Who Can We Do Without?

Easter 3C Trinity Cathedral.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that – in today’s readings from Scripture – we are witnessing the calling of two of the greatest figures in the New Testament Church.  Peter and Paul!

Now it’s true that Peter had actually been called to be a disciple of Jesus several years before when his brother Andrew had found him and brought him to meet Jesus.  It was on that occasion that Jesus had nicknamed him “Cephas” which is Aramaic for “Rock” (Petros, or Peter, in the Greek of the New Testament).

But Peter had been anything, but a Rock during much of his time as a follower of Jesus. He had loved him and wanted to serve him, but Peter almost always seemed to be getting it wrong in some way, missing Jesus’ point time and time again. And, of course, finally (and famously) he had denied even knowing Jesus three times on that terrible night and must have wondered if there was any hope for him even when he had become convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Yet in today’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to Peter in the midst of his daily work of fishing, blessing him with a great catch and even joining him for breakfast!  But it was only after that incredible meal that Jesus asks him three times “Do you love me?” And Peter is invited to respond – each of those three times – “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21) It could not have been lost on him that he had to affirm his love three times…the same number of times he had denied even knowing his rabbi and friend because of his own fear.

I’ve often wondered if, when you and I meet Jesus face to face, if part of that moment of judgment will be affirming our love as many times as we have denied him in this life.  I don’t know about you, but if that’s so, I’m going to be standing there a long time. (Pause) But then, I guess we have all eternity!

The conversion of St. Paul – which we heard about in our First Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles – is not all that different in some ways. Once again we have a notorious sinner – Saul the Pharisee – who was zealously going about his business of threatening and arresting followers of this same Jesus.  When he too is confronted with the Risen Christ – this time experienced in a brilliant light from heaven.  And a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (And when) he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9)

It would take Saul (who also, later, has his name changed to Paul) twenty years to figure out how in the world he could be persecuting Jesus – the man who had already been arrested, executed, and whom some were claiming had been raised from the dead. It would, I believe, only be while dictating his First Letter to the little church in Corinth, two decades after his conversion, that Paul would realize that those whom he was persecuting were actually members – limbs and organs – of Christ’s Body.  And that what he was doing to them….he really was doing to Jesus!

So, with the conversion (or perhaps in Peter’s case the “re-conversion”) of these two men, the stage is set for the greatest missionary movement in the history of the world.

Peter, the conservative leader of the Jerusalem church who initially thought that you had to be a Jew first in order to become a Christian. Paul, the revolutionary, who seemed to believe almost from the beginning that God was doing a new thing in this crucified and resurrected Messiah and opening the door of salvation to all people, to all who put their trust in him.

These two men didn’t even get along very well. They could not have been more different! The “conservative” working man and the “liberal” scholar. The “traditionalist” leader of the original apostles who had actually spent time with Jesus, and the “progressive” missionary and tent-making evangelist who was willing to risk it all for the sake of One he never met “in the flesh” but certainly encountered “in the Spirit!”

Yet somehow God used them both to transform a local “movement” into a worldwide phenomenon. Peter becomes the model for apostolic leadership and a voice for the unity of the Church across time and space. Paul not only planted individual Christian communities all across the Mediterranean world but wrote most of the New Testament in the form of letters and exhortations to those young Christians about how to remain faithful.

Is there a lesson in all that for us today?  In a church and a secular society which are, all too often, rent asunder by partisanship and division, it’s so easy to want to choose sides and identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”  To believe that we have all the truth and that “they” (whoever the “they” are!) have none of it. But what if the early Church had done that in the case of Peter and Paul?

What if they had seen these two men bickering as they regularly did – by letter and sometimes even in person – and decided that the Church could do without one or both of them? Would we be any better off without Peter’s remembrance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry (which may have eventually become enshrined in the four Gospels)? Or, how would it be if the church had decided that only good Jews could become good Christians after all?  How many of us would be sitting in this church if that had been the decision?

No, good Queen Elizabeth the First had it about right when she fashioned a balanced English Christianity which sought to hold together the Petrine Catholics and the Pauline Protestants in her Realm by refusing to “make a window into men’s souls” but to provide space at the Altar for any Christian who could embrace the Gospel, worship with the Book of Common Prayer, and come forward to receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist (even if they didn’t all understand it in exactly the same way!).

It all goes back to Peter and Paul who, I believe could affirm with Queen Elizabeth and, I hope, US the words of this morning’s Collect: “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread:  Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in ALL his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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