Today we’re celebrating the lives of Peter and Paul, towering figures in the life of the early Christian church.
Peter features in all four gospels and so we know far more about his personal life and circumstances than we do about Paul. He was known as Simon when he heard Jesus calling him to be a disciple. His father was called John or Jonas. Peter’s brother was Andrew; they were both fishermen, sailing the boat owned by their father. Peter was married but presumably when, as the gospel says, he left his nets to follow the call, he left his wife as well, though he was made aware of his mother in law’s illness and was there when Jesus restored her to health. He had a Galilean accent and was probably uneducated – fishermen in ancient times were from the poorer sections of society. But Jesus nicknamed him Peter, from the Latin word for stone or rock. And he became a foundation stone of the Jesus movement.
During Jesus’s lifetime, Peter’s reliability wasn’t always secure. He could get a frim grasp of the wrong end of the stick and this sometimes led Jesus to be irritated with him. As we’ve just heard, when Jesus questioned his disciples about the way he was regarded, Peter proclaimed that he was the Messiah, but was unwilling to accept that the Messiah must suffer and be put to death, Jesus rebuked him and said, Out of my sight, Satan. You think as men think, not as God thinks. He admonished Peter for his lack of faith when Peter was frightened because the boat they were all travelling in was caught in a head wind. This seems to me to be seriously unfair. It’s a very human reaction to be alarmed at the prospect of being drowned. But Peter thinks simply as he did when he and James and John saw Jesus transformed, radiant in glory in the company of Moses and Elijah on a mountain side. Peter wanted to build a settlement of tabernacles so that they could stay with Jesus in this sublime state; he didn’t realise that this vision was a gift, but an intangible gift.
Peter’s denial of Jesus came at his darkest hour. Cursing and swearing he fulfilled Jesus’s warning that he would disown him and then wept bitterly as he realised what he’d done.
Paul was known as Saul, after the king of Israel when he first appeared in the Acts of theApostles. Paul comes from the Latin word for small and was also a nickname. He was from a much higher social class than Peter. Like Peter, Paul was a Jew but he was a Roman citizen, spoke Greek and earned a living as a tent maker. This was a skilled craft and would bring him into contact with wealthy merchants who commissioned tents to avoid staying in inns when they travelled. Paul plays no part in the gospel story. He was a Pharisee, strongly opposed to the Jesus movement and prepared to take personal responsibility for ensuring that its followers were exterminated. When Stephen was being stoned to death by the officers of the Sanhedrin, the men carrying out the execution laid their garments at the feet of Saul.
These two men couldn’t be more different, in background, education, status, experience. But they both had very significant, life changing visions, both on journeys and both leading to a seismic shift in the early church’s recognition of its mission.
Paul’s vision came at the gate of Damascus where he had arrived to carry on with his persecution of Christians in that city. He was struck down and blinded but he recovered his senses when he was blessed by Ananias who said to him, Saul, my brother, the lord Jesus who appeared to you on your way here has sent me to you so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the holy spirit. Paul began preaching in the synagogue and the writer of Acts says that [he]went from strength to strength and confounded the Jews in Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul became a great missionary pioneer and his mission was to the Gentiles. This is explicit in his sermons and his letters. God, who called me through his grace chose to reveal his son in and through me in order that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles. I saw that I had been entrusted to take the gospel to the Gentiles. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and freeman for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Peter’s vision came to him as he was travelling from Joppa to Caesarea. He was hungry, possibly hallucinating, when he saw a huge sailcloth being lowered from the sky. It was full of animals waiting to be slaughtered but Peter had no way of telling if they were species which Jews were permitted to eat. The law of Moses was very strict regarding meat and fish that Jews could eat – an animal must have a split hoof and chew the cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not feed on carrion. Peter would’ve been brought up knowing these prohibitions. When he heard a voice telling him to kill and eat he protested that he had never eaten anything profane or unclean. The voice replied sternly that it was not for him to describe as unclean anything that God had designated clean.
After his vision Peter received a message that a Roman centurion, Corneilius, wanted to know the Jesus story. Peter entered his house and recognised the deep faith of the whole gathering. His dialogue with them was interrupted when the holy spirit came over all who were listening to the message. The believers who’d come with Peter were amazed that the gift of the spirit should have been poured out on Gentiles. Peter said: Is anyone prepared to withhold the water of baptism from these persons who have received the spirit just as we did?
This week the PCC approved a letter Trevor has drafted to our bishop on the subject of the Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage. To use the word pastoral in this context causes me utter dismay. I spent my working life trying to persuade adolescent girls to respect the meaning of words. Here’s a section of the letter. … The Church of England has always allowed and encouraged a broad spectrum of theology and practice and to deny gay and lesbian clergy [the right] to marry is out of step with contemporary morality and traditional Anglican broadness. ……..The church’s attitude to sexuality is a cause of scandal and a blemish on the body of Christ. By coincidence the day of the PCC meeting was the day that it was announced that another Anglican priest is to be deprived of his licence for marrying his same sex partner, which the law of the land says he is perfectly entitled to do. Remember Peter’s declaration: I now understand how true it is that God has no favourites but in every nation those who are god-fearing are acceptable to him. 2,000 years ago, Peter and Paul recognised that the church was ungodly if it was exclusive.
God chose Peter, Paul, Cornelius, Mary Magdalen, Mary and Martha, not perfect people, human people, a vast number of people with diverse gifts, assorted sets of emotional baggage, stable and unstable temperaments. Just as he has chosen us with our shades of belief, our age or youth, our social status, our sexuality, our ethnic background, our intellectual limitations and strengths and he has said: I have no favourites; you are all of equal value to me.