June 29, 2017
Why is it that these two giants of the Christian faith are bundled on one feast day? Yes, they are remembered on other days in the Church’s calendar; Paul for his conversion and Peter for his confession. But, why this day?
Apparently it is to remind us that they both died as martyrs in Rome. According to tradition, their deaths occurred in the same year, 64, during the persecution under Nero. They were united in death, united in faith, united in their common love of Jesus the Christ, united in their sense of mission to feed God’s sheep.
We also know, however, that in life they had occasion for great differences of theological opinion. In the letter of Paul to the Galatians in 2:11 we have these words, “But when Cephas (Aramaic for Peter) came to Antioch I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” This controversy was about the mission to the Gentiles and matters of the circumcised and uncircumcised. Adherence to the Law and differences in the interpretation of Scripture and its application played a huge part. This was no small matter and Paul was resolute. Unless we miss the significance, this matter threatened to tear apart the fledgling Church.
What won the day was Peter’s and Paul’s common faith in Christ. Their unity in the person of Jesus and his teaching transcending ideology and pointing to the great room of inclusion enabled them to eventually move to a new place. As a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was aware of a very tense time in my home parish when two lay leaders of the congregation were at enmity with one another. The sharing of the “peace of Christ” in the liturgy was brand new and for many a bit controversial. One Sunday one of these persons, at the peace, left his pew and walked around the rather large worship space. It became apparent he was going straight to the person with whom he had been having the great argument. Everyone was holding a collective breath.
The most astonishing thing then occurred. One held out his hand to the other in what seemed like slow motion, eyes met, the hand was gently pushed aside and an embrace was offered and received. In an instant a relationship was restored, healing happened and worship continued. In a follow-up parish newsletter article it was expressed by these two men that if they were going to claim Christ as Lord they needed to act like it. So they did, right before our eyes.
This was a formative moment for me as a young Christian as well as a transforming moment for that parish. Memory tells me that the sharing of the peace of Christ was never the same again. The subsequent reconciliation of Peter and Paul, on a much larger stage, was formative for the first century Church. My hope is that it continues to inform and transform who we are as the people of God today.