I don’t think I need to persuade you to the view that Peter and Paul were each very significant among the founding fathers of the Church.
Peter, of course, is portrayed among the Apostles as the leader, and there are some wonderful personal and one-on-one encounters between Jesus and Peter such as we read from John 21 today. As you read through the Book of Acts you see that Peter and James became the significant leaders of the Christians that were in Jerusalem.
Converts dispersed from Jerusalem in those early years to the towns and cities around the Mediterranean rim, and we see a number of journeys by those early apostles and church leaders to the outlying communities to help establish the churches there or to support and encourage them. But Peter and James remained in Jerusalem for at least the first twenty years following the death of Jesus. In the mid-50s Peter went to Rome and led the church there. Tradition has it that he was killed there by the Roman authorities in about 65ad.
Paul was not one of the Disciple Apostles. Compared to the Apostles, Paul was a citizen of the world. While he was clearly Hebrew and had been seriously trained as a Pharisee by Gamliel, he lived in Tarsus – a Roman town in Turkey – and he was in fact a Roman citizen.
Our Christian stories of him begin with him as a severe persecutor of Christians, but his encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus in Syria was transformative and he became a great champion of Jesus.
His stories are recorded in the Book of Acts as well as in his own words in some of the letters in the New Testament. He works very hard to establish his credential as an Apostle equal among the Disciple-Apostles because he says that he encountered and was taught by Jesus during a three year period he spend along before he started his ministry.
Paul, also ended up in Rome, about the time Peter was there and they were both executed in the mid-60s.
Much of the work of the early Disciple-Apostles was seeking to persuade Jews that Jesus was in fact their awaited Messiah. They generally did not detach themselves from the synagogues, but rather grasped every opportunity they could to make it clear that Jesus was the One.
But an interesting aspect of Synagogue life, especially in the towns around the Mediterranean to which the Hebrews had migrated, was that there was very often a group among them who were Gentiles who were very interested in Judaism. Paul, with his Cypriot friend Barnabus, had a canny knack of telling these people the stories of Jesus so convincingly that they became Christians rather than Jews. This might explain some of the trouble he seemed to have frequently with the Jewish Authorities.
This growing body of Christians from a gentile background caused problems for the Christians from a Jewish background, because the Jewish Christians still thought of themselves as Jews, so circumcision and the Law of Moses was kind of obligatory. Yet these gentile Christians weren’t lining up for those bits. This is what the meeting in Jerusalem which we read from Acts 15 today is all about.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
So we have these two characters before us today, whose lives we celebrate and whose memory we honour. And it seems to me that there are three things we might carry away with us as encouragement for our life together here at Holy Cross.
The first is that the ministry of Paul to the Gentiles shouts out to us all that the Christian Community was to be an INCLUSIVE community. The Hebrew people had been used to separating themselves from Gentiles and sinners – basically believing that contact with gentiles contaminated them and made them ritually unclean. But this Christian community chose to welcome sinners into it. Following the example of Jesus who “ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners” the church seemed to make it clear that anyone was welcome here.
Now I think that is really important for us in the church today. It is very easy for us to create barriers to make sure various groups of people don’t make it too close to us in the church. But this is not the way it should be. This should be a place of welcome or warm reception for anyone who feels marginalised or an outcast in our society.
Secondly, I think these two men teach us that sometimes things change. We generally like to think that our world will stay pretty much the same. It makes us feel safe. And this is perhaps especially so in the area of our faith life in the church. But just as Peter and Paul had to make big adjustments to changes in their ideas about how things should be in the church, so we, in our day have had to adjust and move on all sorts of ideas about the life of our church. We, all of us, tend to resist change. We like things to be as we have known them to be, but as life and our community changes around us we find that we also have to change.
The third little bit of inspiration I get from the stories of these two men is that when we choose to follow Jesus we never know what’s around the corner. And just as Jesus kept on in the way of his Father, even though he could see looming upon him the distinct possibility that the authorities would kill him, so Peter and Paul kept on with their sense of the mission Jesus had given them, even as they could both tell that circumstances were making it more and more likely that they would lose their lives.
I think this involved cultivating a confidence in our own sense of God’s call in our lives. God has called each one of us here to be his people, to live out our lives in relationship with God and in service of one another. Sometimes, the doing of that is really easy. Things go well, we can see the results of our efforts, and we feel greatly encouraged. But other times, we seeking to follow in his way it seems as though everything around us is railed against us doing it. But following the example of Jesus, and Peter and Paul, we can be encouraged to just keep on being God’s person here anyway.
The rule of life is simple – just do it! – even if things seem to be stacked up against us. God knows and will honour our faithfulness.