Sunday 1 July 2018
Commemoration of Peter and Paul
Today we are commemorating the lives and ministry of two of the great apostles of the church: Peter and Paul. In fact, these two may be the most known, most respected, most noteworthy saints in the history of the church. Consequently, the very fact that they share a day for commemoration seams somehow strange. Why would we celebrate two such noteworthy figures with one commemoration?
Peter and Paul both lived in the time of Jesus, and they were both apostles, but they were very different from one another, and they do not seem to have spent a tremendous amount of time together. Let’s take a moment to sketch out their lives.
Peter is known for being the most prominent of the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples known as the Twelve. According the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he was the first one to be called by Jesus, along with his brother Andrew. With James and John, He is also a part of an inner inner circle of three disciples whom Jesus frequently brings with him when he leaves all of the other disciples behind. He is often portrayed as the spokesman of the disciples. He’s very enthusiastic, perhaps a bit reckless. After Jesus death and resurrection, Peter is one of the first disciples to see the risen Christ. The Acts of the Apostles portrays him as the de facto leader of the early Jesus movement in Jerusalem, until Jesus’s brother James ascends to that role. According to later tradition, Peter traveled to Rome and was martyred there by being crucified upside-down. He is considered to be the first bishop of Rome, and therefore the first pope. The Roman Catholic Church rests the authority of the pope on the former authority of Peter. There are two epistles in the New Testament bearing his name, but scholars tend to believe that both letters were written after his death. Peter has a few different names, so it can get a little confusing. His given name is Simon, but Jesus gave him a nickname: Rock. The Greek version of Rock is Peter, like petroglyph, and that’s the name we usually know him by. But Jesus probably used the Aramaic word for Rock, Cephas, and that’s what Paul calls Peter in his letters. So three names for the same person: Simon, Peter, and Cephas.
Paul also has multiple names. The Greek version of his name is Paul, but the Aramaic version is Saul, and he gets referred to by both at various times. He was not a follower of the earthly Jesus, and he did not come from Galilee, like Jesus and most of his disciples. Paul was a well-educated Pharisee from Tarsus, in modern Turkey. According to Acts, he studied in Jerusalem with the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. Paul enters the biblical story as a pious Jew who persecutes the church. He is at the scene when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death. He receives orders from the temple to go root out Jesus-followers in the Syrian capital of Damascus. But on the way, he has a vision of the risen Christ that will change his life forever. He stops persecuting the church and becomes one of it’s most persuasive missionaries. More than any other single person, it is Paul who is responsible for spread of Christianity among Gentiles. He styles himself as Apostle to the Gentiles. It is Paul who changes Christianity from being a sect of Judaism to being an international movement. About half of the Book of Acts is concerned with the life and ministry of Paul. Thirteen letters in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul. Scholars agree that seven of them actually are written by Paul: Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. Most scholars think that at least four of the others were written after Paul’s death. The biblical narrative of Paul’s life ends with him under house arrest in Rome, waiting to have his legal appeal heard by the emperor. According to later sources, he was beheaded in Rome in the time of Nero.
We know that the Jesus Movement started out as a movement of Jews. Jesus and all of his early disciples were Jews. Not long after his death, though, the movement grew to include Gentiles as well. Before long, the Gentile followers of Jesus would greatly outnumber the Jews. We know that this transition also involved the loosening of biblical rules and expectations. Gentiles were not required to be circumcised, to follow the Jewish dietary laws, or even to observe the Sabbath.
What we don’t know is exactly how this happened, or who was mostly responsible for this change. The bible tells us at least two different stories about how the church was opened up to Gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles tells us one story, and the letters of Paul tell us another story.
According to the Book of Acts, it is Peter who is responsible for this change. Peter has a vision from God that convinces him to eat with Gentiles. When he does, the Holy Spirit comes on them, which convinces Peter to baptize them. He is called before James and the rest of the Jerusalem apostles to explain himself. He convinces them that God is doing a new thing among the Gentiles. It’s only later that Paul gets started. And Paul enters the ministry by being mentored by Peter and Barnabas. According to this version, Paul is important for covering so much ground and making so many converts, but he always works under the authority of the already existing apostles, like Peter and James.
But Paul tells a very different story in his letters. Most of it is found in Galatians 1-2. Paul is at pains to argue that he is not subject to Peter or James. He got his call to be an apostle directly from Jesus. And Paul feels no ambiguity about whom he is sent to, either. He is the apostle to the Gentiles. His mission is to Gentiles, not to Jews. Peter is apostle to the Jews, but Paul is sent to Gentiles. He writes, “James, Cephas, and John, who are considered to be pillars, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me. So it was agreed that we would go to the Gentiles, while they continue to go to the people who were circumcised” (Gal 2:8-9). But that agreement didn’t last. Paul says that when Peter came to Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision…. But when I saw they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” According to Paul, Peter was no hero of the Gentile movement. It was Paul himself who did the heavy lifting of opening the church up to Gentiles.
Celebrating Peter and Paul together on the same day is about trying to tidy up the story of the early church. It’s about brushing aside the conflict between Peter and Paul. And it’s about making sure that Paul’s movement is not seen as a separate movement, but is rather under the authority and direction of pillar apostles, like Peter, James, and John.
And it’s not so hard to figure out why someone would want to clean up the story. For one thing, it’s not a good look to have the major figures of your religion in open conflict with each other. Better to present a unified front.
But even more dangerous than disunity is the story of Paul himself, and his claim to authority. Remember that Paul never met the earthly Jesus. And yet, he claims authority directly from Jesus, through a mystical experience. He refuses to submit to Peter and James. He refuses to admit that he is any way dependent on them. And that is scary for the established authorities.
Think about it. There at least a hundred people in the Jesus movement who actually met the earthly Jesus. And they have been him through the whole ordeal. They have heard him preach. They have seen him heal. They have listen to him in his conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees. They have seen him arrest and crucified and risen. And then, out of nowhere, comes this Paul, who had been harassing them. And he says that he has had a revelation from Jesus. And he says that all of Jesus’s earthly disciples have got it wrong. And he says that he doesn’t need permission from them, that he has authority directly from God. And why should they believe him? Just because he says so. Why should they open the church to Gentiles? Just because he says so. Why should they put aside all of the laws and traditions of the Hebrew Bible? Just because he says so.
It’s no wonder that someone wanted to clean that story up. There is nothing more dangerous to the religious establishment than someone who claims they get their authority directly from God. They cannot have it out there that some outsider came in, and on his own authority, radically changed the early Christian movement. That is a dangerous story. What would keep some new outsider with their new and crazy ideas from coming in and doing the same thing, making some radical change that didn’t quite square with the established powers and the accepted way of doing things?
And you know, we need those people who work within the establishment. We need people like Peter who know the history, who have been there from the beginning, who have gotten their authority by the book, through the recognized means. We need that kind of stability. We need people who can guide us in a new direction because they have built up trust and respect over time.
But we also need disruptors. We need people who come in from outside with crazy new ideas. We need people who have not taken the time to check all of the boxes. We need people who get their authority from the power of their ideas, not from the established structures. We need people who have that direct word from God.
Celebrating Peter and Paul together might have been a way of tidying up Paul’s story. But it is also an important reminder. We need them both. If we don’t have Peter, we lose our grounding, our history, our sense of continuity. But if we don’t have Paul, we lose the ability to change and grow, to adapt to new times and circumstances. We have an easier time accepting a Peter in our midst. But in this time of change, we need to have our eyes and ears open for prophets like Paul. On this day, let us ask for God’s guidance, that we might hear and respond to God’s prompting in our lives, no matter who it comes from.