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Readings: St Peter and St Paul

20 June 2014


Zechariah 4.1-6a, 10b-end; Acts 12.1-11 or 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 17-1; Matthew 16.13-19

Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you in their death as in their life: grant that your Church, inspired by their teaching and example, and made one by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

I WONDER what Peter and Paul would have thought in their lifetimes about ending up as saintly bedfellows in the church calendar. Perhaps both of them would be bemused, but, I like to think, in their better moments, they would have laughed uproariously.

Why? They were not natural companions in life, except by the grace of God. Paul had publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch, condemning him for recanting his previous willingness to eat with Gentiles. He accused him of undermining the whole basis of Paul's ministry and leading even Barnabas astray (Galatians 2.11-13).

Perhaps Peter, a fisherman and not a trained rabbi, felt humiliated. Later, he, or someone writing in his name, described Paul as writing things that are hard to understand, which people twisted in meaning (2 Peter 3.16). We can imagine mutual sparks flying. We cannot choose our baptismal family.

But here we are, celebrating Peter and Paul, apostles, at the time when the Church ordains new deacons and priests for particular ministries in the Church. Petertide ordinations are a long tradition, and all sorts of seemingly incompatible people are ordained. We need not limit ourselves to ordained ministry: Peter and Paul have something to say about the ministry of all the baptised people of God, however mismatched we appear.

In Durham Cathedral one Sunday during the 50 days of Easter, I presided at the eucharist, in which was a glorious and joyful affirmation of our unity in Christ, expressed in different traditions: the regular international and ecumenical congregation worshipped alongside Swedish Lutheran clergy and their bishop - now the first female archbishop (News, 20 June), and Romanian, Madagascan, Japanese, and European nuns from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Churches, and other overseas visitors.

Someone said later that, when I gave the blessing, and the deacon sent us to go and serve Christ throughout the world, we should have broken out into applause. God uses us all, with our different gifts and traditions, to proclaim the good news of the gospel, wherever we are.

Underlying this godly unity of otherwise diverse people is a demanding question. We hear it in one form from Jesus when he probes Peter's commitment: "Who do you say that I am?" Other people's answers would not do; Peter had to answer from his growing knowledge of his friend, Jesus.

On the other hand, Paul, the scholar, rabbi, and official expert on God, had to face the question turned on its head; so, his religious certainties shattered, he asked: "Who are you, Lord?" (Acts 9.5). God has a way of disarming and confronting us according to our need: Peter, who knew a man called Jesus, came to affirm that he was God; Paul, who knew that this man could not be God, came to affirm that he was.

Zechariah, the prophet called by God at the time when the people were rebuilding their lives back in Jerusalem after the exile, was also faced with the gaps in his knowledge. When asked by an angel to describe what he saw, he in turn had to ask what it all meant.

We can sense the angel's bemusement, as twice he had to ask: "Do you not know?" Peter, Paul, and Zechariah, in their different ways, had to face similar questions: what do you know? What does it mean?

Both Peter and Paul answered those questions, ultimately, with willingness to be imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. We hear, today, of one of Peter's escapes, but eventually he was martyred, tradition says, in Rome under Nero's savage persecution, in which the emperor subjected Christians to such horrors that pagan writers were appalled: Seneca wrote after one gladiatorial contest at the Coliseum, in which Christians were fodder for wild animals: "I felt as if I had been in a sewer."

Paul, too, was imprisoned in Rome under Nero. Facing the prospect of death, he could say: "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Like Peter, he had not necessarily won the race in the world's eyes, but he had finished it. And so we give thanks today that they kept faith to the end, and can take heart that even the most unlikely companions can serve God together.

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