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Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June
Zech 4.1-6a, 12b-14:
Collect: (1st) may church stand firm on the one foundation, Js Xt
Post Com:(2nd) re faithful in teach & fellowship, united in prayer & mass, joy & simplicity of heart. (45 words) (1512-45=1467)
Summary: We look at saints and say they're wonderful; they look at God and claim nothing for themselves.
Today we observe the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs. This feast dates from AD 258 when the remains of the two saints were transferred temporarily from where they had been buried.
It is striking that in the developed traditions about the nucleus of disciples, those we today call apostles, all except John, son of Zebedee, whom tradition says wrote the 4th gospel, are held to have been martyred.
If the annual remembrance of the martyred bishop of Smyna, St Polycarp, dating from the late second century, was the very first saintís day, then the feast of Peter and Paul is nevertheless one of the earliest. (In fact, saints days for the rest of the apostles are not fully developed until about the 7th century. All you have to do is look at the provision for Simon and Jude to see that those two are not even mentioned by name in the Collect, for nothing is known of them beyond being names in a list).
But in the cases of Peter and Paul, we have solid grounds for believing they were martyrs for their Christian faith. In St Peterís case we have the clear evidence of St Johnís Gospel, in the late first century epilogue of chapter 21, when the evangelist presents the risen Lord as saying to Peter, Ď"When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." The evangelist then adds the following comment: ĎHe said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.í (Jn 21.18-19)
In Paulís case the Book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, still awaiting trial as a Roman citizen. For an account of Paulís martyrdom we have the witness of the Acts of St Paul. This a writing in Greek that was compiled from earlier writings by an apparently orthodox Christian in Asia Minor. It was put into circulation in the latter half of the second century. According to this writing Paul was beheaded as a Roman citizen on the banks of the Tiber about three miles outside of Rome. His body was then taken to a cemetery on the Ostian Way closer to Rome. This cemetery belonged to a Christian matron named Lucina and Paulís remains were buried on the site of the present basilica of St Paulís-outside-the-walls.
It is, therefore, generally agreed that Peter and Paul were both martyred under the Emperor Nero around 64 AD in the vicinity of Rome.
I think it is possible that they may be the "two witnesses" that are referred to in the late first century writing, the Revelation of St John the Divine, when in 11.4 the author, in the context of actual or impending Roman persecution, quotes from our OT reading from Zechariah.
In the year AD 258 the Christian tombs were threatened with desecration in the persecution under the emperor Valerian. And so, on the 29th of June of that year, Paulís remains were transferred for a time, along with those of St Peter, to a locality described as "at the catacombs on the Appian Way". This is the origin of todayís feast. Paulís remains were eventually returned to their original site, and in the 4th century AD the Emperor Constantine had the basilica of St Paulís-outside-the-walls erected there, while he had the basilica of St Peterís erected over Peterís tomb in what is now the Vatican. This tomb is under the present St Peterís which in the early 16th century replaced the original basilica.
The witness of all four of the gospels and of Paul in Galatians and 1 Corinthians is that Peter is clearly the foremost member of the apostolic band. Peter may be first, but Luke in the Book of Acts places Paul with him, with Peter very much to the fore in preaching and decision-making in the first half of the book and with Paul dominating the second half. You have all heard about the so-called missionary journeys of St Paul as narrated in Acts, and many bibles have a map in the back laying out these journeys. The way that Luke tells of Paulís missionary efforts, he returns to Jerusalem at least four times, if not five, with each of his expanding areas of mission being given acceptance and approval by the apostles in Jerusalem, headed by Peter - something that Paul himself in Galatians denies ever having needed. I suspect that Luke has stretched the truth here in order to present the picture of a church more united from the start in missionary outlook to gentiles as well as to Jews than it actually ever was.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Romans around AD 60 to 62 it is obvious that there is a Christian community at Rome, but the fact that Paul does not mention Peter in the letter is a very strong indication that Peter was not the founder of the church at Rome nor was he there at the time that Paul wrote the letter. However, the remains of St Peter are indeed under St Peterís basilica, and the solid witness of the NT is that Peter was indeed the foremost member of the apostolic band. The way the resurrection narratives are told in all the gospels and in 1 Corinthians, although Mary Magdalene is the first to see the risen Lord, it is Peter who is given the prime place in the lists of witnesses. And in the epilogue of the fourth Gospel in the threefold restoration of Peter, counterbalancing his threefold denial in the passion, it is Peter who is singled out to show his love for the Lord by feeding the sheep and tending the flock.
In todayís gospel from Matthew we are playing in part with puns. For Cephas, which in its Greek form is Petros or, as we say, Peter, means "rock". Thus when Jesus is presented as saying, on the basis of Peterís confession, that he is the "Rock", at the first level it is a play on Peterís name. But it is much more than that. In Jewish thought, Abraham, for his total faith, trust and obedience to God is called the "rock". Hence, when (in Matthew only) Peter is called the Rock, it is his rock-like faith/trust/obedience that is the basis for the church.
We might say of the apostles that the bigger they are the harder they fall. This is certainly true of how Peter is presented in the gospels, since all four gospels tell of his three-fold denial of Jesus when the crunch comes in the passion.
Even Paul in the letter to the Galatians, while acknowledging that Peter is the apostle to the Jews while Paul himself is the apostle to the Gentiles, nevertheless, tells how he gave Peter a roasting at Antioch. For Peter had initially eaten with the gentile converts, but then backed off when conservative Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. And for this Paul told Peter off in no uncertain terms (Gal 2.11-15).
When we come to look at Paul himself, by his own admission in the letter to the Galatians, he had originally been a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. So it is not surprising that in every letter that is actually written by him, he works hard to defend his apostleship . But when it comes to the crunch in 2 Corinthians 11, having listed all the things for which he could boast in human terms, he then says that he will boast of the things that show his weakness. He then gives a sworn oath that what he will really boast about is that he was let down in a basket through a window at Damascus to enable him to escape from the governor under King Aretas. For Paul is utterly convinced that Godís power is made perfect in weakness.
We look at the saints and say how wonderful they are. The saints look at God and, like Paul, claim nothing for themselves.
So why focus on Peter and Paul?
Because Peter gives us an example of one who is impetuous, eager, fails, and starts again. Peter is someone many of us find it easy to identify with in our own lives.
Paul gives us a vision of love, of wanting to bring all people everywhere to know Godís love in Christ, and to bring them to join in the building up of diverse people in a community of love and service, the Body of Christ.
If it were not for the witness of Peter and Paul, I doubt very much that you and I would today be rejoicing to be fellow-disciples with them, disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.