Fr David's Sermon
29th June 2003
Passport photos are usually an embarrassment to us. They don't do us justice and we are stuck with them for ten years. Here are two written portraits that have lasted 200 times as long. The first is of 'a man with a square face, a bald head, and a short square curly beard.' The second is of a man 'small in stature, bald and bandy legged, with a long nose and eyebrows meeting'. Neither in our age that so values the body beautiful would be likely to attract much attention and yet those two descriptions are of the most influential figures in Christianity after the Lord himself. We celebrate their feast today, that of Saints Peter and Paul. Can you match the description to the man? The first is Peter, the second Paul. We cannot be sure that they really looked like that, only that the descriptions belong to the ancient tradition of the Church.
Remembered together because they were martyred in Rome about AD 64, possibly on the same occasion, they were actually very different in their contribution and manner. The tendency of the Church to fragment as it did at the Reformation can be said to stem from siding too much with one at the expense of the other. A joint feast day requires us to hold differences of theological emphasis and insight together in creative tension. (I can't help seeing a lesson there for Peter and Paul's apostolic Anglican successors given the current unseemly Episcopal 'punch up' about gay bishops, although no doubt Peter and Paul would have got stuck in too!)
So what of the two men and their gifts to the Church? First Peter, square faced, bald and short curly bearded. With that picture we can begin to see Peter the rough and ready fisherman, impetuous, enthusiastic, short tempered, loyal but denying his master at the time of crisis. Peter could be both spectacularly right and terribly wrong. In today's Gospel St. Matthew records the high point in Peter's discipleship, his confession that Jesus was the Christ. When asked by Jesus, 'but who do you say that I am?' he replied, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God'. For that he was given the 'power of the keys' with authority over the Church. One of the foundations of the Christian life is the willingness to tackle Jesus' question seriously and to own the truth of Peter's reply.
Flawed as we are we can draw comfort from the fact that having got it so right Peter then got things totally wrong earning a rebuke from Jesus for his 'satanic' rejection of Jesus' destined journey to the cross. (It has been suggested that in basing its claims to primacy over the Church on the former the Papacy should also have in mind the latter!)
In the end Peter was forgiven by Jesus, loved and accepted for what he was. The beautiful and poignant dialogue between Peter and the Risen Lord on the beach is evidence of that. Going on to exercise his apostolic ministry, and having to accept that the Gospel was for gentiles as well as Jews, he won his crown of glory as a martyr in Rome.
Paul's description is less accessible. It does not help us to warm to him. He may never have been particularly likeable even after his conversion to Christianity on the Damascus road from a life as a hard line, pharisaic persecutor of the infant Church. In his own letters he hints that he was always less impressive when actually present. It is from his letters that we can build up our picture of St. Paul. He was the apostle to the gentiles so we owe our faith to him. Like Bonhoeffer he knew the 'cost of discipleship'. His missionary endeavours led him into much hardship. He was no stranger to bitter disputes and moral failings within Christian communities. As a former persecutor he himself faced persecution and a martyrs death because of his faith in Christ. His words to Timothy express this. 'I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith'.
Yet if Paul had a hard life as an Apostle he also conveys to us the joy of the Christian life. His epistle to the Philippians, written from a prison cell, is known as the epistle of joy for good reason. Paul teaches us so much about the inner life of the Christian and also about the nature of Christ, the source of that life. We also have his thoughts on many other aspects of Christianity, on Baptism and the Eucharist, on death and the resurrection, on ethics, on love and marriage. We might not be comfortable with all that he writes, but Paul remains a rich and inspired source for our Christianity.
Forced to work together I suspect that Peter and Paul would not have had an easy time. Yet so very different as they were, they both witnessed to the truth of the Christian Gospel receiving their martyr's crown. Today we resolve to build our faith on the foundations they lay and we give thanks to God for their lives of faith.
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Last updated 29/06/2003 09:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd