Saints Peter and Paul - 29th June 2008

Holy Eucharist – Address

Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller

Click here for Home page

Collect for Saints Peter and Paul
ALMIGHTY God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified thee in their deaths as in their lives:
grant that thy Church, inspired by their teaching and example, and made one by thy Spirit,
may ever stand firm on the one foundation which is thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord;
who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.      Amen.

Old Testament lesson: Zechariah 4, Vv 1-6a & 10b-14
Epistle: 2 Timothy 4, Vv 6-8 & 17-18
Holy Gospel: St Matthew 16, Vv 13-19

It may never have occurred to you that the calendar of saints of the church does not contain two individual days dedicated uniquely and respectively to the two saints that we celebrate today. From the earliest of times the church kept the 18th of January in memory of the day when Saint Peter is believed to have conducted his first service of corporate worship with Christians in Rome. The title of this feast changed over time and today the church knows it as The Confession of Saint Peter. This title commemorates the conversation that Jesus had with Peter, recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. After asking, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Jesus asked Peter, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ The church celebrates that wonder insightful reply. A week later, on the 25th January, we have another important feast, the Conversion of Saint Paul. This coincides with Robert Burn’s birthday and Burn’s Night Suppers, certainly wherever Scots foregather. This latter feast commemorates Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus when he was confronted by the Risen Lord. This feast day is dedicated to the celebration of Paul’s change of heart and mind, from being a persecutor of Christians to being one of the church’s most potent, dedicated and important advocates. However, neither of these important saints has a day devoted to them as individuals, as do, for example, Saints Mark, Barnabas, Bartholomew, John the Baptist, or more recent ones, like, Columba, Ninian, Kentigern and Margaret of Scotland. As an aside, from the ninth century the church has also kept the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter on the 22nd of February, but this was only celebrated in Antioch, not in the Imperial City. Why, then, does the church celebrate both of these saints, together, today?

   There must be a reason that is more important than the sum of the individual parts – what the modern, commercial world calls synergy. There must be something common to these two great apostles that speaks to the church more cogently than either one of them alone. Whatever this message is, it is spoken more fervently by these two saints in unison, than separately. Yet, these apostles were hardly the best of friends. They could be considered to be an odd couple. At one point, a point accurately recorded by Saint Paul, they almost came to blows. The subject of dissention was the issue of whether non-Jews, that is Gentiles, could be included in the nascent, Christian Church; and if they could, did they have to convert to Judaism? Peter was adamant that Gentiles were ‘unclean’, certainly in Jewish eyes, and could not be included. He was as vehement in this assertion as Paul had previously been that all People of the Way were heretical, that they should be arrested, tried, convicted and executed. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Luke reports on the First Council of the Church, the Council of Jerusalem, held in about AD50. The issue of Gentile membership was settled at this Council; they would not be required to subscribe to the Mosaic Law or be circumcised.

   This Council of Jerusalem was chaired, for want of a better word, by James, described by Luke as the brother of the Lord. Whether a sibling brother or not, and the Greek text does not make this clear, James had apparently converted to the faith after the resurrection. He became the first Bishop of Jerusalem but was not technically an apostle because he appears not to have travelled outside that city. Apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos, which means one who travels.    From this Council we may learn two very important lessons. First, there has never been a time when the church existed without dispute, conflict or disagreement. These early differences of opinion were about who could be members and who could not, and what were the conditions under which membership could be granted? Secondly, it gave a blueprint for future negotiation, how consensus could be reached between disaffected parties and how the leaders of these factions should give way to moderating, neutral voices. It was neither Peter nor Paul who solved the church’s problems at this Council – it was James, the first bishop of Jerusalem.

   It can be logically argued that it was not rational debates in the Jerusalem Council, or elsewhere, that changed the minds of these two stalwarts of the early church. The reasons why they both adopted views that they had previously held as anathema were the visions that they received from God. God showed them both that they had been far too rigid and narrow in their views of what he demanded in his church. Let me read you a few verses from Saint Luke, from the ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

   Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘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.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

   Paul learned the tenets of the Christian faith at the hands of Ananias and progressed to a career as missionary and preacher. He became Paul the Apostle because of a vision from God, not from any logical arguments from man. In the next chapter of Acts we may read of Peter’s vision. Again, let me read you a few verses:

   About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly drawn up to heaven. Now Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen.

   Immediately after this vision Peter met with some gentile believers. Prior to this vision he would have had absolutely nothing to do with them. Now, he explains that he must call nothing profane or unclean. In the same chapter, this Peter, who had been adamant that Gentile converts must adopt all the Mosaic laws and Jewish practices, including circumcision, said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptising from these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’    It is perhaps becoming clear that there is an important ’something’ that links the two great saints that we celebrate today. It is a ‘something’ that speaks to our Christian faith. We learn from this link between Saints Peter and Paul that what we believe about the church, the attitudes we have to our worship and our sacramental life, may not be the same as God’s beliefs. God may well have an different opinion from ours. If we take Peter and Paul as our examples then we may be led to understand that the more vehement we are about our beliefs the more likely God is to disagree with us. We can read in Paul’s letter to the Churches in Galatia of his falling out with Peter over the matter of eating with Gentiles. Peter had been happy to eat with Gentile Christians until representatives of the Church in Jerusalem, James’s men, appeared. Then, seemingly under pressure from head-quarters, Peter changed his mind and he would not eat with them. Despite all this, and under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, which, you will remember, Jesus promised to his disciples, saying that the Paraclete would lead them into all truth, the problems were cleared up and Gentile converts were welcomed.

   Down the centuries the church has had similar problems to face. We can read in its history of heresy and schism, of division and dissension. I read one source that informed me that the Christian Church has over 38,000 different denominations. Yet, through all this the Church Universal of God has survived and continues to grow. We may think we see declining pew numbers but in developing parts of the world the opposite condition obtains. Some two billion of the world’s inhabitants claim to be Christians – that’s a third of the population.

   We must today give especial thanks to God for the lives of the two great apostles Peter and Paul. We must, like them, be prepared to be guided into the ways of truth by God’s Holy Spirit and allow that such incursions may change our lives for ever.

Copyright © David Fuller 2008

Click here to listen to Sermon

Click here for Home page