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Bible readings:

St Peter & St Paul (June 29, 2014)                                                  St James', Peace River

It’s a fairly rare occasion in our current church calendar when we get diverted from the week by week routine of Sunday worship, to remember a saint. There’s a principle at work here. Every Sunday is the anniversary of the resurrection, a little echo of Easter, and what could be more important than that? The few exceptions, when they come along, effectively prove the rule. All Saints’ is the biggest – and we celebrate that because it too is a time to remember Jesus alive, in all who follow him. A different way of honouring the resurrection!

Today we’re remembering and celebrating two of the key figures of the first generation Christian church, St Peter and St Paul. But this isn’t a privilege they won by being prominent or important. We remember them as windows on the risen life of Jesus. And that makes sense because they were, after all, the first ones to preach – to get out there in the temple, on the street corner, in the marketplace, by the riverbank, wherever they could – and tell the world Jesus is alive, raised from the dead by God who had made him Lord of everything and everyone. Peter started it, in Jerusalem. And Paul started it pretty much everywhere else! – travelling the Mediterranean, seeking out friendly audiences wherever he could find them, and establishing communities of Jesus-followers amongst the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Galatians, and so on.

It’s curious that we remember them together, as they don’t seem to have interacted all that much. The Book of Acts tells us first Peter’s story, then Paul’s. Paul mentions one time that they met, and it’s not pretty. He felt he had to call Peter out for being hypocritical – Peter had first accepted that he could eat with Gentiles regardless of the kosher rules; but later went back on his decision because of what other Jewish leaders would think. That’s Paul’s version, anyway. And I’m not sure it matters that much – it’s melted into history. What does matter is that they both persisted in proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen, and in the end it got them both killed, at the heart of the empire, in Rome, in the year 67 (or 64?). They were commemorated by the church in Rome ever since as founders of Christianity, and that’s how this day made it into the church calendar.

There’s a risk when we remember the saints, that we will treat them as heroes of the faith and think they had some superpower that made them what they were – extraordinary examples of Jesus-followers whom we can never really hope to live up to, because we aren’t special like they were. That’s why it’s worth delving a little further into the stories of Peter and Paul, because, really, it wasn’t like that at all. Peter is maybe the easiest one to see this in – remember, he started life as a fisherman? And not too successful a one at that. Ready to ditch the nets very quickly if something better came along. That’s when Jesus passed by and said, “Come, follow me.”

We get a sense of Peter’s distinctive character in some of the stories about him. Jesus called him Cephas or Peter as a nickname – it means Rock, just as we might call someone “Rocky”. Like the boxer, he was always up for a fight. Or wanted the people around him to think he was. But when it came down to the crunch, it was his commitment that was rocky – this is the disciple who was challenged three times to own up and say that he was with Jesus, and three times denied it. That’s why that gospel story from John 21 is so pointed – Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” – as if to undo the three denials. Peter knows what’s going on – it hurts to remember. But as he answers those questions, I think he discovers the answer within himself. He really does love Jesus, most of all now because Jesus has given him another chance. That’s the rock the church is built on: not Peter’s shaky self-confidence, but his faith in the One who came back from the dead and came back for him. That’s what he starts telling everybody about, and just can’t stop.

Paul learns the same lesson in a different way. His self-confidence was real, and he tells us about it – often! In contrast to Peter, he was an educated man with a definite religious background, a good Jew who had a real sense of God’s purpose and plan for his people. Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, and our first introduction to him is as a fierce enemy of the Jesus movement as it gets going in Jerusalem and the neighbouring cities. His trust in himself is demolished when he does meet Jesus, calling down to him from heaven on the Damascus Road, forcing him to realize that everything he has understood about his faith and his convictions and his self-image is – wrong. And yet Jesus is still there for Paul too, like he was for Peter – not quite as directly, but in the form of people like Ananias who healed Paul’s blindness, and Barnabas who introduced him to the apostles as a changed man, and all the new believers who came to know Jesus as a result of Paul’s later mission work. It’s difficult, embarrassing, risky work, but Paul recognizes that he doesn’t have to be strong to do it: it’s God’s power that makes things happen, not his own, and God says to him, “My power is made perfect in [your] weakness.” [2Cor 12:9]

I wonder if either Peter or Paul could ever have imagined, in the first century, what would happen over the next 2000 years as a result of the things they said and did. I’m pretty sure not. For one thing, they don’t seem to have expected the world to last nearly this long before Jesus returned. But from where they sit now, that would be just one more example of God amazing them with his design for the world, and with the way he uses people to do things we can never foresee the outcome of. Even in their own time, they didn’t need to take the long view. The only thing that mattered to them was to dedicate their lives to the one who lived and died and rose again for them. Holding fast to the idea that it was Jesus who was the centre of their lives, not themselves: that was their goal – and they saw it through to the end. Paul tells us that in his own words today: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” [2Tim 4:7] Peter’s story ends, according to legend, with him trying to sneak out of Rome to avoid martyrdom. But on the road he sees Jesus, and asks him, “Where are you going?” Jesus tells him, “I am going to Rome, to be crucified again.” And with that, Peter turns around and goes back to face execution, knowing that this time there will be no denying, and he will not be separated from his Lord.

We don’t have to look too hard to take some inspiration and encouragement from these two followers of Jesus. They are not superheroes. Their superpower, if we can even speak that way, is one that any of us can find within ourselves: the love of Jesus, his love for us drawing out of us our love for him; his wisdom and his power making up the difference whenever we are foolish or weak; his forgiveness bringing us back whenever we may think we’ve lost ourselves. And what we learn from Peter and Paul is that those are the only tools we need, no matter what the circumstance, no matter how friendly or unfriendly our culture is to faith, no matter how hard it is to figure out how to speak to people about the things that matter. All we need, in the end, is to stop thinking about what we can or can’t do; and start thinking instead about who God is, and what he has done and is doing in Christ.

A couple of weeks back, some of us were at a workshop in High Prairie using today as an illustration of how to plan a service. As we talked through the readings, a couple of hymns jumped out as clearly appropriate - “Fight the good fight” was an easy one to see. But as we talked on, we also remembered “There is a balm in Gilead”, because it says to us what we need to hear on this commemoration of two great saints. “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.” May our lives be so transformed by the love of God in Jesus, by the way he blows away both our self-confidence and our lack of self-confidence, by the astonishing reality of his living presence coming to forgive and to confront us – may we see all that so clearly, that he becomes the centre of our lives too, and then with every action, every word, every breath, we will tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.