Psalm 87:1-3, 5-7 (3)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Tradition tells us that it was on this day in the year 67 that two of the most important figures in the early church, the apostles Peter and Paul, were martyred in the city of Rome. Our building bears witness both to their significant ministries and to the manner of their deaths in stained glass images. Peter is represented here in the first window here on the east wall, with the combined symbols of crossed keys and the upside-down cross, said to be the instrument of his execution. Why an upside down cross? The story goes that Peter requested it himself, believing himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord Jesus. Paul’s emblem is preserved in the window at the south end of the upper room, consisting of an open book with the words Spiritus Gladius, or “Sword of the Spirit” and a two-edged sword, the preferred method of executing Roman citizens like Paul. From very early on in the church’s history (at least as early as the year 258), the tradition regarding their deaths on the same day has led to their being remembered and celebrated together on June 29, but in another respect it is an odd thing that that they should share a day of celebration. After all, Peter and Paul found themselves opposed to one another fairly early in the church’s history. Acts recounts the story of the conflict as a disagreement about membership in the church, with Peter believing that Gentiles should be required to accept certain marks of Jewish identity to be considered Christian and Paul arguing that accepting the Gospel was the only condition for being welcomed into fellowship. The disagreement was bitter, and eventually led to a sort of stalemate: Peter would take charge of the mission to the Jewish people, while Paul would be responsible for the mission to the other nations of the world. Other parts of Scripture bear witness to the on-going feud, with Paul’s letters accusing Peter of hypocrisy regarding Gentile Christians and letters bearing Peter’s name panning the writings of Paul as too difficult to understand.
Clearly, despite their disagreement, these two figures were vitally important to the church’s growth during its earliest years. So what can we learn from these saints of God, whose lives bear witness to the power of the gospel?
First, we each need to be reminded that the central truth of their lives is also the central truth of our own: It is not our own power or ability that saves us, but the love of God in Christ that comes to us and establishes our relationship with God. Peter came from humble beginnings as a fisherman to be numbered among the foremost of the apostles, while Paul’s high status among the authorities in Jerusalem ultimately meant nothing when it came to his position before God.
Second, the lives of Peter and Paul remind us that the life of discipleship is costly. As much as we would like to think that following Jesus is the path to blissful, care-free living, Scripture teaches us otherwise. The apostles we remember today show us what it means to bear the cross, to pour ourselves out so that others might know the love and grace of God, to give without counting the cost. Though few – if any of us – will ever find ourselves in the position of facing death in service to the gospel, faithfulness may require us to take a stand before the powers-that-be, to speak a word of truth that might stir up division and conflict, to be willing to sacrifice our comfort or respectability for the sake of others. Because of the example of Peter and Paul, we know that this kind of discipleship is not only possible, but it is the kind of life that can change the world for good.
Third, the fact of their disagreement on an issue of vital importance to the early church demonstrates something about the church in the present: namely, that our unity is in Christ, and in our being joined to his crucified and risen life in the waters of baptism. The church in general (and our own ELCA in particular) is a body of unique individuals with widely varied understandings of significance parts of the life of faith, and yet our common identity as God’s people can transcend those disagreements, so that we see them as evidence of diversity to be celebrated rather than as obstacles to be overcome or eliminated.
Finally, we can draw strength from Scripture’s insistence that the one who calls us to share and serve is faithful, and that even our moments of greatest weakness are not enough to prevent God’s will from being done through us. Peter, of course, might best be remembered for his denial of Jesus on the night of his betrayal, an act of cowardice and self-preservation that could have derailed his ministry forever. Paul, on the other hand, witnesses with approval the execution of Stephen, the church’s first martyr, and was regarded as one of the foremost enemies of the church. God, however, would not allow either of them to be defined by their failures. Instead, each of them was changed by the grace of God and freed from their shame so that they could become powerful witnesses to the good news of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading, for example, represents the undoing of Peter’s denial of Jesus: for each instance of betrayal on that fateful night, Peter is given an opportunity to profess his love for Jesus and a command to serve his brothers and sisters. In the same way, the second reading represents Paul’s testimony about his calling to preach the gospel and his confidence that God would strengthen him for the work of proclaiming the good news to the world. So it is with us. Each of us have been called to share the gospel in word and deed, and each of us struggles to overcome all the obstacles to that calling – like pride, fear, anxiety, shame, or doubt. Like Peter and Paul, we have also been united with Christ and assured of his presence with us, and so we can go out with good courage as they did, knowing that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Brothers and sisters, with the whole church we celebrate the example of our forerunners in the faith, the apostles Peter and Paul. May we be inspired by that example to bear the good news in everything we say and do, so that all the world might come to know God’s grace and life. For the lives of Peter and Paul and all the saints, and for divine love made flesh in Jesus Christ that frees us to love others in return: Thanks be to God! Amen.