Today is a festival Sunday that I have never had the privilege of preaching. Peter and Paul, Apostles. On this Sunday we take time to look at these two great fathers of the faith and consider something about God based upon them. In a sense we get to look at what they say about God. Who do they say Jesus is?
A great deal of what we say about Jesus and who we say Jesus is can be traced back to these two men. Apart from, of course, what is likely the central proclamation of the Gospel made first by the great mother of the faith, Mary Magdalene: the tomb is empty, Jesus is risen from the dead. I couldn’t go through this sermon without at least one reference to Mary, because somehow Peter, Paul and Mary all seem to go together!
First, there was Peter. Fisherman, ordinary guy going about his business. He meets Jesus in the middle of a work day. Jesus calls and Peter follows. Throughout his time with Jesus he does and says some very profound things. And some not so profound things, too. He, along with the other disciples, witnesses Jesus healing countless people, feeding thousands, turning water into wine. He heard wise parables about the kingdom of heaven, meaningful teaching, and saw Jesus break down social barriers between Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, rich and poor, men and women, adults and children.
Peter was there when Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, appearing with Moses and Elijah and, in a quintessentially Peter moment, he tells Jesus that they should all stay there and make the mountaintop their home. That’s typical Peter. He always seemed to be saying something like that; eagerly embracing all the glory and majesty of Jesus and often tripping over himself in his desire to be faithful.
He declared Jesus to be the Messiah when most everyone other than the disciples was calling him a prophet. It was this great revelation that led Jesus to change his name from Simon to Peter, which means The Rock, and saying that it was upon this kind of rock solid faith that the church will be built.
Near to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Peter pledges his undying and unyielding devotion when Jesus tells him he knows that he won’t be able to keep from denying him. Not I, not I, Peter said, I will remain faithful no matter what! It seems that Peter couldn’t even imagine turning his back on his allegiance to Jesus.
But that is who Peter was, too. Right after declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, he tells Jesus that all this business about having to die just could not be so. So great was his protest that Jesus said, ‘get behind me Satan’ as though Peter’s words were repulsive to him. One minute he is The Rock of faith and the next, he sounds like the mouthpiece of the tempter.
And he does deny Jesus, despite all of his loud proclamation of unfailing loyalty. Three times he denies, just as Jesus had predicted, all before the first dawning light set the rooster to crow.
But there is something amazing about Peter in this mixed up contradiction of devotion and denial, faith and incomprehension. That is, something really amazing in Peter’s relationship with Jesus and we can see a really good example of it in our Gospel text for today.
In the lesson we heard, Jesus has come to visit the disciples on the beach. This is after he has been crucified, after Peter has denied knowing him three times, after the women found the tomb empty, early in the morning on the first day of the week. Do you love me, he asks Peter. Three times he asks and three times Peter says yes. Each time Jesus responds with a task: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Despite Peter’s over zealous mistakes and his fearful denial, he is still The Rock. Despite his flaws, he is still the rock on whose faith Jesus will build the church.
Then, there is Paul. A more different person couldn’t be found! Where Peter was a simple, blue collar working man, hauling in nets in the hot sun all day, Paul is a scholar, highly educated and dedicated to the Law. Peter leads the followers of Jesus; Paul executes the followers of Jesus. Peter walked, talked, ate, drank and traveled with Jesus; Paul knows nothing of these things.
Paul begins his life as Saul, which means ‘desired’. Saul the Pharisee. Remember all those guys who were constantly giving Jesus a hard time, questioning him, trying to trick him into making a mistake and publicly embarrass him, those guys that might even have been considered Jesus’ enemies… Saul/Paul was one of them!
Eventually, Saul meets the resurrected and ascended Jesus on the road to Damascus and he tells him, basically, stop killing all those people who are following me because I’m the Lord and you’re persecuting me! Saul is struck blind and, after arriving in Damascus, he meets a man who helps him and his eyes are restored. It is after this that he becomes known as Paul, which means small or little.
Paul is probably one of the most prolific writers in scripture with the overwhelming majority of the New Testament letters attributed to him in some way. He started churches, wrote to them to help with problems that they encountered, and wrote to his fellow church leaders, both women and men, describing visits he had or would make, tasks he had for them and suggestions for a faithful life.
He goes from breathing deadly threats against the earliest followers of Jesus to writing words that have become great expressions of faith that Christians around the world hold close to their hearts and minds.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39 (parts)
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Cor 1:18
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal….. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends….And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor 13:1-13 (parts)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 1:5-11
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
And one of my personal favorites: Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Cor 4:1
You see, that’s really the interesting thing about Paul. When he was still Saul, struck blind on his way to Damascus, Jesus comes to a man named Ananaias. He tells this man to go to the house where Saul is staying and restore his sight. Ananias does not want to go because he has heard of this man and his violent, zealous persecution of the followers of Jesus. But Jesus tells him this: Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.
God chose Paul. God chose Paul even when he was still Saul.s God chose Peter. God chose Peter even after he wasn’t loyal and wasn’t brave and didn’t always understand. This is the kind of thing God always does and that is ultimately what these two men tell us about God. This is ultimately who they say Jesus is.
Jesus is the one who chooses the ordinary and the humble, the high and arrogant, the ones with big hearts and the ones with big brains, the ones who are lost and confused and the ones who were lost and confused. Jesus is the one who knows every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Jesus is the one who knows when we will fail and loves us anyway, giving us second, third and countless more chances because he loves us. Jesus is the one who knows what we are capable of, what good we can do, and will not give up on us no matter what.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20.