, just as Lucy’s fingers all come together to form one, solid, effective fist – we join with them with Jesus’ love at the centre so that we may carry out the work begun in Christ.
According to a well-attested tradition, the apostles Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome at (or close to) the same time around the year 64. It is said that Paul as a Roman citizen was granted the right to be beheaded be a sword, but that Peter endured crucifixion. It is also said that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because it would be presumptuous on his part to die the same death as Jesus. Again, it is impossible to know if they died on the same day, but from very ancient times their martyrdoms have been commemorated together.
On June 29th, sometime between the years 416 and 420 Augustine of Hippo – that great teacher of the faith – delivered a sermon which ended with these words, `Both apostles (Peter and Paul) share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as on. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labours, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.`
May these two radically different, yet profoundly faithful apostles continue to inspire each of us as we join with them in carrying out Jesus` command. As we confess our love for Jesus on this Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul Jesus commands us to join together as the body of Christ in the midst of all our diversity – to feed and care for his sheep – that is, to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. May it be so.