Sunday 30 June 2013
Readings: Acts 12.1-11; Matthew 16.13-19
Theme: Pillars of the Church
Last month I was fortunate to be part of the Cathedral pilgrimage to Rome. There were numerous highlights, we saw some remarkable sights, and experienced much to reflect upon. Among my own special memories are those of visiting the alleged burial places of the two great apostles of the Church, St Peter and St Paul, who died as martyrs in the early AD 60s. According to tradition, this is what happened to them.
St Peter was crucified upside down, apparently on the site of the courtyard to the left of St Peter’s Basilica where the Swiss Guards now stand on duty. He was then buried in the nearest cemetery which was on top of Vatican Hill, above which St Peter’s Basilica was later built – the main altar being directly above Peter’s tomb. You might be pleased to know that this information comes not from Wikipedia but from an announcement made by Pope Pius XII following the results of an archaeological excavation!
St Paul was beheaded between Rome and the sea in a place now called Tre Fontane (Italian for three fountains after the legend that springs of water mark the three places where Paul’s head bounced after being beheaded). He, too, was buried in the closest cemetery, where the Basilica of St Paul’s outside the Walls was eventually built, the main altar situated above Paul’s tomb.
Of course, whether the bones of Peter and Paul actually rest in those places is sense incidental. What matters far more is what those places represent: that is, the commemoration of the lives of these giants in the faith, and their contribution to the development of the Church through and beyond the first century. If Jesus is the foundation on which the Church is built then, arguably, Peter and Paul are the two most significant pillars of the Church.
Strengthened by the Holy Spirit their faith, their witness, and their teaching about the Risen Christ gave shape and direction to the early Church and enabled it to grow beyond the confines of its infancy as a small Jewish sect into a worldwide faith that has expression in every part of the globe.
In visiting their traditional Roman burial places it was humbling and profoundly moving to reflect that as Christians in this generation we are part of that same movement for which Peter and Paul gave their lives. We are inheritors of the faith in Christ which they handed on. Belonging to the Cathedral Church of St Peter and Paul makes that point all the more profound.
One thing that I find encouraging is that Peter and Paul were very different individuals, and certainly did not always see eye to eye with each other. But even their differences had benefits for the early Christian movement.
Peter was an impetuous, spur of the moment man, often putting his foot in it; but sometimes through that characteristic spontaneity he would hit the nail on the head. As we heard in the gospel reading, as some of the other disciples dithered in response to Jesus’ question, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?,’ Peter declares: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ His response was then affirmed by Jesus: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’
Paul was more of a strategist, concerned with the big picture both in his time as Saul the persecutor of Christians and as Paul the missionary for Christ. But it was through the missionary journeys of Paul that numerous small groups of people seeking to follow the way of Jesus were nurtured into life.
Peter was a fisherman, used to hard manual labour; Paul was a scholar, trained as a Pharisee – though also a tent maker. Peter was a disciple who knew Jesus personally and was taught by Jesus for several years as he wandered through Galilee and Judea; Paul, as far as we know, never met Jesus in the flesh and was initially hostile to his teaching.
Peter first met Jesus as a man and responded immediately to his call; Paul came face to face with the Risen Christ, but it took a dramatic experience before responding to the call of his Lord. Peter was taken to Rome by his captors; Paul, using his Roman citizenship, insisted on a trial in Rome. The emphasis of Peter’s apostleship was to the Jews; for Paul it was to the Gentiles.
There is something quite comforting in recognising the differences between these two men; also in the fact that they are commemorated together on this day. Despite an unsubstantiated legend that they met in Rome shortly before their deaths and blessed each other, it might even be that Peter and Paul – for a while at least – did not really like each other very much. They certainly did not see eye to eye about everything that was going on in the early Christian community, not least the status of Jewish law and the place of Gentiles.
But even so, their differences did not prevent them working tirelessly for the same cause: namely, the proclamation of the kingdom of God as initiated through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus whom they recognised as their Lord and Saviour. That shared passion inevitably meant that, despite their differences, they also shared much in common.
Both were hugely influential in the life of the early church and gave their lives for the faith. They shaped the development of the life and doctrine of the Church – Peter and his successors through the institution of the papacy, Paul through his letters. These contributions are reflected in statues of Peter and Paul where, usually, Peter is holding a key as a symbol of the authority given to him by Jesus; and Paul is holding a book, symbolising his preaching and teaching.
Each apostle was convinced beyond doubt of the truth of the Resurrection and they were both witnesses to the Risen Christ – interpreting what that meant to believers in the context of their time and situation. They were keen to make sense of the life and ministry of Jesus within their specific circumstances, their teaching having direct relevance to the particular communities with whom they had contact.
Peter and Paul both fulfilled the commandment of Jesus: ‘Anyone who wants to come after me, must deny self, bear the cross, and follow me.’ They expressed their real love of Jesus Christ by following him from their hearts.
There is much to glean from the example of Peter and Paul, not least to reassure ourselves that God’s unbounded grace and unconditional love encompass and embraces people with widely different personalities, conflicting viewpoints, and with whom we might disagree fiercely over some things.
With that reassurance, also comes a challenge for us to consider carefully our own attitudes and responses towards those who we find difficult to get on with because of beliefs and practices that we might dispute. Our neighbours in the kingdom of God are not always the most obvious or, necessarily, those we would choose. We might not like them. But they, too, are seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus no less than we are. God can use their strengths and their weaknesses, as God does with us, for the extension of the kingdom.
In a volume on Christian Ethics, Rowan Williams tells of his own struggle to come to terms with the fact that within the Christian tradition, current and past, are committed Christians whose approach to a range of different topics conflicts with his own. He explores this dilemma and draws attention to the way in which the beliefs and practices of all of us are shaped by the social, cultural and religious factors.
While not attempting to deny the significance of differences that may remain irreconcilable – he cites Christian views about nuclear deterrence as one example – Williams then makes the telling point:
“But I acknowledge that they (that is, those with whom he still disagrees) ‘knew’ what their own concrete Christian communities taught them to know, just as I ‘know’ what I have learned in the same concrete and particular way. And when I stand in God’s presence or at the Lord’s table, they are part of the company I belong to.”
As we remember today with thanksgiving the lives of St Peter and St Paul, we can see that God used their particular personalities and approaches to spread the Gospel. Peter’s impetuous love set him apart as a passionate shepherd of his flock; Paul’s training as a Pharisee and his strength of character ensured that the Gentiles would find a welcome in the Church. This is a reminder and encouragement that our own distinctive talents, and even our weaknesses, can become God’s means of helping others.
We don’t have to be perfect; God can work through us, faults and all, as he did with Peter and Paul. What God calls us to be, as they were, is faithful in service to the same Lord who called them. May our commemoration of St Peter and St Paul be to us a sign of hope.
The Revd Capt Ian Maher CA