BUTTING HEADS

The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

The Rev’d John R. Clarke theiclarlyd@msn.com
Priest-in-Charge
Episcopal Parish of the Messiah, Newton, Massachusetts

From the Orthodox liturgy for this day: We magnify you, O Apostles of Christ, Peter and Paul, who have enlightened all the world with your teachings and have brought all the ends of the earth to Christ.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I know I sound like one of those PBS travel guides when I say, “No trip to such-and-such would be complete without a visit to fill-in-the-blank.” But really, no trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It’s a little out of the way, but you really owe it to yourself to take it in - all of it. It’s colossal! Everything about it shouts “big!” A huge nave flanked by four aisles, gargantuan statues of the Apostles, heaps of surprisingly tasteful altars.

But as impressive as all this is, one element of the basilica is a real showstopper. And that’s the gothic canopy over the high altar. It’s really an overwhelming shrine resting - no, hovering - atop four massive pillars. It’s a fantasy of color and gilding, a breathless dance of mosaics, statues, and florid pinnacles. There’s a lot competing for your attention, so it’s easy not to notice pretty high up there behind the gilt pillars that form the shrine’s screen the torsos of two haloed figures - equal in placement, stature, and gilding, differentiated only by what they hold in their hands. The figure on the left sports a glinting golden sword, the figure on the right, the golden keys of the kingdom … one St. Paul, the other St. Peter. But these aren’t just statues. They’re reliquaries. They house some of the most precious relics in the city of Rome: the heads of Peter and Paul. Yes, it’s a bit gruesome if you stop to think about it. But in the forensically challenging world of relics you learn to get past that pretty quickly!

But just why are these two relics together? It’s like asking, “Why are we celebrating these two pillars of the Church today - on the same day?” After all, either Peter or Paul could easily stand on his own. Well, the answer to both these questions has to do with the details of their deaths. According to tradition, Peter and Paul were both martyred under Nero in Rome on the same day - June 29, probably around 64 CE. Peter was crucified upside down at the base of the Vatican Hill. Paul was beheaded by the sword outside the city walls on the Ostian Way.

So in the hour of their deaths, Peter and Paul have a lot in common. And that’s why they’re paired in the shrine at St. John Lateran and on the Church’s calendar. But I also think there’s something else at play here. And that has to do with their working relationship. The fact is it was pretty dysfunctional. They weren’t much alike. They didn’t always get along. And they were highly competitive. A pretty volatile mix. Just ask anyone who’s served on a vestry! Often between the two the sparks really flew. That’s because Peter is all “just-do-it!” action. And Paul - while he does get results - is more academic and methodical. He’s big on strategy and process. Under the one roof of the Church, it’s a tricky dynamic. And for a good part of their early interactions, Paul and Peter just don’t click.

Well, after all, look at their different histories. Here you have Peter, the impetuous person of many firsts. Impetuous people tend pull off a lot of firsts. And there you have Paul, the latecomer Apostle.

First, Peter … Among the first chosen to follow Jesus. The first to confess Jesus as the Messiah, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The first of the eleven disciples to witness the empty tomb. The first spokesperson to testify to new life in Christ at the first Pentecost. Peter - the Rock upon which Jesus builds his Church … But pretty rocky in his dealings with Paul.

Paul … the efficient, calculating brains behind the first systematic persecution of Christians. Paul, always playing catch-up with the other Apostles. Paul, the bookish strategist who abandons the Church’s tradition-bound leadership in order to focus on bringing the Good News of God in Christ to the Gentiles.

Peter and Paul. Fire and ice.

And so Peter and Paul are bound to butt heads. They do. And there are consequences. Their differences come to a head in a controversy that almost splits the first-generation Church. And that centers on a fundamental question: Who will be the Church? Now, everyone with an interest in the question agrees that the Church’s mission is to the world. But the question-within-the-question is: What does it take to be a member of the Church? In particular, must Gentiles who wish to become Christians have to become Jews first? Is circumcision required? What about keeping kosher?

Peter and his party say, “Yes, all of the above.” Paul counters, “No. Gentile Christians are under no obligation to observe Jewish law.” So you see, the Church has a problem. How can Christians hope to profess, “A single great commission compels us from above, / to plan and work together that all may know God’s love”? It may not sound like much to us, but it’s a mega-issue for the young Church. We’re not talking here about Prayer Book revision. We’re talking about the very nature of the Church, the really big stuff! The way Peter and Paul see it, it’s an issue that has to be resolved … or else the Church is dead in the water.

To force the issue once and for all, the leaders of the Church convene what some call the very first ecumenical council. The parties converge on Jerusalem. And just after a lot of fireworks at the start-up, something really unusual and totally unexpected happens. Paul’s transparent logic and airtight arguments somehow puncture holes in Peter’s thick skull and he does an about-face. Peter stuns the council by supporting Paul’s party platform. It’s like Nixon going to China. In the end, the council realizes that so far, in terms of mission, nothing succeeds like Paul’s success. And the result is Spirit-driven consensus -- basically that Gentile Christians are free from the demands of Jewish law. And there’s an even more important result. The two great pillars of the Church reconcile. Thanks to their appetite for unity, Peter and Paul find a way to move forward together to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” to the ends of the earth.

And that spirit of reconciliation is captured by a popular icon of Peter and Paul greeting one another at the Council of Jerusalem. They are seen exchanging the Kiss of Peace. In their outstretched hands rests the Church -- serene, reconciled, and reconciling.

Now, don’t we wish all our rocky relationships would end up so serene? In our Litany of Healing at our Wednesday evening Eucharists, we ask God to “mend broken relationships” and to “restore to wholeness whatever is broken by human sin, in our lives, in our nation, and in the world.” Brokenness - that was the situation between Peter and Paul. And it’s the situation we find ourselves in … with a partner or spouse, a parent or child, brother or sister, boss or colleague, friend or, more likely, former friend, Integrity and Episcopalians United, even ECUSA and AMiA. You name it.

Why not turn to Peter and Paul for some help? You know, they’re way down on the reconciliation learning curve, so they’re terrific consultants. And they’re free! So let’s put it to them: “Peter, Paul, you two are so different. Your differences threatened to split the Church. Help us. How do you reconcile? How do you mend broken relationships?”

And I believe Peter and Paul would speak from their own experience and suggest a six-step process of reconciliation:

1.     Acknowledge the situation - that a situation of brokenness exists between you, that things just aren’t working. Don’t get tangled in the relative merits of your positions. Focus on the relationship.

2.     Acknowledge the consequences. What affect does this brokenness have on your life - and your life together? You might even acknowledge what affect this brokenness has on your project to “grow in the knowledge and love of God and of God’s Son Jesus Christ.” For Peter and Paul, their situation threatened the really big stuff - the mission of the entire Church (as the Catechism puts) “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

3.     Apply firm resolve to fix the situation. And this might involve a mutually agreed-upon vision of what you think the relationship might realistically become. In the case of Peter and Paul, they would acknowledge their desperate need for on-going conversion to the way Jesus reconciled real people to God and each other in the real world. And for Peter and Paul, this involved the humility to learn - an appreciation for the inadequacy of where any of us is at the present - an acknowledgment that, as Paul put it, we know only in part. And that leads to the Step 4 ...

4.     Talk … two persons stamped in the image of God - face-to-face - respecting each other’s God-given dignity. Search for clarification and clarity on the issues. Risk wading into the gap between where the relationship is heading and where you agree God wants it to head. Seek meditation if necessary - that’s what the Council of Jerusalem was for.

5.     Get consensus on resolving the issues dividing you. Discerning the mind of Christ, just how are you going to move forward? In the case of Peter and Paul, this meant transcending issues of style, history - and even personal theology - to get at agreement on the essentials - here again, the over-arching mission of the Church. And that meant getting a firm grip on those essentials, while loosening their grip on things that weren’t so essential. That is, Peter and Paul would suggest we invoke the formula Augustine advocated: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, freedom. In all things, charity.”

Then, probably the most important step of all …

6.     Move forward. Call off the attack dogs. Make amends, if necessary. Exchange the Kiss of Peace. Nurture the relationship. Agree on specific ways you will move forward together. Contract to support each other in your efforts to fulfill what Terry Waite calls the role of the Church and faith: “To enable the weak to be strong, the strong to be just, and above all, to enable the just to be compassionate.”

Six not-so-easy steps, but critical steps nonetheless. I think that’s a process of reconciliation Peter and Paul endorsed by their own practice. It just makes sense. I guess that’s just the sort of thing saints do.

We thank Almighty God, then, for Peter and Paul’s apostolic leadership. We pray that we might follow them in their witness to a reasonable, practical, and actionable faith. We affirm with them our love for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church they advanced and died for. And we remember these two pillars of the Church recalling the antiphon from Matins for this day:

Today Simon Peter ascended the wood of the cross, alleluia!
Today the key-bearer of the kingdom of heaven went joyously to Christ!
Today the Apostle Paul, the light of the world,
bent his head under the sword for the name of Christ
and received the crown of martyrdom, alleluia!

Amen.


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