Saturday, June 28, 2008
The Solemnity of Peter and Paul
June 29, 2008
Psalm 87:1-3, 5-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Unlike my own Episcopal tradition, when a major saint’s day falls on a Sunday, Lutherans celebrate the feast day, so the readings are different, the tone is different and the subject of the sermon is different.
The feast of saints Peter and Paul is an interesting one because these two saints were paragons—the absolute authorities in the Jesus movement of the first century.
Peter was the leader of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles—those who were not from Jerusalem. Saul of Tarsus, began as a persecutor of the Christians because he was a good rabbinic Jew who thought his faith was being attacked from within by the Jesus movement. Then in an dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, Saul comes to believe in the risen Christ and become its most celebrated apostle to the Gentiles.
The early Christian movement—you can’t call it a Church yet. It was merely a movement in the years between the death of Jesus and the death of the apostles—about the year 67. It was a time of tremendous evangelism. It was a time when people heard the stories of Jesus, his life, his message that God cared for us, his death and resurrection and it brought people to a new understanding of what it meant to be faithful to a single God. It was a faith that was not determined about what you were to eat or wear. It was a faith about transformation of one’s life. It was a faith about achieving shalom—that sense of balance in one’s life and community. In some places the followers of Jesus’ Way lived together in community. In some places they met in synagogues. And in others, they met in peoples’ homes.
But it was these two saints that directed the movement at its very beginning --Peter, the staunch Jew following the Jewish customs and Paul, the virulent Pharisee who found that the message of Jesus crossed cultural bounds and opened the Way of Jesus to those who had not been born Jewish.
Judaism at the time of Jesus was one which was really solely for those who were ethnically Jews—those whose mother had be of the lineage of one of the tribes of Israel. And depending upon which party one belonged to, the tribal aspect of one’s faith colored how you observed your faith. But in the few generations preceding Jesus, there were those from the various nations around the Mediterranean who had come to follow the ways of the Jews without becoming circumcised. These followers of the ways of Judaism were called Proselytes.
Following the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus, many were drawn to this new way taught by Jesus. Many who were not Jewish flocked to the communities that worshipped God according to the teachings of the Christ. And the spread of this religion throughout the Empire was rapid. Even in Jerusalem the early Christians had to appoint deacons to serve those who were unable to attend the prayers of the worshipping community. It is interesting that some of those deacons have remarkably un-Jewish names, hinting that the early community was both of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.
In the book of Acts, we hear of a growing dissension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Evidently the Jerusalem Christian community was sending missionaries to the churches that Paul was starting in Galatia, Rome, Corinth and Thessalonica telling those churches that they had to be circumcised if they really were to be followers of Jesus. It isn’t surprising because even among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the difference of how one observed the rules of kosher were problematic.
Paul ministered and preached to those who were not Jewish. He traveled through Asia minor and Greece sharing the Gospel. He called those who were not Jewish to submit to baptism as a sign of their embracing the teaching of Jesus. He did not require that they become Jewish first, or observe the whole of Mosaic law.
Finally sometime around the year 50, Paul went to Jerusalem because there were concerns that Gentiles who had become Christians were not observing the same customs as the Jewish Christians. Paul confronted Peter and the Jerusalem leaders with the issue—especially the one of the eating of non-kosher food. Peter capitulated to Paul’s understanding of what righteousness meant and accepted baptism as the sign of one’s faith in Jesus rather than circumcision and observance of Mosaic Law.
Now this long history lesson has very little meaning to us today because we are long past recognizing Mosaic Law as the measure of one’s faith. Peter and Paul were the ones who worked out what it meant to be Christian and it changed the character of Christianity from being a sect of Judaism to being a different faith altogether. But we still celebrate these two saints together not only because they were great followers of Jesus, but because they taught us how to agree to disagree. The sad part is all too often, we don’t pay attention to the hard work that these two saints must have done to come to a compromise so that all could worship in the same Church.
And I believe that it was the work of these two devout followers of Jesus—two Jesus called to minister to those who wanted to worship God in holiness and truth.
Peter was a fisherman, a devout Jew, an early lover of Jesus, perhaps impetuous, and one who like us, allowed his fear to get the better of him in the face of Jesus’ death until he was empowered by the Holy Spirit. From that point onward, we find that Peter was an important and courageous leader of the faith. Paul, who never knew Jesus in this world, was like all those who had come to know the Christ from others. He taught with the fervor of the twice born. These very different men, these men who came to know Jesus found their commonality was in their love of Jesus. They did not stand on personal privilege or ego. For the sake of the Church they found that they could compromise.
It is a lesson we need to hear today. We need to hear that two great men, great lovers of Jesus, with great talent and great abilities could come together and say yes to ways that could lead the Church out of confusion that could have killed the Church before it was really born. We need to hear of a faith in Jesus that bridged the gaps of culture and the wisdom of those who could lead the neophyte religion into a new place.
I am thankful that we have this feast today. Peter and Paul teach us much. Those with ears, let them hear. Amen