It’s the time of year when we remember and celebrate the witness of two men who played foundational roles in the community of believers that has grown to include well over 1 billion people – St. Peter and St. Paul.
Peter was a fisherman from Galilee. He was known as Simon. He was brash and decisive and protective of his friends. He didn’t hesitate to argue if he thought a request was unreasonable (but we’ve been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything!) or a plan was unwise (they want to kill you in Jerusalem!). Yet when Jesus came into his life, he was open enough to the Spirit that he left everything and followed when he was called. Jesus named him Peter, calling him the Rock on which the community would be built. (Jn 1:42)
Peter became the leader of Jesus’ followers, at least in part because he spoke his mind and looked out for the safety of them all. He was the one who answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with the profession of faith, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:15-16)
Peter was not perfect. He expressed his doubts about Jesus’ plans to go to Jerusalem, trying to dissuade him from that plan, and was rebuked as “Satan” for his efforts. He walked on water towards the Lord, and sank into the waves when he stopped to think about what he was doing. He promised undying support for Jesus at the Last Supper, and denied him 3 times before the sun came up.
No, Peter was not perfect. But he was a perfect leader for the new community because he knew he was imperfect and still loved, chosen, and trusted to do his best. It was a big job for a big person. Figuring out who this Jesus was and is, how to live as a community who follow His ways, how it all fit into the faith in which he was born and raised, what to do about all those non-Jews who also received the Spirit and wanted to be part of the community. A big job.
Paul was from Tarsus, a Roman city. So he was a Roman citizen. He had been trained as a tent maker, but he had also been educated. He was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, and a student of the great teacher Gamaliel. He was not a follower of Jesus before the Crucifixion and Resurrection. In fact, he was one of those who saw the new Way of living as a huge threat to the larger Jewish community and to their faith. The Romans were not gentle with those who opposed them or to those who upset the day-to-day routine of life in the provinces. And certainly, the Jews had seen time after time through history what happened to the whole people if groups of them stopped worshipping according to the traditional ways of their people. War, exile, persecution by conquerors. It was not something to risk.
The first time we hear of Paul is at the trial and stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. He was called Saul at the time and he consented to Stephen’s death. Saul was an enthusiatic participant in the persecution of Jesus’ followers that followed. He saw that the new teachings were doctrinally quite different from those of traditional Jewish Law and worship at the temple. He was determined to crush the new movement. (Acts 8:3)
When the persecution began in Jerusalem, followers of the Way (as Christians called themselves at that time) had scattered throughout the surrounding area. So Saul got letters from the authorities and traveled north to Damascus, to arrest them there too and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. It was on the road to Damascus that he met the Lord. A bright light flashed around him. He fell down. A voice called to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He asked who was speaking and was told, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. …” Acts 9:1-30 tells the story of his conversion, his first preaching, the reactions of his fellow Christians and of his fellow Jews, and his return to Tarsus (where he would be safe from those who wanted to kill him). And then in Acts 9:31 we read, “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria was at peace.”
Peace. A lovely thought. But peace is a state that seems never to last very long – perhaps because growth so often brings unexpected changes, stresses, and strains in its wake. Perhaps because some growth can’t happen except in times of difficulty, when new ideas and new solutions must be discovered. Perhaps because God is too unlimited, too expansive, too inclusive, TOO BIG to be kept in any of our human boxes.
And so the Fisherman baptized a Gentile, Cornelius, and his family. And the community adjusted its thinking about who could be called to the new Way. (Acts 10:1-49, 11:1-18)
Those who had been scattered from Jerusalem shared their faith in new communities in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. They spoke not just to Jews, but also to Greeks and many believed. The community in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to meet them. Barnabas was so impressed that he went down to Tarsus, collected Saul, and went back to Antioch for a year, teaching the growing community there – where followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
Saul and Barnabas were sent forth from the community at Antioch, to proclaim the word of God in Cyprus. It was the first of Saul’s many missionary trips. (From this point on, he is called Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.)
And things would never again be the same. The Fisherman and the Pharisee didn’t always see eye to eye. They argued. They tussled. They sent letters and messengers back and forth to each other. They had meetings. And through it all, they (and the community) worked things out. And the Christian community became more and more a separate community and faith from the Jewish one into which they had been born.
It was not a time of perpetual peace and smiles. But at the end of their lives, both Peter and Paul, in Rome, died as witnesses to their faith in the Lord – Peter upside down on a cross and Paul, the Roman citizen, by the sword. And the tensions and struggles within the growing community, as well as the growth in understanding of the Good News, and of who Jesus was/is, and of how we are to relate to the Father, and of many, many other things, continued.
In future posts, I’ll talk about some of those “other things” that came along, and use some of the tools of anthropology to look at them. For now, it’s enough to say that Peter and Paul can be seen as representing two essential roles within our community of faith. Their passion and courage in hearing the Lord’s call and stepping out faithfully to spread the Good News is a gift to us all.