Today we remember the lives and commitment of a fisherman and a tentmaker.
At least those were their jobs. To us they are Saints Peter and Paul, two men whose commitment to being disciples of Jesus made them immortal figures in history. The dynamic duo of the first century—busting out of prisons as we heard in our first reading, defying the Empire, bringing the news of Jesus to everyone who would listen.
There was Peter. Or Simon, well, that was his name until Jesus gave him the nickname of Peter, or in Greek petros, or rock, as we would say. So, Rocky, you could say. His faith was a foundation stone of the first generation of the church. (Well, most of the time, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) “I will build my church on you, Rocky,” Jesus said to him. On that rock.
St. Peter is not just some white-bearded gatekeeper up in heaven, the bouncer at the pearly gates. Peter was the force behind the spread of Jesus’ message. He was the first to preach the word of God on that day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit showed up and the holy confusion broke out.
And then there is Paul. Or Saul, he gets a name-change, too. Now Saul/Paul never met Jesus in person. Unlike Peter, he was not one of the original disciples, he joined the team a little later. In fact, he was an agent of Rome, his job was to find Jesus’ followers and arrest them. But it was on the road one day that Jesus appeared to him, in a blinding flash of light, and Saul was thrown off his horse and became Paul, the Apostle.
Perhaps no other person except for Jesus himself has had more influence on our faith. He was a brilliant man, his command of rhetoric and argument are second-to-none, his thinking has shaped our thinking to this day.
He was what we’d call in this day a mission developer, someone who went out and formed churches, guiding them, coaching them, sometimes rebuking them. We read Paul’s letters to these particular churches every Sunday, they have a special name—they’re called Epistles.
But Paul and Peter aren’t stone figures, they aren’t confined to stained glass and oil paintings. They were humans, just like us. They lived in a very specific place and time. And their actions and lives shaped that.
The were Jews—they were born Jewish, they lived Jewish and they died Jewish. To call them the first Christians—at least as we understand Christians today—is a bit of a misstatement. Of course, they believed that Jesus was the Christ—the Messiah, chosen one of God—and that he was the Lord. But they did not seek to found a new religion, but they sought to proclaim the promises and the actions of God outside of a small community of Jews in Palestine. They went out into the world to speak to non-Jews—what the Bible calls Gentiles. From this soil, this Jewish soil, Christianity flourished in the Roman Empire.
They were also flawed people, just like you and me. They fought and argued with each other. They had disagreements with their own followers. They had moments of doubt and despair.
Peter’s faith, was a rocky foundation as Jesus said, but not the strongest foundation. When the going got tough, when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus not once but three times.
But, as we see in today’s reading, Jesus gives him a second chance, after his resurrection. “Do you love me?” he asks. “Yes Lord, I do,” says Peter. Three times, the holy number three. In Peter we see our own faith and our own doubts reflected back at us. And in the story of Peter and Paul, we see an all too familiar story of faith and doubt, sin and forgiveness.
And Paul was keenly aware of his own shortcomings, his own limitations. His voice echoes in the words of Second Timothy: “I am being poured out like a libation,” he writes today. I’m being offered like a cup of fine wine on the altar. My life is nearly over, I am tired, and I pass my mission on to you.
Peter and Paul’s primary mission was to spread the word of Jesus among all people, those born Jewish and the Gentiles, the ones not born Jewish, the sheep inside the fold and those outside. Peter naturally gravitated to the Jews, Paul to the Gentiles. They understood that God’s love, the saving actions of Jesus, were for all people, whatever your background however you grew up. And the message that they had was so powerful that the traveled all over the known world to spread it.
Now, last week, we talked a little about how Jesus was a radical figure, what he had to say shook the Roman empire to its core. And just when they thought they had gotten rid of him, here comes his two helpers. Peter and Paul, traveling the across the empire into the very heart of Rome itself.
They were arrested, they were harassed, they were persecuted. Yet still they believe, they fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith. Both met their end in the city of Rome. Tradition holds that Paul, being a Roman citizen was beheaded, but Peter was sentenced to crucifixion. He insisted on being hung upside down as an act of humility.
Missionaries and martyrs. Two men that point us to God’s overwhelming power and grace. One showing us that belief and devotion knows no human limits, God is always feeding us sheep. The other reminding us that all may hear God’s message of love. God saves all of us from the lion’s mouth.
So much of our world has changed since Peter and Paul walked the earth. But some things don’t—the hunger for a word of salvation, a yearning for justice, a deep longing for forgiveness and love. Peter and Paul fed the sheep of their day. And through their example, because of their example, we do the same.