St Stephen's Lewisham
29 June 1997
St Peter & St Paul
Two Saints of God
The other day someone said to me how difficult they found it to get on with some of their fellow Christians. On the contrary, they found the company of their non-churchgoing friends far more congenial.
There's nothing new under the sun, of course: and this particular discovery is as old as the faith itself. But just because something has been happening for a very long time past doesn't mean that that it's always bound to be the case; still less does it mean that there's nothing we can or should do about it to set matters right or to prevent it happening in the future. if that were the case then all illnesses would be incurable and there would be no point in going to the doctor when we are unwell.
To understand more why Christian relationships may be tricky it's instructive to look closely at the case of Peter and Paul.
It's hard to imagine two more different men. We know for certain that they saw a lot of each other. The Acts of the apostles describes several such encounters and the letters of the two men each mention the other, not always very favourably.
We also know from St Paul's letter to the Galatians that at least once the two men had a blazing public row in front of the whole Church. We know that they were both men of strong personality and determination; and there is other evidence in the New Testament that the public row which they had at Antioch was not the only one of its kind. Neither man, it seems, found the other an easy person to work with.
To understand why this was so we need first to look at the two men's backgrounds.
Peter: a Galilean fisherman, with probably no more formal education than what he had picked up from the local Rabbi at the equivalent of Sunday School in those days. Peter, a small-time businessman with a wife and children whose welfare depended on his being able to catch enough fish in the Sea of Galilee and sell them profitably in the local street market, whilst at the same time keeping his nets and his boat in good repair so as to be able to carry on doing so day in and day out.
Peter: the man called by Jesus to "follow me"; who immediately left his nets and his boat, his home and family to embark upon the life of a travelling evangelist with Jesus, a life which lacked both comfort and security as Jesus had warned him, as he warned his other disciples before they decided to throw in their lot with him; Peter, the first of the Apostles to confess openly that Jesus is no ordinary man but the Son of the Living God, the long-awaited Christ; Peter, the man chosen by Jesus to be first among equals among the Apostles and to lead his infant Church in its early years of existence. Yet this same Peter was the man who, the very next moment, was being called "Satan" by Jesus for trying to steer him away from the path which his Heavenly Father willed him to follow. Peter, the man who said one minute that he would definitely follow Jesus to the death and in his next death denied that he even knew him.
When we turn to St Paul, what a different man he was. Law student, graduate of Tarsus University, the most prestigious law school in the Middle East, a pupil of Gamaliel, one of the most respected tutors of his time; Paul the pharisee who kept the Law of Moses to perfection in its entirety; Paul the preacher, Paul the poet; Paul the missionary who had the rare knack of being able to explain the more complex doctrines of the faith in a way that ordinary people could understand but without being accused of over-simplification.
Yet this same Paul who once bitterly persecuted the very Church that St Peter was charged to defend; Paul who presided over, and perhaps organised the stoning to death of St Stephen; Paul who by his own admission had never met Jesus during his earthly life; Paul who suffered from some recurrent disability, perhaps epilepsy, which embarrassed both him and his friends; Paul who was not prepared to stand any nonsense from people like young Mark who for any reason lapsed from their discipleship; Paul who was not prepared to be a financial burden to anyone but took up tent-making in order to earn his own living whilst he travelled from one end of the known world to the other.
It's not difficult, is it, to see why these two men, Peter and Paul found each other hard to get on with from time to time?
But is not the really remarkable fact that they managed for the most part to work together in the Church of God for the People of God most of their ministries? They found a way, in other words, of working together which made sense. It was agreed between them that Peter should by and large work with Jewish converts to the faith, whilst St Paul should go to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, whose language, Greek, he spoke fluently. Moreover, being a freeborn Roman citizen (unlike St Peter) Paul could travel very much more easily and freely wherever he wanted because of the privileges which that citizenship afforded him.
As a result of this division of labour between Peter and Paul it meant that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, had a fair chance of hearing the Gospel preached to them.
And just so long as the two men each worked in his agreed sphere or ministry, whilst at the same time respecting the work which the other was doing, each man's ministry complemented that of the other admirably. St Paul raised money for the Church in Jerusalem which had run out of funds; St Peter helped Paul at his sticky interview with St James and the Council of Jerusalem by describing his own experience with the conversion of the Gentile soldier, Cornelius and his family.
Yet the two men didn't always hit it off together. Their differences in background, in intellect and temperament sometimes made it inevitable that they would fall out with one another.
A rough-hewn tradesman like Peter must have felt a tinge of envy about the education and privilege of Roman citizenship enjoyed by Paul, not to mention his effortless command of the Greek language which he, St Peter, had taken so long to achieve. Paul must have felt exasperated by Peter's fickleness and unreliability, being a man who was so well organised himself and not in the habit of saying or doing the first thing that came into his head.
Perhaps also St Paul, as an avowed celibate for the sake of the gospel, was prone from time to time to envy the family background of St Peter. Certainly as the more socially awkward and less easy-going of the two men, St Paul must have observed with some wistfulness the way in which Peter seemed to be able to get on with just about anybody, especially the younger generation. In his famous hymn on Charity in 1 Corinthians when he said how much more important Love was than either Faith or Hope we can detect, I think, how difficult Paul found it to be charitable towards those fellow-christians, like Peter and Mark, who were always, as he saw it, "letting the side down".
All these differences between the two men conspired to make it more difficult for them to work together. We don't know for certain how often their paths crossed during their respective ministries, but we can assume that they necessarily had quite a lot of dealings with each other.
What we do know for certain, however, is that both men found themselves thrown into prison during the terrible persecution in Rome which took place under the emperor Nero in the year 65. Whether they had to share the same cell or not, we cannot tell, but we know that they were both falsely accused of the same crime, that of setting fire to the the city, whilst at the same time being, as the charge-sheet against them read, being "haters of Mankind".
In the morally degenerate society of first century Rome, anyone who lived a decent, upright moral life was liable to be accused of being a "hater of mankind", a most serious charge which is calculated to attract little public sympathy. After all, if a man is living a good life, it's just about the only charge you can level against him that will stick. Words like "bigoted", "fundamentalist", and "homophobic" were spattered around like mud just as freely 1900 years ago as they are today against anyone who practises, or worse still, preaches the Word of God and keeps his commandments. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
So these two faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, Peter and Paul, died a violent death for their faith that Jesus is truly the Christ, God made man, and that in him alone, through faith in his name, can salvation and eternal life be found. Paul, as a Roman citizen was beheaded; Peter as a foreigner suffered the fate reserved for rebels by being crucified upside down.
So these men, who had so often been at loggerheads during their lifetime found that "in death they were not divided".
This gives us a clue as to how to answer my acquaintance with which I began this morning whom I quoted as saying how difficult they found it to get on with some of their fellow-Christians.
Peter and Paul didn't find it easy to get on with each other, either. So we should study the relationship which existed between them by reading both the Acts of the Apostles and their respective letters of which we have quite a number surviving.
We shall find if we do so that it's a fact that these two men, both unmistakably committed to the service of Jesus Christ, found it difficult to get on with each other. It's therefore not surprising if we who rank as spiritual pygmies alongside these two giants of the faith should find from time to time that it's difficult to get on with each other.
But let's remember that Jesus deliberately chose these two men, whom his Father had created, for different reasons: it was precisely their differences that he wanted to incorporate in the building up of his church into a single body. As St Paul was to write to the Corinthians, one part of the body cannot say to another "You're not like me so I don't need you". The eye is different from the nose, but each has its own role to play in the fully-grown man.
The fact is that we do need each other. That very diversity that God has created between us in the Body of Christ, tiresome though it may sometimes be is precisely what enables it to function effectively as a body.
So next time a fellow christian annoys you for some reason, think back to St Peter and St Paul. If you are tempted to think how glad you would be to dispense with that person's company in our midst, just remember that Jesus had as good a reason for choosing them as he had when he chose you and me.
Then pray that your understanding may be enlightened to discover precisely why Jesus has chosen that person, and that you and they may come to learn to work harmoniously within the Body of Christ.
And when we have done that we might go a step further and ask ourselves the really awkward question which is this:
"Is my real reason for disliking this person the fact that Jesus sees in them some particular talent or attribute which is conspicuous by its absence in me?"
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