Ss Peter and Paul, 28th June 2020
The lives and mission of these two greatest Apostles of Jesus give us an inkling of how God calls individuals, quite different in character, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit uses them to do Christ`s work. Both Peter and Paul were chosen directly by Jesus but in quite different ways. Peter and Andrew were called by Jesus from their work as fishermen in Galilee at the beginning of the Lord`s three-year earthly ministry when He told them, “Follow me”. Paul, quite differently, was called by Jesus, in a vision that he received whilst on his way to Damascus to round up Christians at the behest of the High Priest to bring them back to Jerusalem for trial! You will remember that this same Paul, known at the time as Saul, was one of those minding the clothes of those who were stoning to death the first Christian Martyr St. Stephen. In the vision Saul saw Jesus who asked him, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me ?” Saul was struck blind and had to be led to Damascus by his companions on the same mission of detaining Christians!.
Peter and Paul are often described as the Two Pillars of the Early Church in their following and their teaching the Christian Faith. Peter is often referred to as The Apostle of the Jews and Paul The Apostle of the Gentiles. He and his brother Andrew were fishermen of the poorer type not owning a boat of their own and Peter, original known as Simon though given the nickname Petros or Cephas (in Aramaic) meaning stone or rock. With fellow fishermen, James and john the sons of Zebedee, he was in the small group that was closest to Jesus and often acted as their spokesman as Mark records in his gospel on at least three occasions. We know, also for St. Mark, that Peter was married (Mark 1, 29 -31 and it seems that his wife later accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys (1 Cor.9, 5). He acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah though he did not understand that Jesus would have to suffer. (Mark 8, 27 – 33). On other occasions Peter appears in a poor light especially over his denial of Jesus particularly as recorded in Mark 14, 66 – 72. But the weakness and failures in Peter`s character serve to highlight the courage and compassion of Jesus. St. Luke tells us that Peter was the first male disciple to see the Risen Lord (Luke 24;34) and Paul also records this in his First letter to the Corinthians(15, 5).
In the Acts of the Apostles St. Luke records that Peter took a leading position in the young church as a preacher, a healer of the sick and went as an envoy from Jerusalem to oversee the work of other missionaries (Acts 8: 14-25). We find too that he suffered for his faith and that guided by a vision he was the first to preach to and convert the Gentiles (Acts 10, 1 – 11, 18) and that he supported Paul on this matter in the Council recorded in Acts 15. However, in Paul`s letter to the Galatians (2, 11-14) we are told the he refused to have full fellowship with the Gentiles in Antioch. It seems that it was at this Council in Jerusalem that Paul was allotted the Gentiles as his missionary concern and Peter the Jews. However, it was not long after that Peter went travelling and the leadership of the Church in Jerusalem to James (not the brother of John). He may have visited Corinth as well as Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia and Bythinia to which he refers in the opening of the first letter attributed to him in chapter 1 and verse 1. He came to Rome shortly before his death and there is a long tradition that he was martyred in AD64 in the persecution by Nero. A rather later tradition has it that the Basilica in Rome named after him was built over the site of his tomb.
The exact meaning of the words spoken to Peter, as recorded in St. Matthew`s gospel 16: 17 – 19: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heave,” This, of course, took place immediately after Peter had recognised Jesus as the Messiah.
Two of the writings of the New Testament are attributed to St. Peter, namely to two epistles named after him. He is also associated with the Gospel according to St. Mark with the assumption that Mark, his one-time companion, was a scribe for his thoughts.
Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul the Apostle, is both a complement and a contrast to St. Peter, for he is unique in that he came from an Hellenistic Jewish family which traced its descent from the tribe of Benjamin, he was a Pharisee and, unusually, a Roman citizen so he was a man of some stature. The final stages of his education took place in Jerusalem under the guidance of the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22.3 and 26.4) rising to a position of some eminence as a Pharisee and might well have been a member of the Sanhedrin!
When Christianity initially came to some prominence in Jerusalem Paul was totally opposed to it regarding it as a blasphemous sect! So opposed was he that he vowed to exterminate it. (Acts 9; 1-2, 1 Cor. 13, 9 and Galatians 1, 15). His expedition to Damascus chasing Jewish Christians who had fled there, gave him an experience that totally changed the course of his life. The story of his conversion, which we know so well, can be found in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles ending with how he preached the Resurrection of Jesus. Some twenty years later he referred back to that experience he compared it to the post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus to his disciples. His Jewish Faith had been fervent but his recognition of the saving work of Jesus made his new life as a Christian Apostle even more so by his unqualified commitment to the Gospel! From the time of his conversion he threw himself into missionary work throughout Asia Minor and Greece, establishing many churches and seeing himself as God`s chosen agent to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. (Gal. 1, 15-16 and 2, 7-8).
Never an easy man, indeed he fell out with a number of his missionary companions, and always a stickler for the truth and its proclamation. He made no less than five major missionary journeys in his life and wrote no less than 13 Epistles – 10 to the Churches which he had largely founded and the 3 Pastoral Epistles – 2 to Titus and 1 to Philemon.
Like Peter he ended his days in Rome being martyred by being beheaded under the persecution of Nero. He had gone to Rome, of course, insisting on his right, as a Roman citizen,to be tried by Caesar when charges were brought against him!
When we read through both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul`s Epistle or Letters we cannot but be surprised at the range of people and society that he brought the Christian Faith to from the poorest slaves to the highest members of society!
Paul was beheaded in AD 64 and is buried under what is now the Basilica of St. Paul without the Walls some little distance from Rome. Peter, earliest tradition has it, was crucified, upside down so as to contrast to Our Lord in about AD 64 also.
There is so much more that could be, and has been, written about both St. Peter and St. Paul but there is no time here and now. So I say only, “Let us give thanks to God for the example and steadfastness of the lives and commitment of these Servants of Jesus, Apostles and Fathers of the Faith.”